Friday, 21 May 2010

Four Tall Tales About Prison From Britain's Press (Part One)

by: Paul Mason (Cardiff University)


Ever since the pivotal studies on constructions of crime news and deviancy amplification in the 1970s (Chibnall 1977; Cohen 1971; 1972; Cohen and Young 1973; Hall et al. 1978; Young 1971), questions have been asked about crime journalism, exploring the process by which crime news is constructed rather than reported objectively. As well as concerns about the pernicious effect of over-representing violent and sexual crime (Roberts 2001; Sparks 1992; Wykes 2001), writers have suggested that such reporting creates support for more draconian criminal justice measures (Mason 2003; Reiner 2002; Reiner et al. 2003). These concerns have been explored in Mathiesen's work, with specific reference to prison (1995; 2000; 2001; 2003) in which he suggests that media reporting magnifies violent and serious crime to the extent that prison is constructed as the only viable solution:

In the newspapers, on television, in the whole range of media, the prison is simply not recognised as a fiasco, but as a necessary if not always fully successful method of reaching its purported goals. The prison solution is taken as paradigmatic, so that a rising crime rate is viewed as still another sign showing that prison is needed. (Mathiesen 2000: 144)
It is Mathiesen's contention that the media persist in creating conditions for the support of the penal system through over-reporting of crime, creating a fearful public who look to prison to protect them as the essential means of social control.

I have no doubt that this is true: Surette's 'law of opposites' in which he suggests the characteristics of crime, criminals and victims represented in the media is largely the reverse reported in crime surveys (Surette 1998) is supported by Reiner et al.'s extensive research on British crime media since 1945 (Livingstone et al. 2001; Reiner et al. 2000a; 2000b; 2003), which found that two thirds of crime news stories are primarily about violent or sex offences, but that these account for less than 10% of crimes recorded by the police. In addition, much has been written about the shift towards a populist criminal justice policy in late modern society (Garland 2001; Hutton 2005; Johnstone 2000; Loader 2005; Pratt 2000; Roberts et al. 2002; Ryan 2006) where media-driven public insecurities about crime and the criminal are addressed through highly visible, yet hollow State 'initiatives' where yellow jackets for prisoners "paying back" to the community through unpaid work and their signed pledges not to reoffend are simply the latest (Home Office 2006).

I wish to extend these arguments, to explore the manner in which prisons and the prisoner are constructed in the printed press. It is my contention in this paper that the media do not simply normalize prison, glossing over its underlying function as an instrument of pain delivery, but promote its use and expansion through misinformation, distortion and lies about those in prison and the conditions they are subjected to. Consequently, the print media largely echo New Labour's notion of a "working prison" as the essential cornerstone of the British criminal justice system, rarely questioning the need for prison in society, for as Ryan and Sim rightly point out, 'the prison has achieved a hegemonic status that has made it virtually impregnable to sustained ideological and material attack' (Ryan and Sim 2006).

I wish to exemplify my argument in a discrete and specific way, based upon four stories which appeared in British newspapers in October 2005. This forms part of a much larger longitudinal study monitoring the media output on prisons over twelve months . I am well aware of the problems which arise in seeking to generalize and speculate about the print media's construction of prisons based upon so small a sample. I am presenting a culturally, historically and temporally partial and specific snapshot of the press treatment of penal issues in Britain. However, I will seek to contextualise my argument further in my closing comments. I do not propose to discuss my methodology at length here either. I have incorporated several elements of discourse analysis, specifically the critical discourse analysis tradition (Fairclough 1992; 1995; Fairclough and Chouliaraki 1995; Wodak and Meyer 2001), based upon Fowler's position that:
News is a representation of the world in language; because language is a semiotic code, it imposes a structure of values, social and economic in origin, on whatever is represented; and so inevitably news, like every discourse, constructively patterns that of which it speaks (Fowler 1991: 4).
and exploring what Conboy has termed 'an identifiable range of textual strategies' (2006: 9) in the printed press's account of prison and the prisoner.

Prison Myths: Four Tall Tales from the Press

1. Hotel Holloway: Bistro Dining in a London Prison

HMP Holloway is a local women's prison in North London. It has had, for many years, a notorious reputation for prisoner suicides and self-harm. In January 2005, Liberal Democrat MP Sandra Gidley quoted The Guardian report that officers at Holloway prison 'are cutting down five women a day from nooses' (Hansard 2005). There have been up to 52 agency nurses on suicide watch at any one time ('Five Live Report', BBC Radio Five Live tx 5 September 2004, 19:30). The report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights into deaths in custody (JCHR 2004) stated that it was common for prisoners to arrive at HMP Holloway reception very late at night, often with inadequate information on their health and circumstances and that frequently it was discovered extremely late on in proceedings that prisoners' children were not being cared for.
As a result, the First Night Centre was set up at Holloway to address the problems associated with highly distressed and at-risk women who enter prison, including counsellors to deal with the risk of self-harm. It was acknowledged in an evaluation, that the First Night in Custody project significantly reduced the anxiety felt by people in prison for the first time (King 2002).

On October 1 2005, The Daily Express ran the headline:

Inmates at one of Britain's supposedly "toughest" jails have said life there is more like staying in a hotel. In a damning indictment of softtouch (sic) Britain, new arrivals at Holloway women's prison eat in a bistro-style dining room, sleep in comfortable beds and have "befrienders" to help them settle in.
The story quotes one new prisoner at Holloway as saying 'It's very you're sitting in a hotel". One can only speculate upon what the ellipses in the quote may have contained, but The Express report ignored any of the facts about the role or aim of the First Night Centre, choosing instead to construct HMP Holloway as a "soft touch" prison. Notice how the report questions the prison's reputation - 'one of Britain's supposedly toughest jails' (my emphasis), but implicitly suggesting that such a reputation would be a positive characteristic of incarceration. This is further emphasised by the article's association of "soft touch" with comfortable beds and the initial forming of relationships while in prison. One can but wonder what the Express considers 'bistro-style' dining to be within a prison setting - tables and chairs perhaps?

While the report quotes a prisoner referring to a "hotel", the opening line refers to "inmates" (my emphasis), suggesting that the view is widely held within the prisoner population in Holloway. There are further inferential jumps in the article, from one comment about the First Night Centre to much wider references to Holloway as a whole. Thus, the reader is presented with a single, edited, first impression on a specialist centre which forms part of HMP Holloway's prisoner reception policy, re/constructed by The Express as the widely-held opinion by Holloway's prisoners that their jail is like a hotel. This is not mere tabloid licence, it's a lie. The HM Inspectorate of Prisons report on Holloway in March 2004 stated that '(s)tandards of cleanliness were unacceptable, with communal areas dirty, rubbish-strewn or poorly decorated', and that 48% of inmates felt unsafe, 36% reported being insulted or assaulted by other prisoners and 32% said staff victimised them (HMI 2004).

The article's inaccurate and unsubstantiated construction of Holloway is then used by The Express as the basis for conjecture on the implications such prison conditions may have on crime. Conservative MP, Andrew Rosindell, is allowed to speculate - "If people feel it is comfortable that could even prove an incentive for some to go out and commit crime". There are several large assumptions made by Rosindell here. First, that The Express's unproven claim that Holloway prisoners consider their surroundings to be comfortable is true, despite copious, official, freely available and independent evidence to the contrary. Secondly, that if such a prison environment did exist it would create an incentive for women to commit more crime. This is clearly absurd. Two thirds of women in prison are held on remand, 59% of which subsequently receive non-custodial sentences (Home Office 2004). 35% of women in prison are incarcerated for drug offences (Prison Reform Trust 2005). The idea that mythical hotel prison conditions will contribute to an increase in women committing crime so they may luxuriate in Holloway's plush surroundings is preposterous.

The use of Rosindell, a Conservative MP for Romford, makes explicit The Express's agenda. A former member of the hard right wing Monday Club, he supports the reintroduction of capital punishment and firearm ownership. On asylum seekers, he is quoted by BBC News as saying, "we need to keep them under lock and key" (BBC Online, 15 March 2005). The Express makes overt links in their story between the representation of Holloway as an easy prison regime and the wider context of 'softtouch (sic) Britain', echoing Rosindell's and tabloid constructions of Britain as an "easy target" for asylum seekers, refugees and immigration (Cohen 2002; Conboy 2006; Kaye 1988).

2. Red, White and Cross: The Tie-Pin, the Dragon and the Prison Inspector

The second story I wish to discuss was reported in four newspapers on Tuesday 4 October; The Daily Telegraph, The Express, The Daily Mail and The Star:

A jails chief launched an astonishing attack on patriotic prison officers for wearing St George's Cross tie pins. Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers claimed England's national flag could be "misinterpreted" as a racist symbol. She gave officers furious dressing down in her report on top security Wakefield prison in West Yorkshire......Last night the PC-obsessed inspector found herself under-fire for her attack on staff at the prison, whose inmates include Soham murderer Ian Huntley.   (The Star 4 October 2005, p.9)
All four papers carried the story that HMP Wakefield prison officers, who had bought St George cross tie-pins from a cancer charity, were told to remove them by Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, as they could be misinterpreted as a racist symbol by black and ethnic minority prisoners. The story arose from the Chief Inspector of Prisons Report on HMP Wakefield (HMI 2005). The report ran to 66 pages and, as with HMP Holloway, it was based on an unannounced follow-up visit by the Inspectorate. The issue of the St George's tie-pin appeared as paragraph 2.92, on page 31 of the Report under the heading 'Race Relations' and consisted of three and a half lines. It read:
We were concerned to see a number of staff wearing a flag of St George tie-pin. While we were told that these had been bought in support of a cancer charity, there was clear scope for misinterpretation, and Prison Service Orders made clear that unauthorised badges and pins should not be worn.
Under 'Further Recommendations' in paragraph 2.94, the Report stated '(s)taff should not wear unauthorised tie pins'. And that is the only coverage the issue receives in the entire report. There were far more serious matters raised by the Inspectorate about Wakefield prison, but ignored by the press. These included over a third of prisoners being locked in their cells for most of the day because there were insufficient activity places, some prisoners spending more than 20 hours locked up on most days; only 12% of prisoners, significantly fewer than in 2003, said they could go outside for exercise more than three times a week; and that retired, elderly and infirm prisoners were still locked in their cells during the day (HMI 2005).

It is interesting that while all four papers made reference to the issue of race in their stories, only the Daily Mail constructed it as a problem for HMP Wakefield's prison regime, but it still ignored the Report's most important conclusions. These included the findings that black and minority ethnic prisoners were twice as likely to be charged with an offence against prison rules; white staff had a lack of cultural understanding of black and minority ethnic prisoners and that 'black and minority ethnic prisoners were over-represented in nearly all aspects of adjudication, the use of force and the likelihood of being held in the segregation unit' (HMI 2005: 31). The Daily Telegraph quoted the Report noting staff's lack of cultural understanding but then immediately undercut the finding by juxtaposing it with a second, uncontextualised sentence from the Report:
"......white staff had a lack of cultural understanding of their background and they were disadvantaged in systematic small ways that were not recognised". In addition, "the canteen list had an inadequate range of affordable skin and hair products for black prisoners" (The Daily Telegraph, 4 October, p.2)
The issue of skin and hair products is the last of six bullet points in paragraph 2.86 of the Report concerning the difficulties faced by black and ethnic minority prisoners, which included more fundamental problems, such as having little confidence in the complaint structure, race relations meeting or monitoring systems. The Daily Telegraph not only omits these points but chooses to trivialise issues of race by constructing the Report as prioritising questions of hair and beauty. The paper is engaged in a process of delegitimisation here. Through silences and omissions, decontextualisation and misrepresentation, the Inspectorate's Report is constructed within a discourse of "political correctness", where it appears to support the prisoner rather than the prison authority, promote prisoners' rights over those of the prison officer and, crucially, of black and ethnic minority interests over those of the white, English law-abiding citizen. This is further supported through the Daily Telegraph's use of military history to frame the meaning of the St George's cross in the last paragraph of the report. Here, it invokes national heroic tropes of Richard the Lionheart, the Royal Navy and Edward III's campaigns against the French in the 14th century.

The theme of "political correctness" is also prevalent in the other three papers reporting the story. The Star headline quoted earlier left its readers in no doubt what the central narrative concerned, and The Daily Mail constructed the story around what it called "political correctness gone mad". The use of this term, 'forms part of a self-lubricating linguistic rationale whenever interventions in equality affairs are raised' (Conboy 2006: 119), thus the questions raised in the Inspector of Prisons report about racial inequality in Wakefield prison are re-conceptualized as illegitimate concerns voiced by those who promote minority prisoners' rights and who challenge the sense of moral and national worth of the readership. This is underpinned by the use of dominant pro-prison voices who seek to further promote the "common sense" values of its readers. The Star and The Daily Mail both use Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, with Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, given only a brief reply in The Daily Mail. These preferred voices help to further shape the story as farce, supported by those reflecting the views of the readership: "This is just crazy. This woman sounds like a proper dragon" Tony Bennett, a pub landlord says in The Star, pictured draped in a union jack, fist clenched; while in the Daily Mail, 'novelist and commentator' Fredrick Forsyth says "Who, in her wildest nightmares, does Anne Owers think would be offended by this charity tiepin?".

Where a counter-position is offered, albeit briefly in The Daily Mail, it is once again delegitimised:
Richard Hutton, Chairman of the Independent Monitoring Board for Wakefield Prison, defended the Inspectors. He said 'I do not blame them. In these days of diversity we have to be very very careful'. Soham killer Ian Huntley, last week handed a 40-year tariff for murdering Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, is among inmates at Wakefield where serial killer Harold Shipman killed himself in January last year (Daily Mail, 4 October, p.9)
Notwithstanding Hutton's implication that "these days of diversity" are more about bureaucracy than a meaningful attempt at equality, his comments are then recontextualised within a discourse of dangerousness. Being "very very careful" is no longer about diversity, but about the incapacitation of violent prisoners. Here, two of Britain's most notorious prisoners are mentioned in the same sentence, suggesting that HMP Wakefield's prison population is a violent, dangerous one and that reports concerning tie-pins and racial diversity are missing the point. All four papers mention Ian Huntley and Harold Shipman, further emphasising the dangerousness of prisoners and consequently reinforcing the perceived need for the prison system. Here, prison is made to mean an institution of containment, a place to protect the public from child murderers and serial killers. The discourse around incarceration is limited to that particular kind of (very rare) prisoner. Consequently, debates around the real issues raised by the report are sidelined, replaced by ones constructed around "political correctness", dangerousness and nationhood.

What is striking about all four reports is not only that they appeared solely in the right wing press - the story did not appear in The Daily Mirror, The Guardian or The Independent for example - but also how similarly worded they were. All four carried the same statement from Prison Officer Association General Secretary, Brian Caton who is quoted as saying: "if the only problem the chief inspector found was tie-pins carrying the Cross of St George, which is after all the English national flag, then there can't be a lot wrong with Wakefield prison". They all printed virtually identical paragraphs about Huntley and Shipman being prisoners at Wakefield. The story has clearly been generated from a press release, or perhaps a local newspaper report, but it is worth considering just who would read the original 66 page report, ignoring the fundamental problems of race, staffing and prison conditions to find the three and half line paragraph about tie-pins. It is also interesting to note that the two paragraphs common to all four newspaper reports appear on internet blogs. One of these is on a website called The Cross of St George which states its rationale as "the advent of political correctness has brought with it a sense that celebrating Englishness is somehow racist while the same accusations are not levelled at the Scots, Welsh or Irish"; and the other on For Zion's Sake , whose concern is that "more and more, Muslims feel free to flex their muscles, and more and more, politicians and corporate heads cave in".

Like the story on HMP Holloway in The Express three days earlier, the tale of the St George tie-pins illustrates the misleading and re/contextualising of prison issues by the British press. The original report on which the story was based contained important findings about the racial tension and conditions inside HMP Wakefield, but was reconstructed to delegitimise criticism of the penal estate while further bolstering notions of dangerousness and risk within a thinly veiled racist discourse. One cannot also help but wonder what the agenda of the original press release or report must have been. Under what circumstances does a three and a half line paragraph in an extensive report become a national story in four daily newspapers, and one which so many pro-prison commentators and politicians were willing to comment on? Here was a story which not only isolated itself from the racial problems highlighted in the Report's findings; but also from other fundamental and clearly noted problems with the jail. I shall return to the questions of sources and agenda setting later.
3. Voodoo Style: Witchcraft, Wine and the Pagan Prisoner

On 26 September 2005, the Prison Service issued Instruction 33/2005 which served as Annex H to Chapter 1 of PSO 4550: Religion (HMPS 2005). Such Instructions are used by the Prison Service to issues directions, advice and information to the UK's prison system (HMPS 1998). Prison Service Instruction 33/2005 provided 'guidance on the faith requirements for Pagan prisoners'(HMPS 2005: 1), in line with its other guidelines on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The guidelines explained the organisation and belief system of Paganism, outlining procedures for worship, which included the wearing of ceremonial hoodless robes and the sipping of wine under the guidance of a priest, the latter akin to similar practices in Christianity. The Instruction also noted that tarot cards could be used, subject to am ongoing risk assessment.
The Daily Mail, on Tuesday 18 October, ran a three quarter page story on page 7 which began:
Prisoners are to be allowed to set up altars in their cells for use in witchcraft ceremonies. They will be free to drink wine once a week under the guidance of a pagan priest. And they can burn incense, keep a twig as a wand, Tarot cards, rune stones and wear hoodless robes and religious jewellery.
The headline was backed by a photograph of a hooded figure in a red cloak, their face covered, arms outstretched with another man reading from a book, also in a cloak. In the foreground were two candelabras and silver cups. The photograph, which appeared to have been taken from a film occupied a third of the entire page.

Early on in the story, the Daily Mail makes its leap from the original source to its preferred discourse for the story: '(l)ast year, a Royal Navy sailor was given the right to carry out Satanic rituals and worship the devil aboard the frigate HMS Cumberland'. The story of Chris Cranmer, a Royal Navy technician on the Cumberland is used to bind the photographic image, which dominates the article, to a discourse around evil. Thus, religious equality and freedom for prisoners is reconstructed in a discourse of prisoners as Satanic, highly dangerous and outside conventional (Christian) society. By drawing parallels with the HMS Cumberland story, twelve months previously, the story attempts to re/present Satanism as a clear and present threat, spreading rapidly through Britain's prisons.

The Daily Mail also drew upon the St. George's cross story it ran the previous week, which enabled a reiteration of its arguments about the "political correctness" of the Inspectorate, but also sought to highlight the hypocrisy in the Home Office. The article suggests that the swastika may now be used in pagan ceremonies, implying there is a pro-prisoner and anti-prison officer bias at work in the Home Office. The question of the swastika is used inaccurately by the paper here, using half the sentence, out of context. The Daily Mail quoted the Prison Service Instruction thus:
The rules on paganism, however, state that prisoners may use 'religious symbols which resemble those used by some groups with racist tendencies'. The racist groups, the rules say, are not connected to paganism. It is thought the swastika, revered by some pagan worshippers, may now be used in jail ceremonies. (Daily Mail, 18 October 2005, p.7)
The Prison Service Instruction actually says:
It should be noted that some Pagan religious symbols may also resemble those used by some groups with racist tendencies. These are not connected to Paganism. (HMPS 2005: 4)
Notice here how the article uses inference and conjecture to rework the facts into its story. The Instruction says nothing explicit about a swastika anywhere in the report, nor does it state that prisoners "may use" such symbols. The Daily Mail has added these words and presumed the swastika's presence in pagan ceremonies; it also adopts the phrase "it is thought" to add credence to its unsubstantiated supposition. The Instruction, which provided guidelines to inform prisons about Pagan religious practices is described by the Daily Mail as "the rules on paganism' (my emphasis), inferring a much more prescriptive and regulatory tone to the Instruction than is actually there. Consequently, the addition of the swastika to the story allows the paper to represent prison as a liberal regime presiding over Devil-worshipping, racist prisoners, while those attempting to contain them - the prison staff - are not allowed to wear a "harmless" St. George Cross tie pin. The good and evil battle, so often the foundation in crime stories (Chibnall 1977; Cohen 2002; Mason 2003; Reiner 2002; Reiner et al. 2003) is unambiguously presented here too.

Part two will be published tomorrow

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