“Tough on Crime” works, just like the Sun goes around the Earth

22 Oct

Whenever I hear the phrase “name and shame” these days I get furious. Seriously punch-the-person-in-the-mouth furious. I have never punched anyone, yet, but the current Premier and Attorney General of Queensland are testing the limits of my pacifism. I guess that proves my point that getting tough on crime just produces more crime. Before you talk this kind of shit, spend some time studying the psychology of shame and/or the causes of crime.

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The logic behind boot camps for young offenders, naming and shaming kids as young as ten, and the whole ‘tough on crime’ movement is about as sound as the logic that says the sun goes around the earth. It’s a populist argument based on superficial and simplistic reasoning rather than careful and detailed observation. Such claims are invariably made by people who have never picked up a single research paper on what causes crime, particularly violent crime, and what sorts of measures have been shown to be effective. I don’t propose to go into that research here, it’s very easy to get a hold of (ask Uncle Google) if you’re interested. The sad thing is that most people, and especially the current Queensland government, don’t want to know – they want to promulgate simplistic and inaccurate ideas. What I want to do in this post is actually talk about some first-hand experiences of the changes the new government has made, and connect a few hitherto unconnected dots. But I will make the following quick summary of what the research tells us:

• capital punishment brutalises society and devalues human life. There is no conclusive evidence that it deters crime.

• there is no research that shows that getting tough on crime decreases crime in the medium to long term. Some research shows that it actually increases rates of violent crime, some shows it makes no difference. Here is a great article on the matter from The Age by Rob Hulls, director of RMIT University’s Centre for Innovative Justice and former attorney-general of Victoria.

• It’s actually incredibly difficult to demonstrate increased or decreased rates of recidivism (too many variables, and controlled experiments would be utterly inhumane). However, the one thing that has been repeatedly shown to decrease re-offending is education.

• rates of petty crime and property crime, at least, increase with increasing gaps between rich and poor, and don’t seem to be related to toughness of sentencing.

• shame is, according to many researchers on violent crime, the major cause of violent behaviour, not an antidote. Some of my friends have reported positive effects of shame in their lives, like when a hard-arse grade 2 teacher made them cry in front of the class. Personally, that would have shut me down and made me resentful and rebellious, but hey some people say it works. Dr James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who worked with the most violent offenders in the Massachusetts prison system for twenty-five years and acknowledged expert on violence, explains the difference in his book Violence (look here). To put it crudely and simply – most people have developed strong stores of self-love as a result of receiving love and affection in their early years, such that when love/approval is withheld or withdrawn from them they can rely on their stores of self-love and survive the experience. These people may survive and even arguably benefit from the experience of shame, but these aren’t the ones committing crimes. Conversely, some people, typically due to a lack of love and affection in their childhood, fail to develop these reserves, so that when love is withdrawn, they experience a kind of crushing shame that is unbearable. Some of these people then resort to either self-harm (more typical of women in our culture, for cultural not biological reasons) or violence (more typical of men). This is also one of the causes of mental illnesses such as Borderline Personality Disorder (according to the biosocial theory of emotions). I know this well – I suffer from this particular disorder myself, and life is a constant struggle to overcome this crushing shame. This is probably why I work in prisons – because there but for the grace of God (or a strong and supportive social network) go I.

Okay, let’s get back to the fun stuff: slagging off the Queensland government

The Queensland government is not alone in trying to convince us that we’re in the middle of a crime wave, that crime is increasing, and that we have to do something about it. It’s an easy sell for politicians, the media love it, and people seem to be enamoured of the idea that society is getting more dangerous. Fortunately (for those of us living in said society), this is completely untrue. Across Australia, overall crime rates have been decreasing steadily over the last decade at least, and rates of violent crime in particular. And in alleged crime hotspots, like the Logan-Woodridge area to pick a topical one, rates of both violent crime and overall crime have been decreasing. If you won’t take my word for it, maybe you’ll believe the Australian Institute for Criminology.

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The government have invented a problem, and now they’re going to address it by “getting tough”, particularly on juvenile crime. Most twenty-first century parents and educators know that punishing anti-social or undesirable behaviour does not ‘correct’ that behaviour. Nor, of course, does a laissez-faire ‘kids will be kids’ permissive approach. Empathy and dialogue seem to be far more effective, the very things the Newman government is moving away from – reducing educational, psychological and other support staff in correctional institutions for both adults and juveniles (they are considered support, not “front-line”, staff), and slashing funding for programs that support education and foster dialogue and self-reflection. Their idea of ‘tough on crime’ is not just longer sentences, it extends to being tougher on people while they are incarcerated. In theory, in our society, when a person is imprisoned for a crime, the imprisonment, or deprivation of liberty, IS the punishment. They are not supposed to be further punished while they are having their liberty deprived – that is actually illegal and in contravention of various UN agreements too (you might want to look at the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and see how many of these are violated in Queensland). This is why we have done away with corporal punishment and hard labour within prisons. Firstly, it’s illegally punishing a person twice for the same offence, and secondly, it doesn’t work. So the question then becomes what should people do while they are in jail? Most high-ranking corrections staff (such as directors of prisons and the so-called ‘top brass’ in the department) believe that providing prisoners with meaningful activity – employment, education, training, constructive recreational activities – is the key to using jail time in a rehabilitative way. Unfortunately, they don’t make the laws.

As some of my readers will know, I have been leading the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s Shakespeare Prison Project in a high security men’s prison in Queensland since 2006. This is one of the meaningful activities mentioned above, and has the support of senior prison management as well as department directors. This post is neither the time nor place to talk about that project, how and why it works… you can read a tiny bit about it here, or more about it in my chapter in this book, or the article by Emma Heard (et al) in the International Journal of Prisoner Health. My point is that this project used to receive some state government funding (through both Arts and Corrections), but since the Newman government was elected, we have not received a cent from the state. Anyway, that’s fact number 1.

But the Newman government’s ‘tough on crime’ strategy doesn’t stop at pulling money away from educational and recreational programs, it extends to keeping the very existence of these programs under wraps. Here comes the more alarming fact number 2, alarming if you thought we had a free media, in any case. Our Shakespeare Prison Project had been the subject of several media stories from 2006-2011, including a beautifully detailed piece on Radio National by Cathy van Extel in 2011. In 2013, under the Newman government, the project had no media exposure whatsoever. This wasn’t for lack of trying, nor was it for lack of interest on behalf of the media. The ABC were planning to send a reporter in for the final performance of the 2013 project. That’s the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the national broadcaster, same organisation as did the aforementioned piece on the project in 2011. In order for media to get into a correctional centre, in the past they have required the approval of the Department of Corrections’ media office. They applied in 2013 just as they had in previous years – all looked like it was going according to plan, but then we heard, just days before the performance, that media had been vetoed, and that this decision was not made at the level of the Corrections media office, but at the level of the Director of the department. Nobody would give an official reason, but it was widely understood within the prison itself and among those members of the department with whom I spoke, that this decision was driven by government policy. In other words, the Newman government did not want the public to know about projects such as ours that delivered meaningful activity to prisoners, because it did not fit the ‘tough on crime’ approach sanctioned by the government.

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The state government cannot, without major legislative changes, ban projects such as ours, especially not from a privately-run prison such as the one we work in. What they can do, however, is slowly strangle them. As I have already mentioned, we no longer receive any state funding. We therefore rely increasingly on private and philanthropic donations. However, getting private money is dependent on the project having a positive public profile, which it had and was continuing to develop. The government is now attempting to dam the flow of publicity about the project making its way into the public arena, thereby reducing our likelihood of obtaining private funding.

Fact number 3 is the Newman government’s plan to “name and shame” offenders as young as ten years of age, publishing their names. Currently names of juvenile victims or offenders cannot be published. The theory behind this move is that if you tell the world that twelve year old Sally Biggs has been convicted of breaking and entering, the shame and embarrassment will not only cause her to desist from such crimes in the future, but it will also serve as an example to other kids, deterring them from such crimes. I see two major problems with this:

The first problem is the labelling of a young person, as young as ten, pre-pubescent if you don’t mind, as a criminal. That label stays with you for life. People don’t forget, institutions (like employers) don’t forget. Because of one idiotic act as a juvenile, often under the strong pressure, persuasion, or threat of violence from peers or older kids, a kid’s life can be irrevocably altered. The causes of crime, especially among juveniles are complex and rarely have anything to do with ‘being a bad person’. This strategy seems to actively inhibit any chance of rehabilitation of that person. Many people who committed crimes, especially as juveniles, have turned their lives around. Some of us now work closely with prisoners helping them to transform their lives as we have our own. This strategy makes that all but impossible.

The second problem is the mentality of the youngster, especially the immature young man say between 12 and 16, who might see himself (yes, or herself) as a ‘gangsta’. What the Newman government’s proposal will do is bring notoriety to that person. Wow, if I hold up this 7-11, the whole world will know what a bad-ass I really am. Watch juvenile crime rates soar – but then of course the government will see this as a reason to get even tougher. It’s a wonderful vicious and violent circle.

Both of these points were put beautifully by London magistrate Richard Bristow in this article, part of which I quote here:

“So how will the naming of this young man achieve anything other than a short-lived burst of media exaltation, and a chance for politicians to swagger as hard men and bask in Daily Mail-led approval?

“If he gains notoriety, it is less likely that he will grow out of crime. If he becomes a mocked pariah, it is less likely still that he will do so.”

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Finally, to the seemingly unrelated fact number 4. In late 2012, the Newman government, personally directed by Premier Campbell Newman himself, gave over the running of the former Boggo Road Gaol to a private operator, Ghost Tours Inc. This Gaol, closed as a prison in 1989, had run for some years as a historical attraction with tours offered by the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society (BRGHS). BRGHS is an association of historians, former officers, a very few former prisoners, and other weirdos like me who are inexplicably obsessed with prisons. Their tours were historical and sought to give a sense of what went on there and what it was like to live and work in the gaol. The entire place was shut for almost a decade while major construction happened in the area, throughout which time it was assumed that when it re-opened, BRGHS would resume their historical tours. During the closure, the Department of Housing and Public Works, who ‘owns’ the site, were referring all interested parties to the BRGHS, as the people who knew the gaol, and would eventually be running tours in there again. The decision to re-open the gaol in late 2012 was a sudden one, of which BRGHS had no warning, and the operation was given to Ghost Tours who, as the name suggests, run fanciful spook tours of the place which are not grounded in historical research and are designed to deliver an entertainment experience rather than to educate or inform the public about the history of the gaol and of corrections in Queensland.

When the government was asked about why this decision was made as it was, without any tender or expression of interest process (the legality of a public asset being operated by a private company without any such process is itself questionable, but that’s another story), they gave the usual Newman line that the economic woes of the state could only be alleviated by engaging private enterprise to make public assets profitable and create jobs for Queenslanders. So poor is Newman’s understanding of business, however, that he seems not to realise that many incorporated associations create jobs (LaBoite Theatre Company, the Red Cross…), not just corporations and privately owned businesses.

At first, I (and I was not alone) dismissed this as yet another example of Newman’s nepotism and lack of respect for due process. But now, once I look at facts 1 through 4 all together, I see a far more clever and far more sinister agenda. To have the gaol given over to historical tours brings prisons and prisoners into the public eye, as human beings engaged in the activity of corrections. “Tough on crime” and “name and shame” cannot survive such humanisation of prisoners. Far better to have the building seen as a haunted house on the hill than as a living reminder of the prison system. This goes hand in hand with the building of new prisons far from the public gaze, out of the way where no ordinary law-abiding citizen need be reminded of the fact that prisons exist, and that prisoners are real living human beings who have transgressed. Let’s keep seeing prisoners as sub-human, and demonise them through sensationalism. Ghosts are unchanging entities, associated with the underworld and with evil.

This push to further marginalise and demonise offenders, with the complicity of the mainstream media, playing on public fears and the public’s already tenuous understanding of crime and punishment, makes it possible for the Newman government to advance its unconsultative and, in all probability, unconstitutional agenda, as manifested by it’s new anti-bikie laws.

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(photo by Benjamin Prindable)

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5 Responses to ““Tough on Crime” works, just like the Sun goes around the Earth”

  1. Tim Dashwood October 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    Really love this piece Rob. Falling into the ‘stores of love’ category for the most part, it is really interesting to read not only the psychology but also what actually is going on. Keen to read more!

    • robpensalfini October 22, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

      Thanks Tim. I can’t really do the argument the sort of justice that Jim Gilligan does it. I recommend you get a hold of one of his books on violence and have a read. Don’t know how easy they are to get a hold of in Australia, but I can always lend you mine when I get back home in January 🙂

  2. Chris Dawson October 23, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    I’ve always suspected, right from my early involvement at Boggo Road Gaol Museum over a decade ago, that Boggo Road was something of a historical embarrassment to Queensland governments (of all stripes, but particularly the National Party). Any history of the place covering the 1980s would cast the administration in a bad light as both prisoners and officers revolted against the debacle there.

    I always liked it on tours when people rocked up and were all ‘bloody prisons…blah blah… holiday camps.. blah blah’ only to be reminded by former officers that almost everybody who was sent to prison would walk out again one day, so it was in everyone’s interest that they left a better person instead of being brutalised. I know some people were brutalised in Boggo Road, but the overall sentiment was sound. As the guide said, ‘people were sent to prison AS punishment, not FOR punishment’.

  3. RossD October 23, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Well written Rob. I really hesitate to get into the Conservatives vs Progressives pidgin-holing, but a real pattern is evident in the Libs policies both in Qld and Federally. It seems to be deliberately simplistic, appealing to the basest instincts of people, popularist and designed to address the insatiable desire of the media for alarmism.
    It doesn’t seem to be what the purveyors of these messages really think; rather it is deliberately designed to manipulate thebAustralian public through prejudice, alarmisn, fear to achieve political end.
    This is seen in the Newman govt policies on crime, bikies, etc and the Feds in their refugee, boat arrivals, and detention policies.
    Reminds me of the manipulation of the German public thinking by espousing prejudice and simplistic marginalising rhetoric by the new-guard in the 1930s.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Kicking it down the line | The Fifth Columnist - November 25, 2013

    […] stops with me.” James Gilligan, the expert on violence who I have cited in other posts (here and here), speaks in the introduction to one of his books about delving into his family history and […]

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