Tuesday 11. August 2020
#153 - October 2012


Re-imagining imprisonment in Europe


The prison system is challenged in Europe because it is been unhelpful in promoting offenders’ reintegration into society. Alternatives to prison are very much needed.


In the EU there are over 650.000 people in prison, a formidable figure, but still low if we compare the data from the Russian Federation (722,200) and Ukraine (153,318). Thus we find more than 1.8 million people serving in prisons in the continent as a whole. Within the EU itself, the states with most prison inmates are the United Kingdom (97,079), Poland (84,103) and Spain (69,702). The total number of people in prison is therefore enormous and by itself indicates that something has gone drastically wrong in our societies.


Another relevant indicator is the proportion of prisoners within populations as a whole. The EU country with the highest ratio is Poland (220 per 100.000), followed by the Czech Republic (218) and Slovakia (203); at the other end of the scale we find Finland (59), Slovenia (64) and Sweden (70). By way of external comparison, the rates in China is either 121 or 170 depending on the method of calculation, and the rate in the USA is a staggering 730. Such figures give an insight about different approaches towards imprisonment and punishment. In general, those states with lower prison populations have developed alternative programmes, which tend to facilitate the social reintegration of offenders.


Although security is a member-state competence within the EU, the European Commission acknowledges that ‘A lack of confidence in the effectiveness of fundamental rights in the Member States when they implement Union law would hinder the operation and strengthening of cooperation instruments in the area of freedom, security and justice’. Even more important, as the Commission recalls in its Green Paper on the application of EU criminal justice legislation in the field of detention (2011), the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that ‘unacceptable detention conditions can constitute a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights’.


In view of this troubling situation, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Dublin, organised from 5 to 7 September 2012 an international conference, with the challenging title of "Re-imagining imprisonment in Europe". The conference brought together academics, civil servants and practitioners including criminologists, psychologists, chaplains and volunteer prison visitors. A group of ex-prisoners joined other volunteers assisting at the conference, offering a kind of experiential check on the positions taken in debate.


One striking point, on which there was broad consensus, is the conviction, corroborated with extensive data, about the futility of prison considered as a means to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders. Evidence shows that more than 60% of prisoners reoffend. Certainly imprisonment is a mode of punishment but it it's not capable of promoting personal change. The fact of social stigma, the lack of appropriate programme resources, together with the fact of prison overcrowding, all render rehabilitation more difficult. The contrary effect is more evident: people in prison - specially young adults - are more likely tend to orientate their lives towards crime after imprisonment. Just as important, if people return from prison to their previous social environment, and remain without access to jobs, their chance of reformation is slender. Only those countries that have developed alternative systems focusing on education, labour skills and family and community integration have made prisons less necessary.


Another striking conclusion of the conference is that imprisonment rates and security from crime do not positively correlate: nor do low rates of imprisonment make a country less secure. Thus Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Finland, showed how that country’s development of alternative programmes has enormously reduced the number of prisoners while not affecting crime statistics.


As Professor Andrew Coyle, himself a former prison governor, recalled in the final session, Christians have long been engaged in reforms that sought to minimise the element of revenge in prison systems and to promote the possibility of rehabilitation. Today many Christian groups are involved in promoting restorative justice as a mean to bring together offenders and victims and, in a complex and careful process, facilitate both the healing of victims and the reform of offenders.


José Ignacio García


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