Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Norman Mailer on why prisons don't work

An interesting paragraph from The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, in which he seeks to explain why prison doesn't work.

"...the prison system was a complete socialist way of life... For twelve years, a prison [told prisoners] when to go to bed and when to eat, what to wear and when to get up. It was absolutely diametrically oppsed to the capitalist environment. Then one day they put the convinct out the front door, told him today is magic, at two o'clock you are a capitalist. Now, do it on your own. Go out, fiand a job, get up by yourself, report to work on time, manage your money, do all the things you were taught not to do in prison. Guaranteed to fail. Eighty percent went back to jail"
That sounds pretty plausible. Fortunately, the Liberal Democrats are proposing that training and work should be a compulsory part of prision life, so that at least when convicts leave prison they have the skills and experience necessary to find a job, and so begin a constructive life, rather than fall back in to the only life many of them have know - a life of crime.


Kit said...

Let's not forget for those 12 years he has not committed any crimes - prison works.
On his release, he is free to choose what he wants to do with his life. If he chooses crime and returns to prison it is no ones fault but his own.

Governor of Northern Rhodesia said...


Two points:

1. Our prisons may not be as effective as we would like in rehabilitating offenders, but we cannot really blame prisons for crime. For all prisoners, the first crime occurred before the first sentence.

2. The LD commitment to training for prisoners is laudable but it doesn't really tackle Mailer's point. Mailer is saying that prisoners have their lives planned for them and find it hard to adjust when they are released. Training may offer technical skills which employers need but will not really help prisoners to adjust to the shock of being outside prison.

A final thought - how does the type of training proposed by the LDs compare to the training currently offered by government to young jobless people? It would seem counter productive to offer vocational training to prisoners which was not also available free to people out of work.


Tom Papworth said...


Prison does not work, except in as much as it sequesters criminals for a while.

You are of course correct that the blame for re-offending falls on the recidivist. However, if we want to reduce crime it is in our interests to do what we can to help offenders reintegrate into society.

Simply turning your back on ex-cons and saying "It's up to you to do the right thing, now" has been a miserable failure. To persist with it is to cut off our own nose to spite our face.


Nobody is blaming prisons for all crime. But the recidivism rate is so high, and so much higher than in other, better-run, prison systems, that it suggests that part of the problem is due to the penal system.

You are right that Mailer was focussing on the institutionalising of prisoners, rather than their lack of skills. What is also needed is a better probation system and more half-way houses, policies of moving prisoners into open prisons in the run up to release, etc.

However, the work-plan does at least acclimatise them to earning their own incomes and saving for the future.

And yes, training should be available to all unemployed people as well (though, not being in prison, the should be able to source training for themselves).