Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State


Joe Sim

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  • Epigraphs

    Steal a little and they throw you in jail; Steal a lot and they make you king.

    — Bob Dylan

    I think we have to rescue the past. It's the old much-quoted saying, ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. We have to rescue the past, and we have to know the ‘why’ of things, because otherwise you can't combat it.

    — Ken Loach

    Show me a prison,

    Show me a jail,

    Show me a prison man,

    Whose face is growing pale,

    And I'll show you a young man,

    With many reasons why,

    And there but for fortune,

    May go you or I,

    — Phil Ochs


    View Copyright Page


    To the memory of Annie and Edward Mullen and John Doogan.


    In time-honoured fashion, I remain responsible for any errors in this book. At the same time, the following people contributed to the book more than they will ever know or, indeed, might want to know:

    Eric Allison, Ove Andersen, Alana Barton, the late Ernie Buck, Tony Bunyan, Pat Carlen, Deborah Coles, Gerry Condon, Mary Corcoran, Karen Corteen, Mike Fitzgerald, Richard Fontenroy, Pete Giu, Paul Gilroy, Barry Goldson, Danielle Griffiths, Stuart Hall, Jeremy Hawthorne, Trevor Hemmings, Barbara Hudson, Jeff Hughes, the staff at INQUEST, Janet Jamieson, Niki Lacey, Barbara and Pieter Lawman, Dave Llewellyn (for the trips on the ‘magic, swirling ship’), Bethan Loftus, Dave MacDonald, Gill McIvor, John Moore, Dave Morran, Martyn Nightingale, Teresa, Daniel, Paul and Paul O'Brien, Susan, Grace and James O'Malley, Tina Patel, Simon Pemberton, Hans Pedersen, David Scott, Helen Shaw, Gerry and Karen Sim, Tillie and Joe Sim, David Tyrer, Reece Walters, Tony Ward, Anne-Marie, Ricky, Jamie and Richie Webster, Joe Yates.

    Special thanks to Kristi Ballinger for her technical skills and for reminding me of the Flintstones; and to Tia Ballinger for her radically different interpretation of the meaning of the ‘archaeology of knowledge’.

    I am particularly indebted to Roy Coleman, Paddy Hillyard, Mick Ryan, Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte for their personal and intellectual support over the years.

    During the time it took to write this book, Chris Cain made me (semi) respectable; staff at The Elms and The Priory in Liverpool made me healthy; S.L. Jakubovic made me appreciate Colgate Total; and Ian Davis helped me quite literally to see better.

    Julie Callaghan, Rhona McSporran, Sara Newton, Maria Ng, Kate Simmons and Mandy Vere from News from Nowhere bookshop in Liverpool provided an independent and critical space for buying and ordering books. It embodies everything a bookshop should be in challenging the desperate influence of, and shadow cast by, multinational bookstore chains.

    Michael Simmonds in Conservative Central Office was extremely helpful in facilitating my access to the Conservative Party's library in Smith Square.

    Catherine Fell at the Prison Service College Library provided excellent service and expedited any requests I had for books and articles. The staff in the libraries at Liverpool University and Liverpool John Moores University, especially Joan Shaw, also provided a first class and helpful service.

    Thanks to the Research Committee in the School of Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University, for funding some teaching relief between January and May 2004.

    Over the years, a number of institutions and organizations invited me to speak to their staff and students. This allowed me to think through some of the ideas in this book in environments which were challenging and critical. In particular, thanks to staff and students at the University of Central Lancashire (and to Keith Soothill for his attendance and comments), the University of Stirling and the University of Lincoln. Thanks also to those who attended lectures I gave to the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland and to the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims in Copenhagen for their critical input.

    Antonio Gramsci said that football was ‘the open-air kingdom of human loyalty’. The following people shared the great highs (the road to Seville in 2003; Tannadice, 22 May 2008) and the desperate lows (Fir Park, 22 May 2005) following Celtic: Danny Anderson, Brian Crommie, Jim, Bryan and Claire Crossan, Andy Gallagher, Monica Gallagher, Joe Gormley, Paddy Jackson, Ritchie Kelly, Martin Maxwell, Calum MacDougall, Robert McAbe, Alfie and James McAllister, Paul McCartan, Martin McFadden, Fran McStay, Chris Mullen, Tony Quail and Brian Toolan.

    Bob Dylan's music, and different concerts on his ‘never-ending tour’, provided the perfect soundtrack during the seemingly never-ending years that it took to complete this book. John Bohanna's recordings of many of these concerts, as well as Dylan's XM Radio shows, helped me to get up in the ‘jingle, jangle mornings’ to keep writing.

    Thanks to Gillian Stern and Miranda Nunhofer for supporting the initial proposal to SAGE.

    Particular thanks to Caroline Porter at SAGE, who not only exhibited extraordinary patience and good humour in waiting for the finished text, but also made a number of very supportive and insightful comments as the manuscript took shape.

    Finally, as ever, Anette Ballinger has been an intellectual and personal inspiration.


    In the first decade of the new millennium, the production of criminology books and the pursuit of criminological knowledge have become fetishised commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace of higher education. In the UK, the rabid and often unscrupulous search by universities for funding in response to the seemingly endless problems with resourcing their activities, the demand that knowledge be relevant to ‘what works’ in social policy terms and the rampant, psychologically withering managerialism embedded across higher education institutions, have increasingly compromised the role of academics as social and moral critics. What counts as knowledge (and its political converse, what does not count as knowledge) and, crucially, the uses to which knowledge is put (or indeed not put) have become the objects of a hybridized, often state-inspired system of surveillance and regulation to which many of the new breed of university managers have given their overt, and often brutal, support. At the same time, the academic producers of this knowledge have increasingly subjected themselves to a self-surveilling, self-censoring gaze in response to the iron grip of commodification that has swept through higher education (and other) public service institutions. Capitalist modernity has meant subsuming the social and the human to the dictates of a higher education, free market ideology that valorises conformity, individualism and objectification.

    In making this point, it is not my intention to construct a reductive, conspiratorial position where every decision made, and every action taken by state servants and university managers, is determined by the invisible workings of a ruthless, capitalist political economy. As theorists such as Bob Jessop and Stuart Hall have long recognized, the state is a much more contingent and contradictory set of institutions than early Marxist writers argued. At the same time, it would be naïve to think about the relationship between criminological knowledge, universities and the state without considering the question of power and thus the material, political and ideological processes which have shaped and governed (and continue to shape and govern) criminology's development and application. It is also not my intention to present an idealistic vision of a previous era in which every publication in criminology, and every action undertaken by criminologists, were mobilized to challenge the state or the powerful. Indeed, historically, criminology as a discipline, as is now being increasingly recognized, has been yoked to the state with respect to the restricted ideological definitions of crime within which the majority of its practitioners have operated, which, in turn, have underpinned the reformist policies that they have pursued (Hillyard and Tombs, 2004). Additionally, state servants have often used criminological research to inform their often philistine policies and practices.

    It is also clear that the regulation of research and individual self-censorship have long preceded the rise of neoliberal managerialism as a governing discourse in criminology. My point is that these processes have been intensified and compounded in the last three decades as the politics and practices of neoliberalism have become consolidated in the hearts and minds of the governing class in the UK, of whatever political persuasion. They have also been intensified by intellectually and spiritually corrosive developments such as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which have become so institutionalized in higher education that for younger scholars in particular, it often appears less career-threatening to challenge the scientific claim that the earth revolves around the sun than to confront the often vapid claims made by defenders of the exercise that this is an objective test of academic worth, esteem and scholarship.

    At the same time, as with any social process, the current bleak situation is contradictory. The fact that this book has been produced at all indicates that however unrelenting neoliberal policies might be, there are spaces and gaps that nurture and sustain critical, academic work. Indeed, one of the great paradoxes of the last three decades has been the rich and stimulating research that has been produced by critical thinkers and scholars, from a range of diverse backgrounds and persuasions, who have challenged the theoretical and methodological supremacy of administrative and conventional criminology.

    This book is designed to contribute to that critical tradition and follows Foucault's observation that books should be seen as ‘instrument[s] … in a real struggle’ (Foucault, cited in de Folter, 1987: 44) It seeks to chart the continuities in penal policy, and the role and place of the prison as an arena of often unrelenting punishment and pain, from the mid-1970s to the first decade of the new millennium in a land that has had to contend with the psychological immiseration and social detritus generated by the brutal exigencies of neoliberalism. The book also suggests that the ‘real struggle’ around prisons should be conducted from an abolitionist perspective if the institution's nefarious influence on the confined, on those staff trying to provide humane and decent care and on the debates around law and order more generally, is to be contested, undermined and replaced by an alternative vision of penality that both heals the individual offender and protects the wider society.

    I finally finished writing the text at a time of intensive media coverage of the 40th anniversary of the ‘year of the barricades’ – 1968. That year was also hugely significant for criminology with the formation of the radical National Deviancy Conference (NDC), which sought to provide a forum for a more critically engaged, politically interventionist criminology. It is therefore fitting to close this preface with a quote from Stan Cohen's Introduction to the first collection of papers, published by the NDC in 1971 under the title, Images of Deviance. In his usual perceptive and prescient manner, Cohen noted that, ‘Sociologists are increasingly becoming traders in definitions: they hawk their versions of reality around to whoever will buy them. There is a responsibility to make such definitions not only intelligible, consistent and aesthetically satisfactory, but also human’ (Cohen, 1971:24, emphasis added). Forty years on, Cohen's words remain utterly relevant to a world that is still devoid of the human and the humane. According to some, usually politicians, it is a world which has changed beyond recognition, even redemption. However, as this book illustrates, with respect to the prison, the justifications mobilized to defend its continuing existence, and the population the institution incapacitates for often-brutal interventions, it is a world that has hardly changed at all.

    JoeSim, Liverpool, June 2008
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    Television Programmes
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