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Penal-welfarism in Ireland

escThis year’s European Society of Criminology Conference was held in the beautiful city of Ljubljana, Slovenia. I spoke there in a session with Anton Symkoviych who spoke about power relations in a Ukranian prison and Dr. Anja Dirkzwager who, along with her colleague Prof Candace Kruttschnitt, told us about their re-examination of the classic Contrasts in Tolerance by David Downes.

My own paper examined the nature of penal-welfarism in Ireland. I argue that we need to look at the concept, its tenets and underlying conditions more closely. Penal-welfarism now has a kind of “everybody knows” quality to it. However, there has been far more engagement with The Culture of Control than Garland’s earlier work Punishment and Welfare. The latter, in my view, is much more methodologically impressive, involving close attention to policy documents and the discourse of policy-makers.

Penal-welfarism is re-examined in The Culture of Control and, perhaps because it is presented in a much more accessible and summarised format, it is its discussion of the concept which has received greatest attention. In my view, however, we need to subject our theorising about penal change to the level of scrutiny provided in Garland’s 1985 work. This can help us to both understand the nature of penal welfarism and the reasons for its decline.

The kind of process I envisage is one of “historical recovery” as advocated by Loader and Sparks in 2004. Policy-analysis of the kind employed by Jones and Newburn can also assist in this task. It is important to examine the way in which politicians talk about crime and punishment and to understand the political process, its vagaries, volatility and priorities when putting forward explanations for the nature of those policies.

How does Irish prison policy fit in with this task? Ireland achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. As such, Ireland was under British rule during the Gladstonian period and was also subject to its laws, including the Probation of Offenders Act and Children Act, quintessentially penal-welfarist developments. However, after Independence, Ireland pursued a somewhat singular path. With the exception of periods of unrest associated with outbreaks of IRA violence, Irish prison policy during the period 1922 – 1958 was characterised largely by a culture of “stagnation” (O’Donnell, 2008) and official neglect. Administrators and policy-makers spoke the language of reform and Christian regeneration, but very little of this translated into practice. Instead, several prisons were closed, regimes remained largely as they had been in 1922 and no White Papers, legislation or other policy documents laying out the Irish “vision” of imprisonment were created. No penal agenda or strategy (to borrow Garland’s term) could be discerned.

The lack of any penal ideology can be explained with reference to a number of factors, including an unadventurous and insular Department of Justice and very low numbers of prisoners. There was little incentive or need to change the prison system.

The absence of penal-welfarism in Ireland can also be analysed by reference to Garland’s “conditions” (there must be a better term!) for the genesis of the rehabilitationist movement. The Irish political scene was not one in which social democratic politics was deeply embedded. There was no clear distinction between left and right politics, but during the first decade of Independence a laissez-faire approach to economics and social policy was pursued. Social expansionism was strongly resisted and the idea of an interventionist state criticised. Moreover, the Irish financial situation was such that there was little chance that any expansionary tendencies, had they existed, could have been pursued. The economic context for penal-welfarism was simply not present.

The social elites, which are arguably more critical to Garland’s account than might be apparent from Punishment and Welfare or The Culture of Control, were not in favour of creating significant change to Irish penal policy. The Department of Justice proved itself to be singularly unimaginative when it came to penal reform right until the 1960s. During the 1950s, the Department was required for a period to make an annual report on its activities. In one year, the person charged with this task wrote:

The Department of Justice is a regulative department and unlike some other departments … does not normally undertake projects of a social and economic betterment of a kind that appeal to the man in the street. … Our activities important though they may be, have no popular appeal. … Even law reform has little attraction for the public. All things considered, I think the less that is said about our plans the better.

The approach was one of caution, a desire not to rock the boat or draw attention to the Department’s workings. It was only during periods of subversive activity by the IRA that any real attention was focused on the prison system.

In the main, the prison estate was allowed to drift along with the minimum of intervention. Another key aspect of penal-welfarism, that of a criminological ‘ideas’ base, was also not present in Ireland. The discipline of criminology did not take off to any great degree until the mid 1990s and most particularly with the establishment of the Institute of Criminology at University College Dublin in 2000 as well as the founding of the MA Criminology at Dublin Institute of Technology. There was no reservoir of administrative or indeed any other criminologists to tap into for fresh ideas or paths of discovery.

As such, it would appear that Garland has identified the right “conditions” in which penal-welfarism would flourish. These being largely absent in Ireland, that penal strategy did not really take root here. Things changed, however, after 1958. I will discuss this transformation and what it tells us about the relationship between punishment and welfare in my next post!

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  1. October 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm

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