Less and smaller prisons for more human dignity

Written by: Sonja Snacken, Professor of Criminology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Prisons are highly potent but highly damaging institutions, both symbolically and in their real effects. Prisons are especially potent in “producing prisoners”, that means persons who are by definition seen as bad-mad-weak-and/or morally inferior. This mechanism plays both inside the prison walls, where staff tend to apply a sameness principle, and in the public penal imaginary, where the prison walls symbolise protecting us, the “good”, from them, the “bad”. The damage is equally high: degrading persons to one characteristic (offender, prisoner) violates their dignity and identity, negates their individual needs and hampers their social reintegration.

This is problematic for the persons involved but also for society as a whole. Respecting the dignity of all human beings is an essential value for any modern society (Article 1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and this includes unpopular minorities such as prisoners. Degradation has been shown throughout history to enhance the risk of abuse of power; it leads to resistance and tensions inside prisons; and has an emotional impact on prisoners, families and prison staff. The findings by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the European Court of Human Rights demonstrate the continuing challenges raised by prisons in Europe in these respects.

And yes – scale matters. Some prisons are more “survivable” than others, as shown by comparative prison research and by the stories of prisoners and staff members alike. This is linked to many factors, including the quality of the interactions between prisoners and staff; safety, well-being, personal development and family contacts for prisoners; social relationships between prisoners; and the overall quality of life experienced by the prisoner. So small scale is not a guarantee in itself, but it may facilitate several of these dimensions. The emphasis by Rescaled on an individual and differentiated approach and on integration of the detention houses in the community is hence as important as their scale.

We should be aware though of the risk of net-widening in the implementation of detention houses. As is often the case with interesting and promising “alternatives” to traditional imprisonment, the risk that they will not replace traditional prisons seems real. On the inflow-side, they could be used for offenders who would not have been imprisonment in the first place, e.g. because they offer adequate treatment programmes and more protection of society than ambulant treatment. At the output-side, they could be introduced as yet another additional stage between prison and conditional release (cf. “halfway” houses), even where this is not strictly necessary for a successful reintegration.

This should not refrain our efforts to strive for more moderate and less damaging penal policies. This includes less and smaller prisons, more respect for the inherent dignity and the needs of victims and offenders, and more support for staff involved in this complex responsibility.