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apppag minutes january 2011

Speaker: The Most Revd & Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Lord Corbett welcomed everyone to the meeting, expressing particular pleasure that Archbishop Rowan had found time to be with them.  The Archbishop would speak for around 15 minutes and has invited Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust to respond. He would throw the discussion open to the floor.

The Archbishop began:

I'm very grateful for the opportunity to come and introduce a bit of discussion on what is at the moment a rather particularly timely subject. And what I'd like to do is to begin with some reflections on a couple of general principles around penal policy; to turn to a couple of thoughts about the current Green Paper and how it bears upon these principles and to suggest one or two of the areas of questioning that I think the Green Paper still needs to deal with and which all of us interested in penal reform ought to be interested in, if we're to give the kind of consolidation and support that the best ideas in that Green Paper require.

So I want to start by enunciating a basic political principle and a basic theological principle. As you will see, they are not a million miles apart. My basic political principle is: the prisoner is a citizen; and that if we lose sight of the notion of the prisoner as citizen, any number of things follow from that, and indeed are following from that. The notion that in some sense not the civic liberties, but the civic status of a prisoner is in a 'cold storage' when custody takes over, is one of a whole range of issues around the rights of prisoners. And indeed touches a little on that particularly neuralgic subject of votes for prisoners. Maybe more of that later on.

But the prisoner as citizen is somebody who can on the one hand expect their dignities as a citizen to be factored into what happens to them. And we reasonably expect that penal custody will be something that contributes to rather than takes away the capacity of the individual to act as a citizen in other circumstances and thus issues around restoration, around responsibility, around developing concepts of empathy and mutuality are all part of what it seems to me to be a reasonable working-out of what it is to regard the prisoner a citizen. I apologise if that's a little bit 'telegraphic' but those are some of the themes which as Juliet will remember I outlined in a lecture I gave a few years ago for the Prison Reform Trust especially as regards issues around mutuality and taking responsibility for others as well as one's self.

So the 'prisoner as citizen' is my political principle. And my theological principle is a little harder to express in brief and snappy terms but I'll do it in what may sound a rather shocking phrase; the prisoner is 'gifted'. That is to say, the prisoner is someone who in theological terms has received dignities, liberties as a human being, as a person - and someone whose gifts, received from the creator, are given to be shared. When those gifts are overlaid by failure, by crime, by any number of distortions, then they need release (to use what's perhaps an appropriate term), and penal custody ought to have in view the question of how gifts are released for sharing. And in seeing that those two principles are in fact very loosely allied --because both of them presuppose that the restoration of an offender is something to do with the restoration of a capacity for relating, for taking responsibility, for self-understanding and the understanding of others -- if there's any element of restoration in penal policy that needs surely to be its direction. And that applies not only as we think about the general issue of restorative justice – the restoration of relationship -- but has something to do with healthy relationships within penal institutions; with the working constructions of the penal institution being so understood that they don't simply turn the screw further on an erosion of civic dignity and human giftedness.

So those are my starting points. And they relate a little bit to again a point I made a little while ago, speaking to the PRT, that at present we're in danger of perpetuating a penal philosophy and system which actually leaves everybody as victims. It leaves victims of crime as victims: their victimhood unaddressed and unaltered. It leaves those under sentence as victims in other ways. We ought to want to move beyond a situation where claims around victimage are driving policy, but also a situation where the victimising of the prisoner by the denial of those basic civic issues is perpetuated.

So that's the broad framework within which I try to think about penal policy myself and I want next briefly to turn to one or two things in the Green Paper, which you'll all be fairly familiar with I'm sure, which touch on some of the issues that I've mentioned and which are in tune with them, before moving on to a couple of areas about which I'd like to hear more.

Now one of the strengths, I think, of the Green Paper is the affirmation that custody needs a purpose. A very strong theme that comes through in the Green Paper is that we've allowed ourselves to be controlled in our attitudes here, by understanding the prior, overwhelming, need as the protection of the public. And early on in the Green Paper we read about how protection of the public for short sporadic bursts so to speak, by custody without purpose, doesn't actually make anybody safer in the long run. And here there's an important balance to be drawn. We all know the sort of argument that says prisoners in custody have quite a comfortable and secure time and they ought to be made more uncomfortable. To that, one needs to say the punishment is custody. The punishment is not being made as uncomfortable as possible in custody. Punishment is the deprival of liberty. But we need to balance that by saying at the same time the deprivation of liberty, the fact of custody needs some purposefulness about it if it's not simply to mean a temporary act of damage limitation which in fact turns out rather worse than being a temporary act of damage limitation, because most of the evidence suggests it in fact intensifies long-term damage both to individual and society.

So I welcome that concern about the purpose of custody. The stress in the Green Paper on work, on restorative strategies, on responses other than automatic remand, especially as it applies to the young; all of it I think recognises very fully and very rightly that custody in itself is not the answer: we need to ask what is the content. And I would want to underline the insight, because it is one that has wider implication; that if public protection takes over and drives everything in the field of penal policy there is a real difficulty in many areas of civil liberties, human dignity and so forth, especially as that takes over beyond even detention as a matter of public protection. That seems to be then the default setting for a lot of other exercises of policy.

I mention only in passing – and not because I think it's unimportant, quite the contrary -- the welcome fact that this is a document that does take seriously many issues around the youth justice world and particularly about the rightness of custody for the young offender.

So I believe there is much here that does do some justice to those notions of civic dignity and human giftedness with which I began. And I won't elaborate on that because we'll have some discussion: there are specific areas of the text we might like to reflect on. But before handing over for response and further discussion, I want to pinpoint a couple of areas where I'd like to hear more.

The Green Paper begins I think very plausibly and perhaps rather predictably by aligning what it says with the whole philosophy of the Coalition government in terms of localism. There's a great deal about how Westminster-driven solutions are not going to help us here. Like many in this room, I suspect, I have some sympathy about what's being said and some sympathy with the localist agenda. It seems to me that we need this spelled out and thought through with some care. Because all of us will be aware of how one of the most problematic areas at the moment of the state of the penal system is the transfer of prisoners from institution to institution when there is a lack of parity of provision of various services; pastoral, educational, relational etc. If an appeal to localism fails to recognise the importance of some sort of parity or proper expectation that in any institution certain basics or kinds of continuity are secure, then I think it will be a serious failing.

I'm thinking here of visit a couple of years ago to one institution where I discussed with some prisoners and staff at length issues around two particular programmes which this institution was really very good at. Programmes around family relations and programmes around anger management. It was perfectly clear that those in that institution were profiting very seriously and extensively from what was on offer. It was equally clear that part of their daily anxiety was transfer to institutions where these services were not on offer or not at the same level, quality or intensity. So localism may be a very good slogan to sail under generally, but I would really want to push that question about parity, and equality of expectation especially as regards those matters I have just mentioned. And if the prison population continues at anything like its present level of rather chaotic mobility, then this is quite a central problem, I would suggest.

And that takes me to another area where I should like to hear more. And that is really to do with the vulnerability in a lot of institutions of precisely these imaginative programmes of restoration which deal with the management of relationships and which deal also with questions around the imagination. I know you're going to be hearing some discussion in a few weeks' time about the arts in prison. I don't think, again, that this is a marginal or luxury item in our consideration.

I was reading over Christmas an extraordinary collection of essays by American writers, on drama in various prisons and institutions in the USA. It contained some of the most moving pieces I've read in a very long time, about precisely education in empathy and the equipment of people to see themselves afresh in this context. Now in a financial situation such as the one we're in, things like this are almost bound to look to some people like luxuries. I'd like to know what the safeguards would be around this kind of work which really does enable people within penal institutions to see themselves afresh in these imaginative and artistic ways, as well as the more obvious ways of counselling programmes of a more traditional kind.

I'm aware that (reported today) support networks – in this case the women offenders' support network and also prisoner mentoring schemes – are likely to be at risk as funding is squeezed. So those are some of the areas where I would like to hear rather more robust assurance in the Green Paper and discussion. These are questions touched on from time to time but the emphasis tends to be – understandably and not entirely wrongly – on the use of existing mechanisms of control rather than what might be said about mechanisms of 'opening up' the prisoner as a person. Understandably, because that is in one sense how you sell some of this to a not always very sympathetic public, but also because inevitably prison is about the exercise of force and we can't deny that. But how we put flesh on the excellent things said in general about restoration here, I'll wait with interest to hear.