Prisons, Punishment and Detention Working Group

This working group was officially launched at Liverpool John Moores University in March 2013 on the occasion of its very first ‘Sites of Confinement’ conference.

A short book, bringing together papers from the conference, was published in October 2014, coinciding with the working group’s second conference: ‘Sites of Confinement II’.  Two papers from this latter conference, as well as a conference report,  were published in our December 2014 newsletter.

For more information, contact the working group coordinator

Working Group Coordinator: Simone Santorso, Robert jones

The Group’s working manifesto, adopted in April 2013 is as follows:

1. This European working group provides a network and database for teachers, researchers, students and activists across Europe (and beyond) who have an interest studying prisons, detention and punishment. The working group will provide an opportunity to share our knowledge of sites of confinement and the operation of the penal rationale and help establish new links with activists and academics worldwide who critically engage with the current forms, extent and nature of detention and punishment. The working group will thus provide an opportunity to connect local campaigns with a wider global network through which we can collectively provide solidarity and support. The working group also aims to foster a greater understanding of contemporary penality; offer possibilities for collaborative research; and work towards emancipatory change. We recognise that, since the inception of the confinement project in the eighteenth century, the boundaries between different sites of detention have become increasingly blurred: prisons house foreign nationals and recalcitrant mental health patients; high security hospitals hold the ‘criminally insane’; immigration centres are run like prisons. The working group is committed to the abolition of penal confinement and other sites of involuntary detention. We also aim to challenge the logic and assumptions of the penal rationale and propose the development of non-repressive means of handling social problems and conflicts.

 2.      In many countries around the world there has been a proliferation in sites of confinement.  More than ten million people are confined in prisons and many millions more are housed in other forms of detention.  However, the rise of global hyper-incarceration and the analytical frameworks that underscore its assumptions have been challenged by a growing number of academics in their teaching and research, and by social workers, anti-prison activists, social justice-inspired social movements, members of the radical penal lobby, progressive members of the public, socialist politicians and students. An increasing number of organisations all around the globe are now directly challenging hyper-incarceration.  The European working group aims to contribute to the development of abolitionist and anti-prison activism and to highlight the limitations of the current application of confinement.  We acknowledge that the mobilisation of grass roots activists is absolutely necessary for any sustained radical transformation of current penal and social realities.

 3.      The working group aims to encourage members to formulate intellectual interventions and direct activism that can systematically expose the brutal realities of detention, penal confinement and community punishments and facilitate a reduction in the stigmatising effects and collateral consequences of the application of the penal rationale.  We recognise that it is essential that the experiences and voices of detainees are given a platform to air their views and that the brutal and inhumane realities of sites of confinement are brought to the attention of the wider public and those in positions of power.  The working group supports the rights of activists and citizens, including those sections of the voluntary sector that are pursuing social justice and penal reductionism, to pursue their goals without domination by governmental or profit-making interests.

 4.      The working group prioritises the critical scrutiny of the justifications of the punitive rationale; punishment in the community, semi-penal institutions and probation hotels; and the wider moral and political contexts of the deliberate infliction of pain. The justification of detention of people in the interests of others should be critically scrutinised and located within its given social, economic, political and moral context. This does not mean we believe that nothing should be done, or that all forms of detention or deprivation of liberty are necessarily unjustified (especially those forms of detention provided for the best interests of the detainee), but rather that imprisonment and many forms of detention are an illegitimate response to wrongdoing, social harms and social problems.  Sites of confinement fail to uphold human rights, meet the demands of social justice or provide transparent or accountable forms of state governance.  The increasing reliance upon involuntary detention, prisons and other forms of detainment in recent times also draws attention to its very real threat to democracy.   All forms of detention have faced consistently high death rates and intentional self-injury; institutionalisation and disculturalisation; bullying and sexual violence; staff moral indifference; institutionalised racism; masculinist hierarchies of power; and broader vulnerabilities to systemic abuses through torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.  What the different institutions also seem to share is an historical broad inability to satisfy the duty of care owed to those who they detain.  We acknowledge also that detainees are predominantly poor, in bad physical and mental health, unemployed, and badly educated.  It is the less fortunate, vulnerable and needy who are disproportionately detained and this draws direct connections with the need for a more socially just world.

 5.      The organisation of the European working group on prisons, detention and punishment is undertaken by a steering group that will consist of at least the following: a working group coordinator; the coordinator of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control; the secretary of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control.  Members of the working group may also be invited to join a steering group.   The working group will meet every year at the annual conference of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control and members are encouraged to organise other events, meetings and conferences throughout the calendar year to help generate ideas, networks and direct interventions.  Such events may be full meetings for the whole working group or specially convened meetings of local activists in one given region / nation.   A separate mailing list will be maintained and other European Group media sources, such as facebook, youtube, twitter and crim-space, will be used to disseminate information about the working group and its activities.  The working group coordinator will be elected at the European Group annual conference and full details of the membership of the working group will be detailed on our website

 6.      Members of the working group are committed to the reversal of the proliferation of sites of confinement and the utilisation of strategies drawing upon direct action and abolitionist praxis to facilitate radical penal and social transformations.  Though strategies of engagement will vary from place to place depending upon local circumstances, we believe that to achieve our aims we must propose a number of direct interventions that are feasible here and now and that can exploit contradictions in the operation of penal power.  We call for the following general interventions as a means to facilitate a long-term and radical reduction in the populations of those detained in sites of confinement.

 i)      An international moratorium on building new sites of confinement (prisons / asylums / immigration centres) and on the allocation of existing buildings and spaces as locations of involuntary detention

 ii)     An end to the privatisation of sites of confinement and the insidious expansion of the carceral state via the voluntary and private sector

 iii)    A detailed and critical interrogation of existing state detention, followed by a systematic call for governments to close the most inhumane, degrading and torturous sites of confinement without opening new houses of detention

iv)     A virtual end to pre-trial detention and the abolishment of the antiquated notion of bail except for those who present a serious threat to society

v)     The safeguarding and expansion of the legal rights of detainees. Post incarceration ex-detainees must be recognised as full citizens and given full and uninhibited access to employment, housing, other social and financial   services and full access to political and civil society

vi)    The decriminalisation of victimless and harmless acts, such as alcoholism, deviant sexualities between consenting adults, substance misuse and drug taking.  The criminalisation of sex workers (who are often from working class backgrounds) is harmful and victimising and we propose alternative responses that protect and prioritise the safety of the men and women who engage in this work

vii)   The decriminalisation of infringements of migration laws

viii)  To raise the age of criminal responsibility in all countries in the world to the age of at least 16

ix)   To divert people with mental health problems, learning disabilities, severe physical disabilities, the profoundly deaf and people with suicidal ideation from the criminal process whilst at the same time ensuring any       alternative interventions are both ‘in place’ of a penal sanction and are not merely forms of ‘trans-incarceration’ to other sites of confinement

x)     To immediately remove those people most vulnerable to the inherent harms and pains of confinement from places of detention

xi)    To formulate and advocate radical alternatives to the criminal process and social injustices for individual and social harms that are feasible and could be implemented immediately or within a short period of time

xii)  To propose that all governments prioritise meeting human need, recognising common humanity and facilitating social justice as the most effective means of preventing / dealing with human troubles, conflicts and   problematic conduct