Panorama: Behind Bars: Prison Undercover

The BBC Panorama programme, Behind Bars: Prison Undercover, aired on Monday (13 February 2017). Culled from footage from an undercover reporter in HMP Northumberland, it claimed to “reveal the reality of life behind bars in Britain’s crisis-hit prison system.”

Leaving aside the obvious methodological issues with such a claim, i.e. that such a generalisation cannot be made from a few insights in a single, adult, male, category C, private prison, what we got, instead, was an entirely biased, one-sided view. On this occasion, it was the fears of clearly overworked and overwhelmed prison staff that was the central focus of concern. The narrative depicted was simplistic: prisoners are both out of control and in control of the day to day running of prisons, supported by images of drug taking, drunken and abusive prisoners. A strong case was being made for more prison officers, which is totally justified in the context of overcrowded prisons and savage cuts to prison staff.

A major problem was that this was at the expense of a more balanced programme that took account, also, of the prisoner side of the story – the desolation, monotony and periods of sheer terror of everyday life behind prison bars. This is well documented in the research and it might, also, go some way, at least, to contextualising and/or explaining the images of the relatively small handful of misbehaving prisoners that were selected to persuade viewers to accept the underpinning narrative without question.

Indeed, this was a missed opportunity to present a more honest and socially responsible account of the current challenges confronting imprisonment so that the problems might be better addressed. Yes, there are profound and potentially even dangerous levels of staff shortages in prisons, with a knock-on effect of low morale amongst demoralised staff: more staff are urgently needed. Just as importantly, the existing regime is experiencing regular prison disturbances and riots amid record levels of prisoner self-harm and suicide amongst vulnerable prisoners, which, equally, needs urgent attention.

Advocates for progressive prison reform along lines of social justice might easily see through the bias of the programme and be able to make sense of the behaviour of the prisoners that was featured. David Scott’s analysis, for instance, situates the evident prison chaos and the enormous demand for drugs as an attempt by prisoners to “anaesthetise the pain” of imprisonment: “It is well documented that prison life is both highly regulated yet filled with emptiness. Drugs distort time and prisons are all about the wasting and loss of time. Many prisoners attempt to suspend time and find ways to manage life on the edge of this meaningless and dehumanising penal abyss.”

I fear, however, that the “moral majority”, lacking the intellectual sophistication and/or ability for empathy to make such connections, will lap the programme up in the way intended and wouldn’t be surprised if attitudes hardened further towards prisoners and conditions get even worse, if that is even possible to conceive.

Was it a mere coincidence that the programme was aired on the day that Ms Truss, Secretary of State for Justice, rejected calls to cut sentences to reduce the record prison population to address the current prison crisis by making more use of such things as community sentences and tagging?

Emphasising the “increasing volatility and violence” in prisons in England and Wales, a discourse strengthened by the Panorama programme, Ms Truss argued on the contrary that criminals are where they “belong” “behind bars” with longer sentences.

In this context, I think that it is likely that Behind Bars: Prison Undercover will serve to deflect opposition from, even garner support for, Ms Truss’s line of thinking and that prisoner numbers may continue to increase and the problems in our prisons may well deepen.

Also published on the University of Bristol Law School Blog at:

Academia – where working to contract is apparently a problem

The standard employment relationship is very straightforward: an employee is expected to fulfil their contractual duties, no more no less. However, to do so in the academic sphere is, apparently, a problem. This became very evident in the recent union action in support of the demand for fairer pay.

It was calculated in the summer of 2016 that academic pay should be increased by 14.9% to get back to the level that it should be had it kept up with inflation since 2009. The employer offered 1%. In response, all manner of initiatives flowed from union members within the confines of a general “work to contract”, including marking boycotts, non-attendance at open and visit days and external examiners refusing to validate courses.

As intended, this caused much disruption and anxiety to university managers who simply could not deliver on expected targets, which require working over contract and a plethora of extra-curricula activities as norms to ensure the smooth running of university departments these days.

It was telling, however, when the pay award of 1.1 % for 2016 was imposed by the employer that the union instructed members that restrictions had been lifted and that normal working could be resumed, meaning that employees had the union’s blessing/instruction to resume working many hours over and above their contracts in the overall interests of, and benefit to, the employer.

Am I missing something? Should a union really be advocating that members work over and above that which is contracted, and work that is unpaid at that? If universities need employees to work over their contracts as a norm might it not indicate that more employees might be needed? Might this even be linked to wider issues such as precarious casualised contracts and the employment uncertainty that this carries, prevailing gender disparities and unprecedented levels of workplace stress and depression within the university sector?

There is clearly much lurking under this particular stone to be further explored.

Will Wullie Beck ever overturn his wrongful conviction?

The case of Wullie Beck has stuck in my craw since his appeal was rejected in 2013, for an armed robbery that occurred in 1981. It will continue to do so until his case is overturned and justice is done, both for Mr Beck and his family and for the victims of the attack in the armed robbery and their families too.

Please note that I do not use the customary “alleged” to premise wrongful conviction here as I feel confident that if readers take the time to read the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission’s Statement of Reasons for referring his conviction back to the High Court of Justiciary (Scotland’s court of appeal) that they, too, will be left in no doubt that an innocent man was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit.

The refusal of the appeal by the High Court raises a pertinent and important question about justice in Scotland: What is the value of the Scottish CCRC if the cases that it refers, after extensive and impartial investigations, can simply be dismissed by the High Court and those that the Scottish CCRC believe may be innocent victims of miscarriages of justice have no alternative avenue to seek justice and clear their names?

What now for Wullie Beck? Will he (and others like him) ever overturn his wrongful conviction?