Interview to Baroness Vivien Stern

I was invited to join the International Seminar on "Human Rights of Prisoners" jointly organized and prepared by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care (ICCPPC). It took place in Rome from 1 to 2 March 2005 and during the Seminar I was able to interview Baroness Vivien Stern, Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for Prison Studies, Kings College London, and Prominent Member of Penal Reform International.

Q. Baroness Vivien why did You spend much of your life working for the reform of prisons?

A. I came into prison reform work by chance. I could just as well have found myself working in many other fields of social reform. But once I had started working in criminal justice and had seen for myself what we do to others in the name of justice I could not escape. Like many others who start such work, I was trapped. In prisons you see the worst and the best. You meet people who have done very terrible things. You work alongside some prison personnel who have spent a whole career behind prison walls trying to make a prison a decent place. You see people without the embellishments and façade that normal life allows. And you see much horror.

My parents’ generation lived through the lawlessness of Europe in the early part of the 20th century. So we in my generation were brought up to see deprivation of liberty as a grave matter, not to be done lightly and always to be done according to the rule of law. We were brought up knowing that the rule of law can easily be swept aside and that it is worth fighting for. That is why I have spent many years working for a fair and just way of dealing with those accused and convicted of crime.


Q. What are the most serious problems facing criminal justice systems in the world today?

A. Many aspects of life in the 21st century are now subject to globalising influences. Crime and punishment is one of these. Crime and globalising trends are obviously inter-related. Globalisation gives many opportunities for crime on a bigger scale than was previously possible. In the cases of  big companies like Enron, WorldCom or Parmalat profits were exaggerated, the companies got into considerable difficulties, the people at the top enriched themselves and thousands of ordinary workers lost their pensions. Now, criminal syndicates can use the internet to streamline their operations as does any other multi-national operator. When markets are opened up to legitimate trade they are also opened up to people traffickers or arms traders.

Huge financial frauds or large-scale crimes against humanity are clearly global issues. Can ordinary crime and the way it is dealt with also be a global issue? In my view crime has become a global issue because pressures from the neo-liberal economic consensus are having a profound effect. They are affecting how much crime is committed. They are influencing how crime is defined. They are creating an orthodoxy about how crime ought to be dealt with by society. Also, and not surprisingly, a market in protection from crime and in dealing with convicted people is being developed which is having serious consequences.   

First the global economy has an effect on the amount of crime. Worldwide research shows that crime levels are low when communities are cohesive, built on strong family relationships and are mutually supportive. When people’s lives are based on strong shared values of how life should be lived and children are socialised into those values, then social norms are more likely to be accepted and followed. When communities are under great pressure, for example when whole industries close down, when stable livelihoods are taken away, crime increases.  When all members of a family have to work to keep the family afloat, including the grandparents, children are more likely to get their values elsewhere and they can learn that committing crime is the way to be respected by the group on the street. So in a market society, where the jobs go to the places where wages are cheapest and communities are left with no help and no alternatives, crime and insecurity in those neighbourhoods will probably rise. We know from a large body of research that high crime rates are related to levels of inequality. 

Harsher attitudes to poor people and the withdrawal of social safety nets also lead to more crimes. Social order is no longer assured by socially inclusive welfare policies. Instead, policies try and maintain social order by law enforcement and punishment. So, people do not get the social support they need from the state institutions to deal with the social and health problems in their families. Preventive action is reduced and the state action when it comes is punitive not supportive.

More acts become crimes. Some acts are universally seen as crimes. Murder, rape, robbery, embezzlement, arson are seen as crimes in the laws of all countries. Other actions can become crimes when governments so decide. In many countries pressure from the United States and the United Nations Drug Control Programme forces governments to introduce new drug crimes, making possession of certain substances a criminal offence. Such laws bear more heavily on some than on others, because the major drug traffickers have money to spend on bribes and thus they can evade the criminal process. Small traffickers and users do not and cannot.

Politicians have less control over what happens in their economies. To show that they have control over some aspects of the lives of their people they turn their attention to crime. First they stoke up fear of crime and encourage demands for retribution. Then they offer their frightened populace harsher measures against the crimes of the small criminals, the poor and the least powerful. Since harsher measures are ineffective in reducing crime or the fear of crime the results are not impressive. So the politicians promise more and then a bit more toughness, another few years on prison sentences. New crimes are created. This pattern can be seen in many countries. Punishments for crimes are becoming harsher. Prison populations have risen more than 50% in the last 12 years in 50 major countries, with some countries showing dramatic increases.

Along with this shift from welfare policies to punishment policies many countries have seen the large scale entry of the free market into crime control. The increase in crime, insecurity and levels of punishment have provided opportunities for many sorts of companies, companies that provide security guards, those that build and manage prisons, those that sell equipment such as CCTV cameras or machines that screen people for traces of illegal drugs.

Across the world it is the poor who have felt the greatest impact of these changes. They are suffering most from the increase in crime. Their neighbourhoods are less likely to be protected. The rich can withdraw and live in a self-contained gated community or hire a security guard for their homes. The poor cannot. The poor are more likely to be detained by the police than protected by them, more likely to be punished by prison than by a fine or an alternative sentence, more likely to be prosecuted for drug-taking. The crimes of the poor are perceived as more threatening than the crimes of the wealthy or crimes against the poor.


What is the future of the prison?

A. The entry of businesspeople into the prisons market can have some undesirable consequences. It is more economically efficient to have big prisons to get some economies of scale. It is more efficient to have more equipment and fewer human beings. Electronic devices that open and close doors from a distance, cameras that watch what people are doing, these are cheaper than employing people. So prisons could become very large, around maybe 3000 prisoners in each, built in out of the way places where the land is cheap and with much of the control and supervision done by technology rather than people.

The prospect of creating the prison round the convicted person is also becoming more realistic. In London last Friday 11 March 2005 the government issued the first control orders to be imposed on people suspected of terrorism activities. The people so suspected will live in their home rather than a prison, but they will have to stay there between certain hours and not use a cell-phone or the internet. They may not meet anyone without Government permission. They must allow their houses to be searched at any time. Thus the prison is split up into thousands of little pieces and there is a piece of prison in many streets, villages, parts of towns. The prison escapes from the walls and is to be found anywhere, in the house next door perhaps.

That is one way. We should work to achieve a different way. We must look for a prison system which is very small, where prison is only used for the most serious of crimes. Very few women and no children should be in prison. Prison personnel should be well trained and given more opportunity to be flexible and creative. We must work for prisons which are run not as places of retribution but on restorative principles, where the prisoners held in them get a chance to work for the benefit of others. Prisoners should be held near their homes and families and the local community should see the prison as their prison and the prisoners held in it as their responsibility.

  Fr. Bruno Oliviero