Swimming against the tide

Prison landing

Polling station? Not if the House of Commons gets its way

Many commentators have identified political apathy as a problem affecting modern democracies, but apathy is in short supply when it comes to criminal justice. Crime, the threat of crime, the perception of crime: all are key issues in the political discourse of many European nations. Candidates with one eye on election compete to seem ‘tougher’ on crime than their opponents; in government, incumbents face media demands for harsher penalties (this example, criticising the ‘softness’ of a British prime minister facing unprecedentedly high prison populations, is particularly ironic); and in opposition, former ministers no longer under such pressure climb back from hard-line positions. In addition, a fierce debate has taken place in the UK in recent months over the possibility that prisoners may be given the vote.

In Europe, different countries imprison extremely different proportions of their populations: the world’s heaviest user of prison, except the USA, has traditionally been Russia (630.9 prisoners per 100,000 of overall population in 2008). Within the EU, Latvia imprisoned the largest number of its citizens in 2008 (291.4 per 100,000); in Western Europe the largest user of prison is Spain (159.7 per 100,000); and yet there remain great disparities even between countries of similar size and wealth, such as England & Wales (152.8 per 100,000) and Germany (90.7 per 100,000). Meanwhile, an overwhelming body of evidence points to the fact that prison has a limited impact at best on rates of reoffending.

Quakers have long been aware of these issues; justice is one of our principal Testimonies. And in Britain, the direction of government policy on sentencing has offered grounds for hope.

Kenneth Clarke

Kenneth Clarke, UK Secretary of State for Justice

Prompted in part by the need to cut budgets, the coalition government has outlined proposals intended to wean a sick system from its addiction to the excessive and ineffective use of prison. The proposals have sparked intense dissent among sections of the Tory party and the right-wing media. Sections of the British establishment appear reluctant to abandon punitive methods.

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham

In this context, the Quakers in Criminal Justice 2011 conference, held at Woodbrooke, made ‘Swimming Against the Tide’ its theme. More than forty Friends with links to the criminal justice system gathered to hear from practitioners in the field and ponder what it means to hold and practise Quaker values in a system so heavily concentrated on punishment. The attendees included numerous Quaker prison chaplains and prison visitors, two former prison governors, a retired chief constable, magistrates, ex-prisoners, members of QPSW’s Crime and Community Justice Group plus representatives from QUNO, QCEA, Quaker Service in Ireland, and various Area Meetings within Britain Yearly Meeting (the central organisation of British Quakers).

Some speakers and sessions focused on ways to mitigate the harm done by imprisonment. Simon Armson, a psychotherapist at the Broadmoor secure hospital, and current ministerial advisor on deaths in custody, outlined shocking statistics on the prevalence of mental illnesses among prisoners, as well on the extent of deaths in state custody – on average, 681 a year between 1999 and 2008 (This figure includes suicides in prisons and elsewhere, as well as deaths among those detained under the Mental Health Act). His presentation made a powerful case to extend greater support and more effective listening services in prisons, including the SamaritansPrison Listener scheme that already has 1,200 trained prisoners offering this kind of support in England and Wales. Meanwhile, Kevin Armstrong, chair of the Community Chaplaincy Association (CCA), spoke of the efforts of this network of mainly grassroots, voluntary organisations to mentor released prisoners in the weeks immediately before and after their release.


The CCA aims to make links between volunteers and offenders, who often feel society has turned its back on them

Members of the CCA aim to mobilise support for released prisoners, especially among faith groups, and Kevin’s account of his work with Hindu and Muslim groups in Leicester was a powerful rebuttal of David Cameron’s recent attack on the ability of different cultures to practise the same ‘British’ values while retaining their cultural distinctiveness.

The harm done by our current system is not confined to offenders, however. Peter Wallis’s concerns about the effects of crime on young people in Oxfordshire led him to create SAFE, a charity that offers counselling and support to young crime victims. Young people are more likely to be victims of crime, and less likely to report it to the police; they can also lack the personal resilience and resources to come to terms with difficult experiences, and are more likely than adults to suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result of their experiences. Peter explained that the charity Victim Support does not see working with young people as its core work, and so he has pioneered workshops that assist young victims of crime to identify and develop the resources that will, in the future, help them to feel secure and able to manage the risks entailed in daily life. Peter’s work with SAFE is in its early stages and funding is tight. British readers may be interested to find out more about SAFE’s work, and perhaps to consider ways in which they could help this project establish firm roots.

Research indicates that crime victims (especially those affected by serious crime) often feel dissatisfied with a justice system in which they find neither opportunities to express the harm done to them by a crime, nor the influence over how that harm should be put right. The conference included a variety of workshops. Marian Liebmann led hers on the topic of Restorative Justice (RJ). There are a variety of methods and definitions in existence, but typically RJ interventions seek to bring together those affected by a crime
to agree an account of the harm that it has done and what the perpetrator may do to try and put the harm right.

RJ: How it works

Marian Liebmann's book, 'Restorative Justice: How It Works' is widely recognised as a key text in the field

Marian explained that this was a process in which participants, especially victims, have a far greater chance to express their feelings and influence proceedings than is the case in adversarial court proceedings. Indeed, research indicates that RJ leads to greater victim satisfaction, and can have powerful effects on the perpetrator by bringing into sharp focus the consequences of his or her actions. Marian detailed the RJ schemes currently in operation in the UK, and focused on the opportunities presented by government’s recent sentencing proposals, which contain some very positive measures but in some senses may be seen not to go far enough. Marian was clear that for restorative principles to achieve their full potential, they must suffuse all aspects of the justice system from top to bottom, and careful thought needs to be put into how to promote them. For example, Northern Ireland has developed a youth justice system based around restorative principles, and takes great care to publicise and promote the benefits of mediation, achieving higher rates of victim participation than elsewhere. The system has been very successful both in reducing youth offending and in achieving high rates of victim satisfaction.

The wider application of restorative principles was the subject of the opening and closing sessions of the conference. Peter Clarke, the Director of Glebe House, spoke at the conference’s opening session, on how running an entire institution along restorative lines could achieve dramatic results. Glebe House, in Cambridgeshire, works for two years or more with young male perpetrators of sexual harm. It is run as a therapeutic community. The decisions and conflicts that come with living with others are explored as subjects of discussion in three daily meetings. These involve all members of the community, and are chaired by residents who learn to take greater responsibility for themselves and others after what have often been very difficult upbringings. Peter explained that the aim of the community is to help the residents understand what unacceptable behaviour is, and what in their own personalities and backgrounds may lead them to behave unacceptably. By a carefully managed series of steps, they are then helped back into a normal life outside Glebe House. The aim is for them to be able to understand and manage the risk they pose to others; this allows probation and other monitoring agencies to focus on supporting rather than merely controlling them.

Peter’s presentation about Glebe House’s work was a reminder that punitive justice does not make enough demands on offenders, particularly in not treating them as responsible adults who must confront the consequences of their actions. Tim Newell, whose talk concluded the conference, is well-known to Quakers through his 2000 Swarthmoor Lecture, Forgiving Justice.

Tim Newell

Tim Newell, former prison governor, gave the concluding address at the conference

He has worked as a prison governor and more recently with victims of serious crime who have been bereaved by homicide. Tim presented a challenging outline of what he believes are the five tenets of injustice in society: elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed, and despair at the possibility of solutions. He argued that defeating injustice comes in admitting our despair at the current system and then acknowledging that only a change in attitudes makes different solutions possible. In reference to criminal justice, he called for an end to punitive justice, which infantilises offenders and does not ask enough of them in terms of taking responsibility and putting right the harm they have done, and instead isolates them from society, with their reintegration to society left too much to chance. Tim’s holistic theory of justice presents great challenges to the current system, but also makes a strong case for the unique contribution that Quaker ideas can make in reforming a system that manifestly does not work. And his reminder that we are swimming against a tide, not a river current, was a reminder that fashions and trends have changed in criminal justice in the past, and will change again.

Quakers like Tim Newell have had, and will continue to have, a great deal to say on justice. Their history of calling for better prison conditions is well-known. What emerged for me from this conference was the existence of a far wider, more coherent set of ideas about what justice itself is, and how far it is from coercion, retribution and punishment.

About Ben Jarman

Ben is a keen cyclist, former teacher, blogger, and works in criminal justice policy.


  1. Pingback: Mendicant wobbles | Ben Jarman

  2. Pingback: » I’ve been blogging elsewhere….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: