Book Review: Prisons, Punishment and the Pursuit of Security (2012)

In a Cabinet reshuffle in August of 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron removed Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary. Clarke had proposed to reform penal policy by strengthening community sentencing and reducing prison numbers. Cameron abandoned those plans replacing Clarke with Chris Grayling, a notoriously conservative Minster who publicly promised to make the prison environment in the UK harsher. In Prisons, Punishment and the Pursuit of SecurityDeborah Drake provides one way to understand why this view remains so persistent, despite the lack of any evidence that severe approaches to crime control make society safer.

Based on more than 300 interviews and interactions in five men’s maximum-security prisons in England between 2005 and 2009, Drake suggests the purpose of prison is essentially political – designed to showcase severe sanctions as a means provide the public with a false sense of security. Drake approves of Nils Christie’s call that those who work close to penal systems should work to puncture myths, problematize simplistic assumptions, and expose the ideologies that underpin our expectations about human security (p. 11-12). In this book, Drake argues that prisons tend to obscure underlying social problems, justify repressive practices, and rely upon simplistic assumptions about the role of punishment. Continue reading

Prisons, Ivory Towers and Social Research

‘You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and liberal coating of grime… This is called ‘getting your hands dirty in real research’… But one more thing is needful: first hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxuryhotels and on the doorsteps of flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and the slum shakedowns; sit in Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter burlesk [sic]. In short … go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research’ (Robert Park,  Unpublished).

Academics, and in particular social scientists, are often charged with being detached from the ‘real’ world. Many social scientists are not. Yet having studied at three universities, I have bumped into a few who most definitely are. Somewhat ironically, on paper, I am against the idea of this detachment. To an extent though, I too might be guilty of this. I have studied prisons in quite some detail over the last four years. However, until very recently I had never been to a prison. This article intends to share with you part of my experience, and to share with you my confirmation that ‘ivory tower academia’ alone will not suffice in understanding the social world. Continue reading