Distance matters, no matter what the context : distance and punishment

Regular readers of this blog (I’m told there are some…. thank you) will recognise the themes that appeal to me most when picking up stories from the press. As a geographer, anything to do with space and distance immediately leaps out, and today’s coverage in the UK press of intentions to imprison female inmates in England and Wales closer to their homes and families (part of a suite of policies which includes local resettlement prisons), is exactly one of those stories.

According to the BBC, Lord McNally, the coalition government Justice Minister, has said that female prisoners in England and Wales will serve their sentences nearer to where they live in a bid to cut reoffending: “When a female offender walks out of the prison gates, I want to make sure she never returns,” he said. “Keeping female prisoners as close as possible to their homes, and importantly their children, is vital if we are to help them break the pernicious cycle of re-offending. And providing at least a year of support in the community – alongside the means to find employment on release – will give them the best possible chance to live productive, law abiding lives”. The Ministry of Justice’s intention that female inmates will maintain family relationships and improve their job prospects before leaving jail is laudable, but was immediately critiqued by the opposition Labour party, with Sadiq Khan claiming that “With only a small number of scattered women’s prisons, the concept of local resettlement is almost meaningless”.

The issue of distance and punishment has been a recurring theme in my own work. Although I looked at this initially in relation to women in prison in the Russian Federation (with colleagues – details here), a context in which the distances from home at which some women can be incarcerated are staggering – it’s clear from the UK example that distance really matters, regardless of scale. In Russia, the small number of colonies for women, and the fact that women with infants can, theoretically for their own benefit, be sent to distant prison colonies that have ‘mother and baby’ facilities for them to spend time together, means that distance is a very significant factor in the production of the carceral experience. Through a series of papers on Russia’s carceral geography and its experience, my colleagues and I have thought about the ways in which distance manifests itself in the dislocation and isolation of imprisonment for women. However, what’s clear from today’s new story in the UK is that, even though the actual distances which separate women from their children and families in the UK are significantly smaller than they are in Russia, the same problems are experienced.

One key aspect of the policy statement today, though, is the presumed link between proximity to home and family, (which is assumed to equate to the receipt of visits) and reduced reoffending. This relationship between visits and reoffending does exist empirically – longstanding empirical evidence suggests that prison visiting has a positive influence on inmates; improving their likelihood of successful reintegration on release, and thereby reducing their rates of recidivism. In criminology, the cornerstone work by Holt and Miller (1972) showed, using a series of cross-tabulations following 412 men paroled in California for a year or more, that parole outcomes were much more positive for men who had been visited while in prison. Only 2% of men who had had three or more different visitors during the year prior to parole were re-imprisoned within a year, compared to 12% of those who had had no contact with friends or family. Only half of those who had no visitors had ‘no difficulties’ on parole, compared with 70% of those with three or more visitors. Holt and Miller’s work followed decades after Ohlin’s (1954) and Glaser’s (1964) publications of research in 1920s and 1940s Illinois, showing that prisoners who ‘maintained an active family interest’ were more successful on parole than those who did not. Writing in the 1970s, Homer was at pains to point out the remarkable convergence of studies on parole and prison visiting; “…the consensus of findings should be emphasised. The strong positive relationship between strength of family-social bonds and parole success has held up for more than fifty years, across very diverse offender populations and in different locales. It is doubtful if there is any other research finding in the field of corrections which can come close to this record” (1979, 49).
However, although this effect is widely observed, the causality is poorly understood; it is presumed that the maintenance of personal relationships and the feeling of connectedness to home and community which may arise through visitation serve to smooth the passage of the released inmate through the process of reintegration after release, but this process has never been fully explored. In a current research project, Louise Dixon (U. Birmingham) and I, with our new postdoctoral researcher Marie Hutton, are exploring just what it is about visitation that leds to these positive effects, and specifically, the significance of the socio-spatial context of visiting spaces. Although we are looking at men’s imprisonment, we hope that the findings of this work will illuminate the relationship between visitation and recidivism in useful and positive ways.