AFTER MOUNTBATTEN: A SPECIAL REPORT
Prison security or public safety?
Lord Mountbatten, it may be recalled, was asked to conduct an urgent inquiry into general prison security — which, it was alleged at the time, constituted a growing and intolerable threat to the nation's safety —in the immediate aftermath of George Blake's escape from Wormwood Scrubs on 22 October 1966. But while Mountbatten was still conducting his inquiries, it so hap- pened that a sub-committee of the House of Commons Estimates Committee embarked on a more leisurely investigation into pri- sons, borstals and detention centres. This became the subject of the committee's elev- enth report, published two years ago last month, by which time the panic was over and prison escapes were out of the news.
The Mountbatten report, completed within two months, contained fifty-two re- commendations. Among the more import- ant of these was a proposed new classifica- tion of prisoners, ranging from Category A (those who couldn't 'in any circumstances be allowed to get out') to Category D (those who might reasonably be trusted to serve their sentences in open conditions). A new fortress prison was to be built as soon as possible for the Category A group, who were meanwhile to be held in the existing special security blocks, suitably reinforced. Immedi- ate measures were to be taken to strengthen security arrangements in all closed prisons, and plans already formulated for new defences against escape, such as dog patrols, closed circuit television and electronic warning devices, were to be put into effect in a number of selected prisons.
The House of Commons committee was plainly apprehensive that Mountbatten's re- commendations (forty-six of which had been accepted and the consequent measures for strengthening general prison security taken, at a conservatively estimated cost of £2+ million) might interfere with what it held to be the more important business of rehabili- tation. It implicity endorsed a view that Mr Hugh Klare, secretary of the Howard League, had expressed in his evidence be- fore the sub-committee: 'I do not think we had a quantitative problem; we had a quali- tative problem.'
The committee quoted statistics to show that of the 368 adults and youths who had escaped from closed prisons and remand centres during the previous five years (the peak had been reached in 1964 and not in 1966, the year of alleged crisis) all but ten had been recaptured; and it might have added, though it didn't, that in many instances the recapture had taken place within minutes of the escape. But in any case the seriousness of an escape figure, however high that figure may seem, cannot be reasonably estimated unless it is com- pared with the 'failure' figure—that is, with the number of prisoners, who, having served their time in full, go on to commit further and possibly worse offences. 'It is for the House to decide,' the committee drily con- cluded, 'whether an expenditure of £21 mil- lion has been cr will be justified in the light of these figures.'
Two years later, the expenditure goes relentlessly forward, while the question of whether it is justified or not remains virtu- ally unconsidered. And although this ques- tion is admittedly not a simple one, there was certainly nothing better than a politi- cally convenient case for treating security as a 'quantitative' problem.
The distinction is an all-important one. If the whole point of locking up criminals were simply to 'incapacitate' them, then obviously enough no risk of allowing them to escape could reasonably be taken. But in most cases it is misleading to regard this as even part of the point of a prison sentence. Historically, 'incapacitation' is precisely not the objective of punitive imprisonment, which originated in a determination to res- tore criminals to the community as honest citizens, after a prescribed dose of 'treat. ment', rather than to remove them perman- ently from harm's way. In theory—vide the Prison Rules—that determination remains unchanged, and it is defeated not when the occasional prisoner escapes but when he offends again after he has legitimately re- gained his freedom. A prison sentence can usually only be truly said to be protecting society from a criminal if the criminal can be reformed before he is entitled to release.
However, due to the abolition of the death penalty and other recent develop- ments, incapacitation has apparently come to be the whole, or at any rate the main, point of imprisonment in certain excep- tional cases. George Blake's case was pre- sumably one of these. But .while an indivi- dual prisoner who has escaped may pose a special kind of threat to the public's safety, it is illusory to suppose that in the aggregate as many as, say, a hundred prisoners on the run at a given moment would add up to nearly as great a danger as the unreformed ex-prisoners who are always in our midst.
Jeremy Bentham planned to make his ghastly Panopticon formidably secure; in- deed he anticipated several of the Mount- batten proposals, including dog patrols, a device for setting alarm bells `cringing' and as near as he could get in his less technolo- gically advanced age to television cameras. But he undertook to pay a fixed sum in compensation not only for every escape. but for every further offence committed by one of his former charges; and while one may be sure that the second part of that commitment would have cost him a great deal more than the first, at least he had the courage of his convictions. If the government had shown the same courage, when, with the building of the monstrously expensive Millbank peniten- tiary, it started running its own prison system, and the Home Secretary had there- upon become no less answerable for blatant failure to reform prisoners than for blatant failure to keep them safely confined, the idea of dealing with security in 1966 as a quantitative problem, far from being found politically expedient, might have been thought politically disastrous. Because, for one thing, the escape rate has never been more than an infinitesimal embarrassment to the prison service by comparison with the recidivist rate; and, for another thing, if past experience proves anything it is that the greater the emphasis on security, the slenderer the chances of reforming prisoners before they have to be released.
There can be no doubt that the Mount- batten inquiry did entail a grave risk of interference with rehabilitation. The Prison Department has admitted as much in its latest report — though it dutifully im- plies that the risk was triumphantly worth taking. inasmuch as a reduction in the num- ber of escapes from closed institutions was achieved', while setbacks to 'training and treatment' were only temporary.
In the case of most short-term prisoners. the risk was admittedly minimal, since their chance of rehabilitation could hardly have been worsened, if only because of the gross overcrowding in the outmoded nineteenth century buildings where they are held. Cur- rently, though this has nothing to do with Mountbatten, it may even be improving, for there is evidently a growing determination within the Prison Service to make some sort of sense out of short-term imprisonment, despite the overwhelming odds against doing so. For instance, Eric Towndrow, who was the first governor of the progressive new prison at Blundeston, was latterly trans- ferred to ancient Pentonville, where he began a gallant attempt to create a therapeutic at- mosphere for the benefit of an amorphous collection of petty recidivists.
Whether this can succeed is another mat- ter; and since the whole history of punitive imprisonment as a social experiment in the reclamation of criminals has been a history of wrong guesses, one is making no bet- ter than a hopeful assumption when one speaks of 'progress'. But, this granted, there have, broadly, been two major advances in recent years.
The first is evidenced by such things as outside working parties, the hostel scheme, and. most importantly, open prisons: the move from bolts and bars towards deliber- ate insecurity Mountbatten halted this advance, though not, perhaps, indefinitely. `There was a reduction in the number of outside working parties,' said the Prison Department's 1967 report. There still is. and to call it a reduction is in borne instances euphemistic; at Wakefield, for example, out- side working parties have virtually come to an end. 'Hostels at Cardiff, Chelmsford and Wandsworth were closed.' These presum- ably will be replaced, but only when the money can be spared to build new ones satisfying Mountbatten's requirements, and anyhow plans for building more hostels have been retarded.
The report also records that the popula- tion of open prisons was reduced, and attri- butes this to the fact that fewer men were found 'suitable' for open prisons as a result of a `growing tendency of the courts not to commit less sophisticated offenders to pri- son'. But if, as that explanation implies, open prisons were only suitable for people who don't need rehabilitating anyhow, there wouldn't be an awful lot of point to them; and one can't avoid the suspicion that here was an especially unfortunate over-reaction to the Mountbatten report. For while its author expressed awareness of the policy of sending fewer 'less sophisticated offenders' to jail, he specifically disclaimed an inten- tion of advocating a more restricted use of open prisons. 'On the contrary, it is my im- pression ... that many more prisoners could be transferred to open prisons without dan- ger to the public. and with advantage to the Exchequer, the morale of prison staffs, and the prisoners' prospects of rehabilitation.'
Still, there are a number of genuinely progressive closed institutions; and they include not only the newly-built establish- ments, but others. like Hull and Wakefield, which have either been partially re-modelled or remain in their pristine nineteenth century state. They appear to be reserved for the
more 'sophisticated' offenders, serving med- ium and long-term sentences, which means
or can mean that the more culpable a man is the better he is likely to be treated in prison. That makes nonsense of deterrent theory. But from the point of view of pro- tecting the public against serious recidivism. it is only logical.
A progressive prison is not simply one that provides adequate opportunity for 'training', in the form of productive employ- ment, education, and so on, but, more im- portantly, where the regime is helpfully paternalistic rather than oppressively auth- oritarian. This is the other major advance that has taken place in recent years; or.
rather, thanks both to Prison Department policy and to the work of various dedicated prison governors of the highest intelligence, it has taken place in theory. How far it can go in practice ultimately depends on how far it is possible to overcome the traditional hostility between prisoners and prison officers.
Here the immediate effect of Mountbatten was wholly disruptive. No doubt, there were 'screws' who welcomed the security clamp- down, but those who had aspired to being better than turnkeys, and had been consci- entiously trying to 'develop treatment re- lationships towards prisoners', felt betrayed, particularly when. as at Wakefield, there had been no escapes (or hardly any) to warrant all the fuss. Though they may have since become reconciled to the obsessive concern with security—and one gets the impression that most of them have—this is because the high expenditure on perimeter defences and recruitment of additional staff has enabled a paternalistic policy within the walls to be resumed. Indeed, it is fair to say that in the opinion of at least one governor the chances of transforming prison communities into therapeutic communities are now much brighter than they were before.
But, as this same governor well knows. the prisoners themselves mostly regard the promise of 'training and treatment' as Home Office humbug; and certainly it can't exist to any purpose unless they are persuaded to take advantage of it. One finds it hard to believe that the difficulty of winning their confidence in constructively non-punitive intentions isn't going to be exacerbated by the presence of police dogs. Big Brother television cameras, and so on. In the view of another governor, who runs a modern
prison which has had a second fence built around it (though it has been spared the full
treatment), the result may be merely pro- vocative: a challenge to have a go. And even if prisoners don't react in that way, there is the likelihood that they will find strengthened perimeter defences a further reason for doubting the sincerity of pro- testations about 'maintaining their self-res- pect' etc.
Yet, when all this is said, the qualitative
problem remains. 'The policy of giving very long sentences up to and including the full life of a prisoner.' Mountbatten said in a little noticed paragraph, 'introduces a new type of imprisonment ...' It would be more accurate to say that it re-introduces a very ancient type of imprisonment, though one that can no longer be enforced by the ancient methods of pinions and chains: imprisonment, in effect, not for reform nor even punishment, but as a means of per- manent incapacitation. That is the real pro- blem which Blake's escape highlighted. And it has yet to be faced with sufficient intellec- tual honesty.
Granted that there are a growing number of criminals who must be considered pre- sumptively irreclaimable and whom society is entitled, therefore, to isolate until they are dead or senile, this doesn't provide the explanation or justification, as Mountbatten assumed that it did, for all the gargantuan sentences that have been passed in recent years. To some extent, the judiciary has accidentally introduced the 'new type of imprisonment' for the old purposes of re- tribution and deterrence. One cannot be sure that this was so in Blake's case, al- though it seems pertinent to observe that when Klaus Fuchs was flown to East Ger- many and placed at the disposal of his communist masters, after he had served his sentence (less remission) of fourteen, not forty-two. years, nobody uttered a murmur of alarm or protest. But incurably danger- ous though the train robbers may actually be—and that is at least open to question— it is certainly not the reason why they were sentenced to thirty years. The purpose, as the trial judge made perfectly clear, was deterrent: to demonstrate that the 'game was not worth the most alluring candle.'
This is a misuse of the new type of imprisonment; and the first answer to the security problem should have been to put a stop to it. The parole scheme may help, but only if it is used boldly enough — at the moment prisoners are as sceptical about it as they are about 'training' — and only if the judiciary can be dissuaded (or prevented) from defeating it by passing proportionately still longer sentences for the wrong reasons.
Hope of release before life has ceased to be worth living is. as Mountbatten said, the most powerful disincentive to escape, espec- ially for the professional criminal, who is apt to regard imprisonment as an occupa- tional hazard. Nevertheless, there are un- questionably prisoners to whom society can no longer afford to offer this hope, except at too great a risk to its own safety: pri- soners who must he regarded as presump- tively irreclaimable. But it does not follow that they should be lumped together in a category Mountbatten's key proposal-- as though they were all cut from the same cloth and there were only one practically effective and morally acceptable way of dealing with the lot of them. In fact. grossly abnormal murderers, like Straffen, and ruthless, fully responsible gangsters, like the Richardsons. have nothing in com- mon. except their dangerousness. 'It is very wrong to have these two very different types of prisoners in the same building,' Hugh Klare has said. Yet this is precisely what has been happening since the Mountbatten report. And though his idea of a single pur- pose-built prison has been abandoned in favotir of an eventual policy of dispersal, that won't presumably stop its happening.
People who are incurably dangerous, because they are incurably abnormal, don't belong in any ordinary prison, but in a secure hospital-type institution; and the fact that at the moment there's not enough of such accommodation available doesn't excuse the failure to provide it. Moreover, a clear distinction should be drawn between the comparatively few to whom ,the 'new type of imprisonment' must apply and the many to whom it oughtn't. Under Mountbatten's classification scheme there are now considerably more Category A pri- soners (those who can't 'in any circum- stances be allowed to get out') than he him- self indicated there should be, and though their number is periodically 'reviewed' it includes men who are bound to be released quite soon. Some of them are being, held in progressive prisons rather than in the sterile security blocks. But even so they are pre- cluded by security regulations from taking full advantage of training and treatment opportunities.
For example, at Wormwood Scrubs, they are not allowed to attend educational classes, and this same restriction applies at Wakefield to a minority of Category A pri- soners. Yet, in the strongly held view of the Wakefield tutor-organiser, corporate study is the one thing above all that these men need, if they are ever to improve; either because they are illiterates or (as in most of the cases) because they have exceptionally high IQs, with restless minds bound to dwell on destructive things unless they can be constructively filled. The Prison Depart- ment is not to be blamed for this situation; after all, it has its orders. But, again, given the choice between taking a small risk that a prisoner may escape and the near-cer- tainty that unless that risk is taken he will commit further serious crimes upon his release, a rational society should surely prefer the former.
Under the dispersal policy, the men fac- ing permanent or near-permanent captivity are also to be placed in Wakefield or one of the other establishments where the strongest perimeter defences have been, or are to be, installed. This policy is un- doubtedly preferable to Mountbatten's pro- posal of a purpose-built prison for all Cate- gory A men, if only because violence would erupt in any institution where gangland enemies might meet. At the same time, if Mountbatten was right, it offers no guaran- tee of sufficiently secure conditions in the case of those who must not 'in any circum- stances be allowed to get out'. Further. it will lead to a confusion of the 'new type of imprisonment' with the reformative type, and one fears that this will be at the ex- pense of the latter. For the prisoner without hope of release is not only a high escape risk; he is potentially the worst kind of insidious trouble-maker, and may be able (as the story of Frank Mitchell suggests) to dominate the entire captive community.
Ultimately, we shall have to recognise that the new type of imprisonment is a new type of imprisonment, and, therefore, de- mands a new purpose-made system: one that must take into consideration, if it is to be effective, degrees of security required for the individuals concerned, which may vary, and also, if it is to be civilised, their right to a bearable existence. Lord Mountbatten, whose report was by no means a wholly retrogressive document, expressed an aware- ness of this latter necessity. The new type of imprisonment, he said, had brought with it 'human problems which will have to be faced. Among these is the question of family contacts. and I hope consideration will be given to this question. ...' Regret- tably, just as this was one of the least pub- licised of his recommendations, so up to now it has been one of the most readily ignored.