The Blog

Ban of Solitary Confinement and Autonomy for Governors

In January 2016, President Obama announced reforms following his visit to a prison in July, 2015. Obama explained "how can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?" (Eilperin, 2016). The new rules mean that the longest a prisoner can be punished with solitary confinement for a first offence is 60 days. The reforms are part of a broader criminal justice reform initiative that was ordered the Justice Department in the United States to study how solitary confinement was being used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The ban of solitary confinement and autonomy for governors are ways that nations could comply and implement new international legislation called the Nelson Mandela Rules.

A few days later, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced prison reforms, following his visit to a prison in England. Cameron explained in his speech that "current levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm should shame us all". The approach by Cameron is to introduce a range of policy changes which will affect the work of governors, education in prisons and tagging for offenders. A review will investigate whether female offenders with babies could be dealt with by special problem solving courts, housed in resettlement units or be electronically tagged rather than going into prison.

The ban of solitary confinement and autonomy for governors are initiatives from the United States and England. The political leaders from both countries have visited prisons and used this to announce changes to the conditions of prisons. In December 2015, the United Nations ratified new prison rules which will be a new framework for monitoring and assessing the treatment of prisoners. The Nelson Mandela Rules have revised eight key areas. These are covered within a guide from Penal Reform International:

To respect prisoners dignity

Make the medical and health services state responsibility

Limit disciplinary measures and sanction including solitary confinement

Investigate deaths and torture in prison

Prison need to identify the individual needs of prisoner, including vulnerable populations

Prisoners should have access to complaints measures

Practitioners working in prisons should have ongoing training.

Access to legal representation

The Nelson Mandela rules could be significant with changing the conditions for prisoners including bans to solitary confinement and autonomy for governors. The reforms announced by President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron, used politics to explain their changes to prison conditions. There has been virtually no publicity about the Nelson Mandela Rules which state that all nations should be reforming their prison conditions. The changes announced in the United States and England, have not involved the knowledge, views or expertise from researchers, practitioners or prisoners. While many prison reformers and organisations have responded to the announcements made by David Cameron, there is a need for co-ordinated and well informed debates which have the potential to provide evidence of the violation of international legislation.

A major stumbling block for criminologists who are experts in issues relating to imprisonment relates is how findings from their research can engage with public life in order to inform better ways of doing things. Criminologists who have considered how researchers and experts can inform public debates however there is disagreement in the academic community about how research should be used to support practitioners. A problem for the use of research is that the political culture heats up issues relating to the criminal justice system so that politicians have to condemn offenders and justify the existence of prisons as a form of punishment (Loader and Sparks, 2010). Evidence of this political response can be seen in the announcements from President Obama in the United States and the Prime Minister in England. Both leaders have been photographed in prisons and the following publicity mainly uses the official state response or the response from organisations involved with prison reform. There are many experts who support government officials or reform organisations from the academic community. These experts are researching prisons, areas for improvement and issues relating to the complexity of supporting people involved in the criminal justice system. This research has to varying degrees involved finding out the views from prisoners involved with the criminal justice system.

Research has investigated how researchers and practitioners can empower people who are affected on a daily basis by the issues highlighted by the political leaders in the United States and England. The problem is the usefulness of research and there is no agreement about how international standards can be translated and accepted by local populations. If a range of organisations, practitioners, academics where informed about international standards, then there could be potential for ensuring their country complies and implement international rules which protect the human rights of people from marginalized populations. The intention of research for women in prison will be to provide information, research and evidence that can be used by a range of practitioners, researchers or others interested in issues relating to imprisonment.

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