The prison book ban illustrates that control rather than correction continues to define the criminal justice system


If he were still alive today, the French philosopher Michel Foucault might have some very interesting thoughts on the modern day criminal justice system. In his influential work Discipline and Punish (1975), he argued that the basis of the modern day penal system, which was first introduced in the post-enlightenment era, wasn’t due to a humanitarian or reformist agenda, but rather served as a system of control. Our current approach, as exemplified by the banning of books being sent into prisons from outside, further supports Foucault’s alarmingly accurate thesis – control rather than correction defines the prison system.

The change in the law means that prisoners are prohibited from having books sent into them from the outside by friends’ and family – a significant means of obtaining reading material. Some inmates have reported that the availability of books within the prison reading system is limited, and while prisons have libraries, these facilities are often understaffed and inadequate.

The policy has actually been in place since 2013, but a blog post by Frances Cook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, in which she furiously criticised the policy as despicable and nasty, proved to be a spark for a public outcry. Ms Cook makes a valid assessment; after all, reading is key to education. Richard Armstrong, a prison literary researcher pointed out in his criticism of the policy that there’s strong evidence that removing the means to increase literacy reduces rehabilitation.

It’s not all just about preparing you with the skills to survive life outside the walls of prison; it’s also as a cornerstone of personal development and inner transformation than can be the most powerful rehabilitator of all.Charles W Eliot, the man often credited with transforming Harvard University into the academic force it remains to this day, famously said books “are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

This book ban is further manifestation of an approach to criminal justice that leans heavily on the side of draconian punishment at the expense of correction and genuine rehabilitation.

Our prison population has almost doubled since 1993. We now incarcerate faster than any other country in Western Europe, and it costs the taxpayer £40,000 a year per prison bed. And what has this achieved? A reoffending rate of 47% and a prison system that has been overcrowded every year since 1994. Moreover, between 2005-2009, recorded crime was down 22% while imprisonment increased by 10%. How can we explain this?

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault notes that the penal system has remained structurally unchallenged since its inception, while convincingly arguing that “the prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very existence it imposes on its inmates”.

The two main criticism of the system which he found present throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, (that it was either not sufficiently corrective or that in attempting to be corrective it had lost its ability to punish) were always met with the same old remedies. One of these remedies, ‘the modulation of penalties’ refers to the adaptation of a prisoner’s treatment based on their ability to improve, their willingness to change their attitude and conform to the rules of the prison system.

This is the essence of the recent policy  – as part of the ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme’, it aims to encourage good behaviour by rewarding prisoners with the ability to buy books. According to Foucault, while this maybe disguised as a ‘progressive routine’; it amounts to one of a handful of repeatedly presented propositions that serve not to actually transform the penal system but to reinforce it as a system of social control.

He concludes that the modern day penal system serves not to eliminate or even actively reduce crime, but rather to differentiate between crimes and criminals. One only has to look at the way, in the United States and to a lesser extent in the UK, that poor and ethnic minorities are disproportionately imprisoned to see this at work.

Penal reform is a really tough and complex issue, but we’re going to keep on making the same mistakes over and over unless we fundamentally alter the way we organise our system of imprisonment.  Perhaps this latest development will inspire a more thorough and open-minded debate about how we treat criminals. If Foucault is right, then without this the penal system is destined to do little besides send its inhabitants out into the world, only for them to come straight back.

Originally published on Institute of Opinion



David Nutt talks drug education, David Cameron, and taking a trip to Colorado on his Reddit AMA

David Nutt, the man once termed the Nutty Professor for (god forbid!) offering a rational and logical opinion on drug policy, was on Reddit yesterday answering a host of questions. The former chief of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs lost his job in the aftermath of a ‘scandal’ (if you can deem speaking the truth as such), most memorable for his conclusion that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding.

He’s now working with DrugScience, an independent committee offering objective information on drugs and drug harm. The site is well worth checking out.

His appearance on Reddit, a community well known for its liberal attitude towards drugs, went down very well. Many users thanked him for his commitment to scientific objectivity and reason in the face of political and media pressure, while others encouraged him to contribute to the Drugs and DrugNerds subreddits, where he is considered a ‘folk hero’.

Below are the highlights of the AMA, (reddit user questions are in bold). You can find the whole thing here.

  • What is your own experience of recreational drug use?
  • Almost all of my drug use is caffeine and alcohol! I’ve also been administered a broad range of psychoactive drugs in the context of medical research. Today’s news about Nigella is a reminder that there are real policy-related harms to taking drugs when they are illegal, and to admitting to it! I only use drugs in jurisdictions where it is allowed, and am flying out to Denver soon! haha.


  • Do the political elite, genuinely believe in the policies they are upholding?
  • We all often wonder this! I think it is difficult to generalise. But many politicians have changed their position dramatically when they gain and lose office, suggesting they are to some degree denying what they really believe. Cameron used to have a very rational view when he was a backbencher on the Home Affairs Committee. Public opinion is shifting, so it is gradually becoming more damaging for politicians to pursue policies clearly in contravention of the facts, and less risky to do what makes sense. For example, the next generation of voters are less likely to support the criminalisation of cannabis users. Thanks for the support! Here’s a David Cameron you may not recognise.


  • I was wondering what your views are on the Warehouse Project implementing a Home Office supported pill testing facility. A step in the right direction or walking the wrong path?
  • Anything that increases evidence to reduce harms is a good thing so yes. Fiona Measham who is involved with that is a DrugScience Member

Before warning that…

  • drug testing isn’t a panacea – home testing is not reliable especially at showing mixtures/adulterations. More info also doesn’t eliminate risky behaviour completely – people still horseride!


  • What do you see as being the best way to help the public see past the stereotypes, have an objective view on drugs and understand the damage the current drugs policy is having?
  •  Ha, they should read my book! and follow the Drugscience newsletter But really, a key part of the answer is for people like you to stimulate the public debate, challenge misinformation (e.g. by commenting on articles, and demanding sources, corrections and retractions when nonsense is published.)


  • What is your opinion on the ‘Darknetmarkets’ that have sprung up in the last few years?
  • The ‘dark net’ sites such as Silk Road are an inevitable reaction to the current situation. It’s impossible to say if they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in general; they have the advantage of delivering decent quality (allegedly, based on a couple of analyses of samples, and anecdotal research However, the user discussed in the academic paper linked above described being a “child in a sweetshop”, and for some people, this easy access will lead to problems controlling level of use. Drugscience is now accepting Bitcoin donations! Any Silk Road users who want to maximise the availability of info that will reduce the chance of Silk Road customers coming to harm might wish to donate!


  •  How do you propose we safely educate people about the dangers of drugs and do you think that it’s possible that we will ever have a country where people have realistic views on individual drug dangers? 
  • Schools have a part to play, but everyone can champion the evidence and challenge unreasonable beliefs. But opinions are shifting in the right direction. A similar process was seen with sex education;- it used to be very common for moralising to get in the way of actually informing people, but over time people saw that inadequate education based on a ‘just say no’ attitude increased rather than reducing harm. In sex education, it is now mainstream to take a ‘harm reduction’ approach, e.g. that it is better that young people know about and can access contraception, even if underage sex is not endorsed by teachers. We’re hopefully gradually moving towards a similar situation with drugs, where phobias about talking frankly will melt away.


  • I read a paper a few days ago that involved the testing of LSD for therapeutic effects for the first time in years. I think it was as Swiss paper and is due to be published at some point this year. How close is the UK in joining in research using recreational drugs or are there any studies going on at the moment? If not, how and when can this happen?
  • The LSD study is exciting, although the conclusions we can make are limited by its small size. So we need more research! Actually there is loads of great drugs research going on in general, especially in the UK. the problem is more specifically in researching Schedule 1 drugs (like LSD and cannabis), it’s easier ironically to research heroin because it has a medical use. Several Drugscience scientists, including myself are actively conducting research into drug use, drug related harm, how drugs work, and what untapped medical potential they have. For example look into the work of Val Curran, John Ramsey, Fiona Measham and the rest.


  •  Whats the most common misconception people have about drug?
  • It’s hard to pick one most common misconception! One would be that illegality is a reflection of harm, that illegal drugs are automatically ‘worse’. Another massive one is that any generalisations can be made about ‘drugs’, that there could be a single successful approach to ‘drugs’ in general. The book hopefully shows just how different drugs are from each other in effects and risks.


It was great to see the really positive response online to Professor Nutt’s appearance, who seemed to enjoy his time answering questions and will hopefully be found conversing across various subreddits in the future. There’s no doubt that we need more like him publicly fighting for a logical and rational approach to drug policy.

He’s written some great stuff for The Guardian too, which you can find here.