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‘Breaking the Cycle': Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK

In the aftermath of the 2011 UK riots, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke described the rioters as a ‘feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream’, and blamed the riots on the ‘broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful’. Having previously described reoffending as ‘the biggest thing that we’re addressing in the current [penal] system’, his solution was to ‘focus our penal system relentlessly on proper, robust punishment and the reduction of reoffending’ (The Guardian 5.9.11). Clarke’s comments recall Lois Wacquant’s description in the US of a ‘self-perpetuating cycle of social and legal marginality with devastating personal and social consequences’ in which prisoners do not, in fact, ‘re-enter’ society after release, instead circulating between two poles of ‘a continuum of forced confinement formed by the prison and…the metropolis’.

Reoffending or recidivism is key to the operation of this carceral ‘continuum’, the repetitive cycle of incarceration, re-entry, re-offending and re-incarceration, and represents a major policy challenge. In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months (Ministry of Justice). Clarke’s solution as set out in the “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper is ‘payment by results’; a ‘radical and decentralising reform’ with ‘freedom to innovate’ new interventions, opening ‘the market to new providers from the private, voluntary and community sectors’.

A new research project in this area funded by the UK Economic and Research Council (ESRC), undertaken by carceral geographer Dominique Moran and criminological psychologist Louise Dixon (both University of Birmingham, UK)  will draw attention to prison visitation as an aspect of imprisonment which has already been demonstrated to improve the outcomes of released prisoners, but whose specific functionality is at present poorly understood.

This 3-year interdisciplinary project will provide a new perspective on prison visitation and its relationship to the highly topical issue of recidivism. Macro-level statistical analysis in parallel with innovative mixed-methods research into visiting facilities will identify the nature of this relationship and its socio-spatial context, informing policy towards visitation and the design of visiting spaces, and contributing to broader debates about prisoner rehabilitation and resettlement.

The abstract of a forthcoming paper on this topic is available here.

An initial output from the project is:

  • Moran, D (forthcoming 2013) Carceral Geography and the Spatialities of Prison Visiting: Visitation, Recidivism and Hyperincarceration Environment and Planning: D, Society and Space view pre-print

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