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A New Direction For Punishment in the UK

Whilst punishment and the methods involved therein have appeared somewhat fixed and stable over recent times, the United Kingdom has begun to explore a new, fresh approach to punishment. These methods are being trialed in Her Majesty’s Prison Berwyn following a model developed by Professor Yvonne Jewkes which seeks to create a prison environment more conducive to rehabilitation. Her approach involves a “softening” of prison environments in two particular ways.

Firstly, an aesthetic adaptation: trading the drab, gritty, unglamorous look for a more visually pleasing exterior. This includes outdoor areas crowded with blossoming shrubbery, comfortable and colourful seating areas and a desire to recreate a university hall type of environment. The second measure involves a softening of language. Perpetrators will no longer be termed “prisoners”, but rather “residents”, who reside not in “cells” but rather “rooms”.

This trial by the government indicates a clear direction for punishment: that those who break the law require as much support as they do condemnation. There is much to unpack with Professor Jewkes’ model, namely from practical and moral perspectives.

Practical Issues

A major question mark surrounds the efficacy of Professor Jewkes’ model. Her measures have been taken as a reaction to recent statistics outlining a disappointing rate of reoffending. In the UK, 75 percent of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3 percent within the first twelve months. Prison is no cheap solution and so, from an economic perspective, it is in the government’s interests to reduce reoffending rates. However, whether Professor Jewkes’ model is the most effective way to achieve this remains to be seen.

Sceptics may argue that Professor Jewkes’ model, with improved living conditions for offenders, may de-stigmatise the idea of prison. They may suggest that the unglamorous conditions of prison may be the vital ingredient of deterrence. It relies on a rather traditional argument that if prison offers too much comfort, it will no longer be viewed as undesirable which will ultimately fail to reduce the amount of offenders and reoffenders.

On the other hand, however, one may argue that prison, as a method of punishment, is intrinsically difficult and painful for people. In its most basic form, (before we discuss the conditions themselves) prison deprives the liberty of an offender. This is in itself enough of a punishment without any additional hardships. Professor Jewkes will thus likely argue that the deprivation of liberty within prison is enough of a deterrent to reduce the number of offenders and reoffenders. Though doubts surrounding this remain, ultimately, Prof Jewkes’ assertions will be proven to be true or false through cold, hard, empirical data.

Rehabilitation: The Moral Solution?

Whilst the efficacy of Prof Jewkes’ model will, in time, be revealed by empirical data, her suggestions also give rise to a more complex moral issue. The major point of interest about Prof. Jewkes’ model is the implicit assumption that prisons should serve a rehabilitative element. Whilst it may seem cold-hearted to question this, it is worth asking where the state’s responsibility lies: with a) serving justice to the victim or b) attempting to help the offender?

Traditional retributivist ideas side with the former. They argue that the offender, by violating the law, deserves to be punished. This holds a certain intuitive appeal, especially with more severe crimes. Families of victims often express a desire to see the perpetrator punished not out of any special desire to see his character reformed but rather out of a desire to see them “brought to justice”. This argument follows a kind of lex talionis/”eye for an eye” type of logic that punishment restores the unfair advantage to the victim which has been gained by the offender.

Yet, this faces three major challenges. Firstly, there is a practical issue at stake; namely, matching a punishment in proportion to the wrong that has been caused. Furthermore, certain crimes involve grievous moral wrongs but no clear advantage is gained. In this case, it seems that the “unfair advantage” notion misses the mark. Finally, I would argue that it is vindictive to argue that that punishment has no aim beyond mere retribution. Whilst it appears that the notion of retribution does scratch a certain moral itch, there seems to be more to punishment than this idea. We should therefore also be looking to help reform offenders and provide a more constructive element to punishment.

In this moral dilemma, it thus appears that both elements (a+b) must play a role within punishment. To this dilemma, Professor Jewkes agrees, stating that; “It’s about striking the right balance between the competing aims of prisons – punishment but also rehabilitation”. This appears to be reflected in her model: a strong enough demand by maintaining the practice of imprisonment but an improvement in the conditions as a means of inducing reformation.

Though initially appealing, I must concede that this justification faces severe problems. For example, cases will inevitably arise in which a more effective way of rehabilitating patients will clash with the type of punishment which best serves the sense of justice which the crime deserves. Indeed, many modern experts assert that the rehabilitation of the offender is hindered rather than aided by the prison system. In this case, compromises must be made although it is not entirely clear which side takes priority. Do we prioritise the reformation of the offender at the expense of justice? Or do we serve justice at the expense of rehabilitating the offender? It thus appears that there is an underlying incompatibility between (a) and (b) and that in attempting to keep both sides happy, Prof Jewkes’ model risks ultimately failing to satisfy either condition.

It thus seems idealistic to suppose that both elements can fit neatly together into one solution. From a moral standpoint, punishment thus remains (somewhat worryingly) a messy, imperfect process. In the meantime, thinkers such as Prof Jewkes seek to pursue models of punishment which, although holding a surface appeal, are incomplete.


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