Saturday, 22 May 2010

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

This discourse of evil: the swastika reference, the large colour photograph of the shadowy hooded figure and mention of Devil worship, permeates the article. The use of the word 'witchcraft', for example which appears in the headline is justified by the implication that it is interchangeable with one type of pagan religion, Wicca. The story only mentions the word once, but fails to acknowledge that the Wiccan sense of 'witchcraft' is far removed from the stereotypical representation in popular culture of pointed hats, spells, broomsticks and evil (Gardner 2004; Howe 2005; Newton 1994). Thus again, we find a story about prison bearing a headline which has little to do with what's written below it. There is also further speculation in the news report which underpins the Daily Mail's discourse of malevolent and wicked prisoners. The Instruction notes that paganism take many forms, including 'Afro-Caribbean religions practised in the Americas' (HMPS 2005 5) which the Daily Mail chooses to interpret as 'an apparent reference to voodoo'. Here the paper both reduces a whole range of Afro-diasporic religious traditions to simply 'voodoo' (Dorsey 2006); and supports the cultural stereotype of such religious practices (Parish 2005), through conflations with evil, the devil and so on. Consequently, the ideological practice of the Daily Mail here constructs the UK's prisoners as inherently 'evil', beyond redemption and undeserving of rights.

The Daily Mail's position here permits speculative comments which spiral further and further away from the original source. The story shifts from the facts about the Home Office recognising the rights of pagan prisoners, to a position where paganism is fixed within a tropes of devil worship, witchcraft and voodoo. In the latter part of the article, this new position enables privileged voices, such as that of Colin Hart, of the Christian Institute to say. "Prisoners ought to be steered away from these beliefs. Involvement with the occult is associated with obsession and depression. There may well be links between Satanism and child abuse". It is unclear what evidence or authority Mr Hart has for making either of these claims and the Daily Mail chooses not to offer any. This is the language of fear stripped of context and reason, and as Altheide has suggested:
the constant use of fear pervades crises and normal times: it becomes part of the taken-for-granted word of "how things are," and one consequence is that it begins to influence how we perceive and talk about everyday life, including mundane as well as significant events. This produces a discourse of fear, the pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of everyday life. Tracking this discourse shows that fear pervades our popular culture and is influencing how we view events and experience. (Altheide 2003: 37)
Colin Hart is one of several people used in the article to support the discourses of fear and danger that Altheide talks about, but also one of several Christian sources quoted. The Rev. David Philips is the first of three, and is used to underline the notion of a proliferation of harmful religious rituals: "we have deep reservations about the spread of these practices" he is reported as saying. This 'spread' appears also to be misleading. In keeping with the HMP Holloway story, which moved from a the specific comment of one prisoner to a general one about the prisoner population and the prison regime as a whole, the Daily Mail make little of the statistic buried in the middle of the article that 'there are currently 205' prisoners registered as pagan. This represents less than 0.01% of Britain's 89,376 prisoners.

There are two other groups used here who regularly appear in pro-prison stories. The first is the Prison Officers' Association (POA), who are also quoted in the St George tie pin story discussed earlier. In this article, Colin Moses, their national chairman describes the recognition of paganism as "nonsensical and damaging political correctness". Monitoring of prison stories in the news reveals the presence of the POA as a regular source (Gross et al. 2006), and would suggest an increasingly professionalised media relations strategy by the POA, as Schlesinger and Tumber have previously noted (1994). This also exemplifies the emergence of specialised media professionals in criminal justice agencies, such as the police (Mawby 2002). As Leishman and Mason suggest, "(i)n our mass-mediated society, the police in common with most organizations in the public and private sectors, increasingly view information and news management as being of crucial strategic importance" (Leishman and Mason 2003: 35). More broadly, it reflects the well-documented transformation of contemporary journalism towards a processing of news releases and agency releases, rather than a gathering of the news. News agenda are both shaped and narrowed by press releases, changes in industrial relations and a crisis in profitability (see for example Davis 2000; Franklin 2006; Franklin and Turk 1987).

Alongside the POA, a further regular source used in prison stories is the seemingly ubiquitous voice of Norman Brennan of the Victims of Crime Trust. Brennan, a serving police officer, heads an organisation which consists of only three permanent staff, of which he is one ( Yet he is given the opportunity to comment on pagan prisoners by the Daily Mail: "We've lost our way in the prisons. You have to ask if this nonsense is going to persuade one burglar to stop stealing when he leaves jail". Undoubtedly particular groups are being given what Chibnall (1977) refers to as "structured access" to the media in prison stories such as these. Christian, pro-prison and pro-victim groups are used to legitimise the newspaper's speculative tone about the Prison Service Instruction on religion. In contrast, there remains a deafening silence from prison reform, abolition and/or prisoners' rights groups. I shall return to this further below.
4. Con Air: High Danger in Britain's Skies

On Monday 26 October, the Scottish Executive published the HM Inspectorate of Prisons' Report on the Open Estate (HMI 2005b) on its website. It was a 52 page report about a range of prison issues - population, security, management, prisoner health and so on - pertaining to the two low-security Category D prisons in Scotland: Castle Huntly and Noranside, collectively known as The Open Estate. These prisons are intended to provide 'employment training and transitional/through-care for prisoners working towards a structured reintegration into society' (SPS 2006). In section 8 of the Report, titled "Care", the issues around home leave for prisoners were discussed. The report expressed concern that prisoners received only £7 to cover the expenses incurred in their three days of leave, which put a great financial pressure on the prisoners' families. It suggested 'a realistic payment should be made to prisoners to meet the expenses incurred during Home Leaves'(HMI 2005b: 35). The subsequent paragraph in the Report discussed the further difficulties for prisoners visiting their families:
While for most travel is relatively straight forward, some travel to the South of England. SPS only arranges and pays for bus or train travel - not budget airlines which can offer significant savings in time and money. If prisoners choose to use the airline option for long journeys, some might be disadvantaged as it is their families who are required to book and pay for such travel. The reason given is that the Prison does not have a credit card which is necessary for such airline bookings. All prisoners should have equal access to the most appropriate travel arrangements. (HMI 2005b: 35)
Thus, the Report sought to draw attention to prisoners needing increased financial support for home leave; and consequently the disadvantages that the Scottish Prison Service faced in being unable to offer the often cheaper and quicker option of them using budget airlines for such visits.

The day after the report, The Express ran the following story:
Inmates from Scottish jails should travel home to visit their families on budget airlines, says a prison watchdog. The move could see families and lone women travellers unknowingly squeezed said by side with convicted murderers, rapists and other serious offenders on budget flights across the UK. (The Daily Express, 27 October, p. 4)
Like the stories I have previously discussed, The Express report is grossly misleading, and also untrue. The Report on the Open Estate does not say that prisoners should use budget airlines to travel home, but points out the difficulties if prisoners were to use this option. The Report also notes, just one page previously, that assessment for home leave is both rigorous and frequent (HMI 2005b). The prisoners at Castle Huntly and Noranside are in open prisons, at the end of their sentences and the home leave scheme is part of re-establishing links with the community. The Express chooses to ignore this fact, instead relying once again on a discourse of fear and dangerousness around a notion of vulnerable victims ("families and lone women travellers") on a plane full of "convicted murderers, rapists and other serious offenders". Such a scenario owes more to the Hollywood film Con Air (dir. Simon West, 1997) than it does to reality. The Express article is also deceptive in its suggestion that the Scottish Prison Service are 'allowing them (prisoners) free flights' without noting, as the Report states, that bus and train travel for home visits is already paid for by the Prison Service, and thus flights would be simply an alternative. I would suggest that The Express here is fixing its report within a familiar discourse of prisons-as-holiday-camps, using the notion of "free flights" and "budget airlines" to construct (dangerous) prisoners as being given privileges they do not warrant by a soft-touch regime out of kilter with public opinion.

Indeed, The Express article supplements the discourse of threat through explicit statements about escape, lax security and lenient regimes. It juxtaposes the Report's statement on home leave with a comment about drugs:
(The Report states that) "All prisoners should have equal access to the most appropriate travel arrangements. The indepth report also reveals drugs are a major problem in both open prisons" (The Express 27 October, p.4)
While drug use is clearly a problem in the Open Estate, The Express makes an overt link between such practices and the rights of prisoners to visit their families. Here, the paper's stance substantiates Christie's contention that States, including the UK, who profess to wage "a war on drugs", construct the drug user and dealer as the least useful but most dangerous members of society. Such people are perceived as 'both as social junk and dynamite' (Christie 2000: 73), and consequently, a threat to society that need to be incarcerated. This narrow representation of prisoner as worthless / menace further solidifies The Express's discourse of dangerousness and risk in their report. In subsequent paragraphs, the story continued to reiterate this position, noting the number of absconsions and failures to return by prisoners at the two jails.

The story ends with a quotes from both Ryanair and Easyjet, a spokesperson from the latter is quoted as saying '(t) he safety of passengers and crew is paramount and we will be looking into the implications of this'. As I have illustrated in previous stories above, the use of such quotes are based upon speculation but give the impression of a current and immediate problem. This correlation between prisoners' rights, security, fear and dangerousness confirms my contention that prison stories in the press are, in the majority, fundamentally misleading, inaccurate and often false.

I have offered only four stories here, and it may appear that such an examination is no less partial than the reports I have analysed. Clearly, not every report about prison is misleading: The Guardian in particular frequently reports on the problems with Britain's prisons, its prison correspondent Eric Allison and columnist Erwin James have long campaigned for fundamental changes to the prison estate. However, the constructions of prison and prisoners in the news based upon misleading and often false information located within pro-prison discourse built around fear and dangerousness are commonplace in the British press (Gross et al. 2006; Jewkes 2006; Russell 2005; Solomon 2006). I have chosen these four stories from October 2005 as a mere snapshot, but there were several others in that month's newspapers alone: recently released prisoner John Hirst's victory in the European Court of Human Rights, granting prisoners the right to vote was reported in The Daily Mail as KILLER WINS VOTE FOR PRISONERS (7 October 2005, p6); the decision to increase eligibility for home detention curfew from those with four and a half months left on their sentence to those with six months remaining was reported on the front page of The Times under the headline TIME IN JAIL MAY BE SLASHED FOR PRISONERS, reporting that 'thousands of prisoners will be released' (my emphasis, 13 October 2005, p.1) despite the number being around 1,000 and no decision having been reached. Most recently, the government's Community Payback initiative is constructed by the Daily Mail as '60,000 WILL BE SPARED PRISON' (10 February 2006, p.12) while the next day The Express reported on a satellite TV being installed at HMP Ashworth:
" payers' money was ploughed into providing free satellite TV for Moors murderer Ian Brady. The move, costing thousands of pounds, will see some of the country's most dangerous mentally ill prisoners watch Premiership football and Hollywood films"  (The Express, 11 February 2006, p. 5)
And so it goes on.

We should of course, not be surprised. The examples I have given come largely from the tabloid press which, as Sparks notes 'devotes relatively little time attention to political processes, economic developments, and society and relatively much to the personal and private lives of people' (Sparks 2000: 10) but nor should such reports be dismissed or excused as mere knock-about farce operating outside the mainstream news arena. The manner in which prison and prisoners are constructed by the British press and by representations in wider popular culture plays a crucial role in public comprehension of prisons and punishment and, I would argue, in government policy. The relationship between public opinion and the media has always been highly contentious and widely argued and I do not propose to repeat the arguments in any detail here . However, recent British Crime Surveys have revealed that the public are unacquainted with numerous aspects of the criminal justice system (Chapman et al. 2002) and rely on the media for their information. Importantly, the Survey has reported that just 6% of the public consider their principal source of information to be inaccurate (Levenson 2001). This is particularly pertinent to prisons, where punishment remains hidden from public view and scrutiny. In this space between the reality of prison and public ignorance about it, lie the journalist and the media. Press discourses of prison therefore become a potent opinion shaper and former for the public. I would also suggest, in keeping with Mathiesen's arguments I noted earlier (1995; 2000; 2001; 2003) that the media are a key driver in government policy towards prison, where successive criminal justice measures have been built upon ostentatious punitive display (Garland 2001; Pratt 2002): highly visible and pre-packaged for media consumption such as the government's latest apparent shift away from its reliance on prison towards non-custodial sentences (Home Office 2006). These new measures of unpaid work in the community are to remain highly conspicuous: "visibly yes, because it is important that the community sees that payback is happening" explained Home Secretary Charles Clarke on the BBC's Today programme, 9 February 2006.

I would suggest, however, that in relation to prison, public opinion may well be irrelevant in this apparent triangulation between press, public and State. That while in a liberal democracy the State must be seen to reflect public opinion in its criminal justice policy, in reality that opinion is largely one constructed by, and represented in the printed press and other media. Lewis et al.'s findings would seem to also support this contention. In their study of US and UK television news over a five month period, they found that '95% of the claims about citizens or public opinion contain no supporting evidence' (Lewis et al. 2005: 135) and that engagement with citizens by the news media remained superficial. I am arguing then that misleading and inaccurate stories which construct prison and prisoners as high risk, dangerous, evil and beyond redemption, coupled with a crime-saturated news environment not only bolsters support for a government policy built upon mass incarceration, but constructs public opinion as overtly supporting it too.

This process in which news reports, purportedly on behalf of the public, shape government policy on prisons is clearly a complex process, and one I do not have the space to discuss in detail here. I must however deal briefly with two points raised by other writers on this process. First, Mick Ryan has argued that '(s)imply de-constructing individual moral panics and chastising opportunistic politicians and red top editors like Rebekah Wade of The Sun no longer has sufficient explanatory potential' (Ryan 2006: 32). He argues that mass education and the growth of the information society, illustrate the possibility for social movements to offer a "communicative rationality" in the public sphere of penology. I would like to believe this is the case: that groups such as No More Prison and Critical Resistance provide a crucial counter-discourse to government penal policy. It is certainly the case that the work in which Ryan has been an important contributor - the deaths in custody group, Inquest and the prison abolition movement Radical Alternatives To Prison had some notable successes (Ryan 1978; 1983) However, I think such victories have to be located within a much larger socio-political reality, which remains one wedded to mass incarceration bolstered by a powerful pro-prison media.

Secondly, David Garland has argued that to talk of a press-driven criminal justice policy implies that the journalists simply conjure up public opinion without reference to what is actually happening at the time: a position he suggests rather simplifies the press/public nexus and one which ignores the numerous sources of prison information which exist (Garland 2001). Notwithstanding Lewis et al.'s findings noted above which offer evidence of exactly the kind of journalistic practice which Garland is sceptical of, it is the kinds of "public" voices which are incorporated into news stories about prison that I would argue are problematic. Here, I find Hall et al's primary definer thesis persuasive.

Hall et al's have argued that structured and hierarchical access to the news by elite groups, serves to define particular media discourses, which, translated into a "public idiom" resonate with the news audience (Hall et al. 1978). Thus, journalistic practice of meeting deadlines and notions of reporting objectively and accurately, create an over-reliance on 'those in powerful and privileged institutional positions' (Hall et al. 1978: 58). Criticisms of the thesis have been widely published (see for example Greenberg 2004; Miller et al. 1999; Schlesinger 1990). Among other things, they question the coherence and homogeneity of elite groups; note occasions when the media challenge the primary definers; and the openness of journalists to marginalised groups . I do accept the difficulties in the argument noted by the likes of Greenberg, Miller and Schlesinger, but in all four of the stories I have discussed, the newspapers offer very few interventions in the debate from prisoner's rights movement, dissenting political voices or even the Home Office itself. Meanwhile, it is the "expert" legitimating function of dominant pro-prison voices that are used to represent public opinion - whether constructed as the "common sense" view that prisoners should not be allowed to visit their families using affordable air travel; or "political correctness gone made" in seeking religious and racial equality. These preferred voices - the Conservative MP, the Prison Officers Association, the pub landlord, the victim support group spokesperson - primarily define the public opinion on prison here. Further, they seek to legitimise the newspaper's position of misinforming, mythologising and distorting the aim and role of the UK prison system: examples of yet more harsh sentences directed at Britain's prisoners.


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