'Coercive confinement' concept needs to be examined


The debate on levels of imprisonment must look at historical practice, writes IAN O’DONNELL

THERE ARE two indications that the criminological pulse is beating steadily. First, the subject has established a presence across the educational sector.

In the mid-1990s, Queen’s University Belfast was the only place on the island where criminology degrees could be taken. Today, teaching programmes are offered, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, in at least half a dozen universities and institutes of technology.

The second indicator of a discipline that is beginning to thrive is the emergence of a literature that grounds key criminological concerns in an Irish context.

Until very recently, anyone attempting to teach in the area had to rely on textbooks from Britain and the US that were of dubious relevance, whatever their quality.

This situation has been transformed and the work of Irish academics is being published by the leading presses and in the top journals. When searching for teaching materials it is now possible to draw upon a body of work that is sensitive to the importance of local factors.

Scholars who are working with conceptual tools that have been designed for different jobs might see interesting shapes emerge when they apply them to a new task and they turn out to be unfit for purpose. The products of such industry provide important material for rethinking the relationships between the subject of our inquiry, the approach we take to explore it, our interpretation of the findings, and their wider implications.

To give an example of what I mean by this, let us consider how we might investigate whether Ireland has taken what criminologists describe as a “punitive turn” in the same way as other countries with which it shares a language and legal tradition, such as New Zealand, England and Wales and the US.

The conventional way to answer this question is to use the average daily prison population as a proxy for punitiveness, to plot it and to examine if it is going up or down.

Adopting this approach suggests that the question must be answered emphatically in the affirmative: since 1980 the numbers in prison have almost quadrupled. This upward trend might be read as a clear indication that the country has turned in a more punitive direction.

However, if we take account of those sentenced prisoners who are on temporary release in the community because there is no space in the prisons for them, and factor in also a significant growth in the remand population and the number of foreign nationals held in prison pending deportation, the upswing looks less steep.

When we also make allowances for inward migration and population growth, it becomes evident that the level of sentenced prisoners was almost the same in the mid-1990s as it was at the mid-point of the current decade.

The overall increase during this period is explained, in other words, not by increased punitiveness but by a programme of prison building that removed a prior capacity constraint, an inappropriate use of prisons for failed asylum seekers waiting to be sent home, a lot more people living in the country and an increase in the number of remands in custody.

It is only in the last three or four years that there has been a real increase in the level of sentenced prisoners. This has been dramatic – by my estimate the rate has jumped by almost one third. This striking development and the reasons for it get lost when the overall trajectory in terms of prisoner numbers is not subjected to careful scrutiny.

Things get even more complicated when we pay attention to other forms of what might be described as “coercive confinement”. Eoin O’Sullivan of Trinity College Dublin and myself have attempted such an analysis.

We conceive of coercive confinement broadly, including not only the formal sites of incarceration that are normally associated with the criminal justice system (prisons, borstal, reformatory schools), but also psychiatric hospitals, homes for unmarried mothers and various residential institutions where children were placed by the courts, ostensibly for protection rather than punishment.

These latter sites are not usually counted when discussing levels of incarceration. By including them, we see that the numbers held in captivity were far greater in the relatively recent past than they are today.

In addition, current conditions of confinement – while often deplorable – pale when set against the degradations of the not too long ago. Adopting this perspective, it is not going too far to say that there has been a significant reduction in the “captive” population. This is coupled with a reduction in the casual disregard for the quality of life of vulnerable citizens that characterised the first half- century of the Irish State.

There are no more pregnant women locked away for fear of scandal, children are not institutionalised on account of their poverty and a more parsimonious approach is taken to psychiatric hospitalisation. The rate of coercive confinement today is a fraction of what it was in the 1950s. It is only the prison that has seen a surge in numbers.

If we could make the shift from thinking in terms of “imprisonment” to thinking in terms of “coercive confinement”, we would view changes in the penal realm differently. This has obvious implications for research, policy and practice and it would be interesting to see how trends in other jurisdictions might be reinterpreted were a similar exercise to be attempted.

This is not to argue that we should be complacent about the recent upward drift in prisoner numbers. This requires serious – and urgent – attention if it is to be reversed.

Finally, as regards the future of the discipline of criminology, I believe that green shoots are very much in evidence. While the funding environment poses significant challenges. there are grounds for proceeding with cautious optimism.

Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at UCD. This is an edited version of a keynote address given in Belfast at the sixth Irish Criminology Conference.