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Prisons Unlocked
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Understanding prisons and the policies surrounding them is of fundamental importance to students and practitioners of criminology and related fields. This concise and accessible guide offers a compendium of key information, theories, concepts, research and policy, presenting a rounded and critical overview of the prison system in England and Wales.

Covering the historical and contemporary context of prisons, the text guides the reader through prison life as experienced by different groups such as women, the work of prison officers and a tour of international prisons.

Each chapter features key learning items:

  • an overview and summary;

  • learning outcomes;

  • end of chapter questions;

  • definitions of key terms and concepts;

  • examples and illustrative case studies;

  • summary boxes of key research studies and further reading.

Focusing on the experiences of stakeholder groups and the themes of power, legitimacy and rehabilitation, the book concludes with an overview of the future challenges for prisons.

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This chapter focuses on the birth of the prison starting with an exploration of what punishment was in the 18th century before prisons were established. There is a brief discussion of transportation, the punishments that were used to inflict pain and the public spectacle of punishment – the death penalty. The chapter moves on to discuss what Foucault (1977) called the punishment of the soul and the centralisation of imprisonment as the main method of punishment. It presents the work of the Victorians, who are credited with the invention of the modern prison, using a series of examples to illustrate the shifts in approaches to punishment. There is also a discussion of early prison reformers, namely John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, as a way of introducing the notion that the current problems faced by prisons are not new but have been ingrained in their very fabric from their creation.

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This chapter focuses on the modern context of prisons. It draws on a range of data to provide a sense of the current state of the prison system. The chapter discusses the size of the prison estate, types of prisons including prison privatisation and who are in prison and for what offence. The chapter explains the processes involved in sending people to custody and the different types of sentences individuals may be serving.

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The focus of this chapter is to think critically about specific groups in the prison system and how they experience prison differently. While this is not an exhaustive exploration of all the different groups who are recognised under diversity legislation, the focus is on three specific groups to show how, depending on factors that include age, gender, race and ethnicity, individuals experience prison differently. Each of these groups is interesting to explore for different reasons. This chapter will outline how these groups experience prison differently and discuss, critically, the extent to which the prison system caters for and meets the needs of different prisoner populations.

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This chapter will introduce what life in prison is like. There will be an exploration of what exactly prisoners do while ‘doing time’; such an exploration is important if we are to explore whether the prison system is working and meeting its aim of ‘helping prisoners lead law abiding and useful lives’ (HMPPS, 2021a). This chapter provides a snapshot of the routine nature of life in custody via an exploration of prison regimes. It explores the different types of activity offered to prisoners, such as work, education and training and provides examples of innovative practice across the prison estate. How prisoners are rewarded for good behaviour and engagement with these activities is discussed. The chapter also explores the healthcare systems within prison and discusses the challenges of accessing such support both from a physical and mental perspective. An exploration of how individuals practise their religion and/or faith is provided as well as a look at what prisoners do in prison during their free time. The chapter also explores some of the more negative aspects of prison life including the issues of radicalisation and extremism, and punishment for non-compliance with the rules.

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This chapter introduces how the experience of being in prison can be seen when looking at broader philosophies of punishment. It explores the four main theories behind the use of prison as a punishment: incapacitation, deterrence, just deserts and rehabilitation. Examples of various legislation are introduced to show how governments have, over time, moved through all these different philosophies of punishment, often leaving the prison system in a state of constant reforms with very little time to embed them into practice. It is argued that political thinking shapes the policy designed to inform how we treat people in prison, with various reforms often being put forward to satisfy the media and public outcry rather than being evidence based. For instance, the indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection (IPP) was introduced by New Labour as a mechanism to deal with ‘dangerous offenders’ using a risk-based approach to punishment yet resulted in a big increase in the prison population and the subsequent overwhelming of the Parole Board and Probation Service. The chapter also focuses on the ‘pains of imprisonment’ and how violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths are sadly all features of prison life.

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This chapter focuses on those who work within the prison environment. It presents relevant statistics and data to explore who works in prisons. The chapter also focuses on the role of a prison governor and issues regarding prison management before focusing on the prison officer. The role of the prison officer will be broken down to answer the following questions: what do they do; how do they do it; what training and education do they get; what is the impact of working in the environment on a prison officer and what makes a good prison officer? The chapter discusses the notion of prison officer culture and the challenges officers face during their work. The focus of the chapter is deliberately on those with prisoner-facing roles but it provides an overview of who else works in a prison, the management structure and some key differences in working in public and/or private prisons.

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This chapter focuses on the theory behind what makes people stop offending, the concept of ‘desistance’. The key elements of desistance theory and how prison can either help or hinder that process will be discussed. The processes of release, resettlement and recall will be explored with a focus on the legislative framework that enables them to take place accompanied by a discussion of some of the practical challenges faced in their undertaking. This will include a brief discussion of the Parole Board, a much under-explored area of the CJS. The chapter also introduces the challenging notion of assessing whether prison works and how we might go about evaluating this. It explores different ways of assessing whether prison works or not, including a discussion of reoffending rates and recidivism.

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This chapter will take you on a tour of prisons around the world. It will introduce you to a global look at imprisonment, starting with an overview of the current prison population internationally before moving on to discuss key reasons why it is important to compare penal policies. The tour of prisons focuses on six different countries with contrasting approaches to imprisonment: Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, Norway and the USA. A factfile will be presented for each country documenting a breakdown of the current prison population, the size of the prison estate, the capacity of the prison estate, an overview of prison conditions and key notable points about the country’s approach to imprisonment. The chapter concludes with a discussion as to which country arguably has the ‘right’ approach to prison.

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This chapter provides an overarching summary of the state of the prison system in England and Wales. The key points from each chapter are presented to show how the three concepts of power, legitimacy and rehabilitation can help us understand all aspects of prisons and imprisonment. The chapter provides an overview of the future challenges for prisons. It argues that by looking at imprisonment we can understand the broader trajectories of punishments and the philosophies and policies that surround them.

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