Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2007

Series of lectures on Incarceration and Human Rights.
Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2007. Proceeds to Amnesty International.

January 26, 2007
Loïc Wacquant: The Uses and Misuses of the Penal State in the 21st Century
Thursday 25th January

Loïc Wacquant is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Researcher at the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, Paris. His interests include urban marginality, the penal state, and ethno-racial domination. Recent books include Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (2004), and Deadly Symbiosis: Race and the Rise of the Penal State (forthcoming, 2007). He co-founded and edits the interdisciplinary journal Ethnography.

Professor Wacquant gave a highly energetic and lucid lecture that centred on the use of the penal system by the predominantly Neo-Liberal capitalist west and the concurrent withdrawal of state sponsored welfare for the most marginalised members of society.

Claims by modern states that they are increasingly liberal are actually limited to their reduced intervention in the market and in welfare. As the economy of much of the west has become deregulated there has been a movement away from the rights of the individual to welfare; replacing this is the obligation of the individual to ‘workfare’ – to provide for themselves, even in the face of poor rates of pay and increased taxation.

The disestablishment of the welfare safety net has resulted in the state use of prison as a catch-all for the marginalised: the homeless, unemployed, mentally ill and other vulnerable underclasses such as the economic and social migrants from former colonies. The shrinking of welfare provision has resulted in desperation driving the marginalised to illegality, often on a petty level, which is punished increasingly harshly. The US prison population has risen at an alarming rate since the mid 1970s, yet crimes committed have actually fallen. In the UK incarceration rates have doubled in the same period. Professor Wacquant offered three examples of the way in which prison now performs the function previously filled by social care.

A 63 year old man in the US chose to rob a bank as a way of obtaining a three year jail sentence to remove him from a society where he was effectively unemployable. On his release he would be eligible for social security. Chicago’s prison population shows a regular 10% rise at the onset of winter as homeless people commit petty crimes to ensure they are fed and housed during harsh weather. A French prisoner killed and cannibalised a cellmate, despite warnings from psychiatric staff that he was a risk to the safety of others and should not be in a shared cell. Frightening and depressing statistics.

Most sinister is Professor Wacquant’s reading of government motivation for this use of the penal system as a catch-all solution. In an increasingly deregulated society, where personal responsibility replaces state sponsored care and nationalised industry is privatised, there is less obvious governmental intervention. Why vote for them then? Especially the predominantly ’left’ leaning liberal governments of Europe? What grabs the headlines is a claim to be ‘tough on crime’, even if the causes of crime – poor education, poor housing, unemployment – are a direct result of the state’s dismantling of social care. The proliferation of alarmist discourse by ‘security experts’ and the rise of ‘victims of crime’ as a highly vocal quasi-ethnic pressure group all serve to increasingly marginalise, and so criminalise, the poor, homeless, mentally ill and unemployed. The resultant tide swell carries the required spending on a bolstered penal system through at the expense of spending in lower visibility social areas. Consequently there is only prison to serve the three classes: the poor are swept up and ‘warehoused’ out of sight and mind; the workers/middle classes can be controlled, punished or re-educated to accept their position; those in a position of power are able to reassert the power of the state.

In conclusion Professor Wacquant urged us to fight this process on three fronts:
· Linguistics – to recognise the inherent falsehood of such rhetoric as ‘zero tolerance’ when it means criminalising people for minor transgressions
· Policies – to actively seek the investment in the welfare structure that has been neglected at the expense of diverting the funds to the penal system that is only necessary because of the neglect of the welfare system
· Expansion – of social and economic rights for all members of society

A splendid, highly informative, but somewhat disquieting lecture.


January 19, 2007
Lawrence Gostin: “New” and “Old” Institutions for the Mentally Ill: Treatment, Punishment or Preventative Confinement?
Thursday 18th January 2007
Legal director of MIND before he was thirty, Lawrence Gostin is an internationally feted and consulted expert on law and public health. He is Professor of Law at Georgetown University (Washington D.C.) and Visiting Professor of Public Health at Oxford University. He speaks from a position of great knowledge and understanding of the difficulties facing the mentally ill. He also paints a pretty grim picture of institutional attitudes to these difficulties.

His first hand experience began as a law student at Duke University where, as part of a Department of Justice initiative he entered a secure mental institution in North Carolina as a supposed rape suspect to investigate the workings of that institution and its treatment of pre-trial suspected sufferers of mental illness. His experience there, and in subsequent professional investigations, has led him to the conclusion that a majority of institutional approaches to mental illness amount to 'benign and malignant neglect'.

We live, he contends, in a society that perpetuates four stereotypes – what he terms the Myths of Mental Illness – labelling sufferers:
· Incompetent
· Irrational
· Unpredictable
· Dangerous

Such labels are used to justify locking people away; labels that could as easily be applied to the very old, very young, teenagers, drinkers or drug users. These stereotypes are also at the heart, he claims, of the reforms to the British Mental Health Law currently before parliament. Based on the snappy sound-bite: SOUND, SAFE, SECURE, the reforms are anything but. They seek to justify their introduction on the basis of a tiny minority of high visibility cases amongst the relatively large number of cases to which fewer sensational column inches can be devoted.

Professor Gostin quoted Dostoevsky’s invitation to ‘judge a society by the state of its prisons; liberty and confinement being his main focus. The closure of ‘old style’ mental institutions with the promise of care and understanding in the community failed to deliver. This makes prisons and detention centres the front line in dealing with many mentally ill people; while those on the street become ignored as compassion fatigue blinds us to their needs. His comparison of Japan and India and their treatment of the mentally ill showed how treatment within society, as practised in India, resulted in a far superior quality of life for patients than the institutionalised approach of Japan. In Japan, the mentally ill are shaming to society. In India, society is shamed if it does not protect and care for the vulnerable.

His conclusion offered us to consider four ideas to counter the four stereotypes:
· Liberty
· Dignity
· Equality
· Entitlement

The greatest successes of the 20th Century, he stated, were the success of the Human Rights and Disability Rights movements. How splendid if we could make the 21st Century a time for championing the rights of the Mentally Ill.

I would urge readers to attend any of these lectures they are able to. Intelligent arguments for civil liberties and human rights need to reach all the ears they can, especially when presented in such an accessible way.
Shami Chakrabarti has been head of the pressure group, Liberty, since September 2003. The group’s principal aim is the protection of civil liberties and the promotion of human rights. The thrust of the argument she advanced at the Sheldonian theatre on Friday was that Britain and its government are not only doing too little for asylum seekers on its own shores, but in many ways are antagonising an already dire problem.

Chakrabarti’s forty minute speech was delivered in a calm and undogmatic tone. It would seem that this worked most positively in favour of her arguments. She did not cite a large number of figures to support what she was propounded, but this made the ones she did put forward all the more striking. 2000 children are kept in detention during asylum application per year for instance. Or more pertinent than this was the staggering number of days that some asylum seekers have to wait before their status as refugee, let alone their future, has been decided. Chakrabarti used the example of Jeana who had had to wait 146 days for his own case to be decided. Time wasted, and perhaps all the more so in the case of the child who had to wait over 240 days in asylum.

“Lock them up or lock them out” is one of the many pithy expressions that Chakrabarti offered for her view of the government’s attitude towards the problem. She outlined however at the start that under European Union law, there are a set number of clearly defined reasons for which a person may be held in confinement. Under no circumstances can this reason be merely a political warning, that is so as to set an example to other asylum seekers.

As for the “lock them out” aspect to the question, she offered factual information as to what measures the government has undertaken in this direction. The general aim, she claimed, has been to discourage pull factors by such means as cutting benefits, and even reducing the likelihood of decent or any legal representation for asylum seekers. However just as with promulgating new and one-size-fits-all laws or relying excessively upon law courts as a form of immigration control, these heavy handed tactics are insufficient. The key words instead ought to be:

- Individuated justice
- Necessity
These umbrella terms imply a more concentrated effort to providing and dealing with each asylum seekers case, with less waits, and better treatment than to
herd refugees together as though cattle.

In the twenty minute question session after the speech Chakrabarti responded very fully to questions on the responsibility of the law courts, the role of the BNP in Britain and even the narrow definition of the word “torture”. She claimed the current government to be the most authoritarian of all governments in her lifetime: interesting comment but with little support given. In this question session there were two particularly fascinating responses. Firstly, her evaluation on the current labour government praised them for carrying through “the human rights act” as well as acts supporting gay and disabled rights.

But secondly, Chakrabarti emphasized that the country at the moment is not suffering from compassion fatigue. The proof of this may be found in the full attendance that greeted Chakrabarti at the Sheldonian. The world is becoming further and further inter-connected, and yet within this context, government policies that treat asylum seekers with contempt abound, as though some sort of new age protectionism is at play. The contradiction is affecting, and as for remedying it, a show of compassion by attending the Amnesty lectures is at least a positive start.

The most common time for a prisoner to commit suicide or self-harm is in the very first days of their arrival – it’s often a combination of the shock of being there, and the sudden withdrawal of drugs. The case of addicted prisoners left fitting and vomiting in the cells on their first night was just one of the many unpleasant pictures painted by Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons, in the gilded surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre on Wednesday night.

This is exactly the kind of thing the inspectorate is there to combat, and the increased use of ‘first night’ facilities where prisoners can be given extra care is a vast improvement on the situation even in the last few years, and has helped suicide levels fall to 63 last year, from over 200 a couple of years ago.

Anne gave a fascinating, and extremely disturbing insight into the work of the prison inspectorate and the lives of prisoners, focussing on the importance of a truly independent inspection regime in upholding human rights in prisons and custody centres. There were plenty of statistics that showed some very commendable achievements in raising standards in recent years.

But it seemed that, for all this work, every achievement has a sting in the tail. The need for ‘slopping out’ with buckets, or for forcing ‘poo parcels’ through the window has been eradicated – except in some prisons.  The NHS is now active in providing healthcare to prisoners – but the soaring levels of mentally ill people in prison has meant ‘care in the community’ has become more like care in custody.

The biggest problem, which cropped up again and again, is overcrowding, and it leads to some appalling failures. One of the many shocking examples of the evening was that of Norwich prison, which was very recently condemned as unfit for human habitation and emptied for renovation, only to be completely re-filled with new prisoners 24 hours later. Another story was of the young prisoner in Norwich who, while waiting to hear the decision on his parole, attempted to hang himself. A few minutes later the order for his release came through. So less than an hour and half after he was cut down, he walked unaccompanied out of the gates, having been handed a voucher for a hostel in Camberwell and a printed set of licence conditions that he could barely read.

And so it went on, taking in such other groups, notably the 2,000 children who are detained in the UK’s immigration centres. It was difficult not to feel angry on leaving the lecture, but there are some bright notes. One is the obvious commitment of the inspectorate to maintaining human rights as opposed to just inspecting how the money is spent. There are plenty of good, well-run prisons, and the general trend is still upwards, although this progress is threatened by overcrowding.

The lecture was thought provoking, and a reminder that conditions in prison are a microcosm of the problems in society, with drug abuse, broken families, poor education, and a lack of job opportunities all helping to fill the cells. Despite all the headlines, before this talk I now realise I had no real idea of the condition of some of our prisons, and I suspect this is the case for others too. It’s definitely time we took a closer look.

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