Archbishop of Canterbury backs restorative alternatives to failing prisons

By staff writers
February 2, 2007

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticized society’s over-reliance on prisons – and is calling for a commission of enquiry into the penal justice system in the UK, which he says is failing both offenders and victims because it is not restorative.

Dr Williams says that at a fundamental level prison is not working because it cannot cope with the primary need to change the behaviour of those convicted and rehabilitate them to them community – a point which reformers and advocates of restorative justice have been making for a long time.

His remarks follow another scorching annual report from Anne Owers, HM Inspector of Prisons, released earlier this week. Last year the government tried and failed to abolish her post and roll it into a wider remit.

The Archbishop’s call for radical change came in a lecture to the Prison Reform Trust today on 1 February 2007.

A Commission is needed to explore different models of penal justice, Dr Williams argues, because problems stem from an inadequate sense of responsibility, not simply on the part of offenders, but especially on the part of the society which imprisons them.

He declared: “If we seriously want to address the problem of re-offending, it is clear that a penal culture in which there is no real attention to how offenders change is worse than useless – literally worse than useless, in that it reinforces alienation, low self-worth and the lack of any sense of having a stake in the life of a community.”

The real neglect, Dr Williams argues, is that like society as a whole, the system does not adequately explore how offenders might reform: “If the underlying problem in crime is a breakage in relationship, this means that the offender has lost the active sense of being answerable for others.”

He continues: “That sense is … inseparable from the assurance of having others who are answerable for you. The most unhelpful and indeed damaging way of treating this is thus surely a system that leaves the offender without any grounds for believing that he or she is the object of anyone’s responsibility. This is emphatically the message that much of our present system still gives to the offender.”

The Archbishop warns that a creeping consumerism threatens to unbalance the relationship between society, the offender and the victim. Moves to put parts of the system out to tender or franchise, sends the message that the community as a whole is not fully committed to the business of changing offending behaviour.

The point is a moot one, since religious organizations are among the private and voluntary groups that are being asked to tender for prison management in the UK – following controversial, and some say fatally flawed, experiments in the USA.

Dr Williams commented: “The idea that offender management should be put out to tender is one that could sit very comfortably with some sorts of talk about community justice if we are not careful; and this buys into a very questionable understanding of genuine collective responsibility fully owned by the state – a properly common moral discourse about crime and punishment.”

Victims, he says in what will be seen as a thoughtful but hard-hitting analysis, are pressured to treat the penal system as though they were consumers:

The Archbishop also criticized tabloid- and politician-led calls for victims to be involved in sentencing. He said: “A system that was at the mercy of organised lobbying on behalf of the victim would not serve the real interest of the victim because it could never break out of the stress on the victim role at just the point where someone might need help to shed that.”

“Such research as there is on ‘victim satisfaction’ is very far from giving anything like clear support to this. Should we not be thinking about policies that looked towards the restoring to the victim of some renewed capacity to engage responsibly? To make fuller use of the empathy that can be nurtured through reflecting on the experience of injustice and trauma?” he asked.

Dr Williams asserts that the current harmful imbalance in the system, which acts as a barrier to true rehabilitation, is exacerbated by an inability of many to talk about responding to crime in anything other than punitive terms: “It would be welcome – though it feels at times like crying for the moon – if politicians and commentators could refrain from speaking as if punishment were essentially about the expression of disapproval and the infliction of legally controlled suffering and not much more.”

He concluded: “In itself, such an approach this changes nothing but any crime surely indicates that something needs to change in a person’s awareness and conscience.”

The UK religious think tank Ekklesia is currently involved in the production of a set of essays looking at radical alternatives to prison, combining social scientific analysis with policy ideas and theological critique.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.