In Search of Respect

Gabrielle Watson’s first book, Respect and Criminal Justice, has been published by Oxford University Press.

Gabrielle Watson is the Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law at Lincoln College, Oxford. She was formerly a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Law and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Law at Christ Church, Oxford. She works on topics at the intersection of criminal law, criminal justice, and jurisprudence.

My first book, Respect and Criminal Justice, was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. It is the newest addition to the Clarendon Studies in Criminology series: the successor to the Cambridge Studies in Criminology series, inaugurated by Sir Leon Radzinowicz—the ‘founding father’ of British criminology—and JWC Turner 80 years ago.

The book offers the first academic study of ‘respect’ in criminal justice in England and Wales, where the value is elusive but of persisting significance. Its publication is especially timely in this political moment, as we reflect on the stark, seemingly intractable problems of police misconduct and deep structural racism, as well as the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and viral contagion in our prisons. Part of the push for criminal justice reform must involve the simple act of listening, followed by the search for robust theoretical ideas with which to frame the debate. In this piece, I reflect on the role and value of respect in prisons.

Owing to some sustained—but ultimately unsuccessful—reform efforts in recent decades, prisons regularly appeal to the word ‘respect’, proclaiming it as a core value in official discourse. Yet, on closer examination, the modern prison’s relationship to respect is not as clear-cut as institutional documentation would have us believe. 

In prisons, respect is a mere slogan. The real value and potential of respect as a critical and regulative ideal has been diminished by the tendency to treat it as peripheral to practical concerns such as target setting, the maintenance of order, and deterrence.

What is respect?

The book begins by attending to the deceptively simple question: what is respect? It turns first to philosophy with its rich Kantian literature on the issue, and its core claim that every human being has a claim to respect no matter what: respect need not be negotiated and cannot be forfeited. But contemporary philosophical accounts complicate matters by identifying respect in a number of ways: as a mode of behaviour, a form of treatment, a kind of valuing, a type of attention, a motive, an attitude, a feeling, a tribute, a principle, a duty, an entitlement, and a moral virtue.

If philosophers cannot agree, it should come as no surprise that prisons in England and Wales—notoriously pragmatic in their approach—have glossed over the meaning of respect. Yet empty appeals to respect distort as much as they communicate. When there is a lack of specificity in understanding and giving effect to respect, it does much to magnify the status inequalities that have come to define imprisonment. It also shows scant regard for the fact that respect—or lack thereof—tends to be felt more keenly by ethnic minority groups and those whose sense of belonging and social possibility in society are precarious.

As part of a reform agenda for the 2020s, prisons must be explicit in their definition of respect if they are to proceed according to—let alone realise—the value. My book offers some suggestions: among them, the idea that respect is both an act and an attitude, that it is ideally reciprocal, that it occurs at both the individual and the institutional level, and is the primary means by which to acknowledge an individual’s intrinsic worth.

Unsavoury punishment

To write a book on respect is an ambitious task, and I spend a good deal of time boundary-drawing in order to render it manageable. Perhaps the most striking illustration of respect—or lack thereof—in the book is to be found in a case study of prison mealtime from the eighteenth century to the present day.

The ritualised preparation and provision of prison food is imbued with considerable symbolic power, and its pivotal role in shaping the daily prison experience has been considerably understated. The dominant narrative in historical accounts of prison mealtime is that, pre-twentieth century, food was intended to punish, debilitate, and degrade. The eighteenth century may have epitomised the most indecent of prison conditions, where a restricted diet was an explicit feature of punishment. Part of the reformative work of John Howard was to offer an incisive critique of the practice of charging prisoners for meals, proposing instead that they be provided with a daily allowance of food. Nonetheless, his vision for respect was strictly minimalist:

‘I am not an advocate for an extravagant and profuse allowance to prisoners. I plead only for necessaries, in such a moderate quantity, as may support health and strength for labour.’

John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1777: 33).

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the experience of imprisonment remained unimpeachably severe. Prison meals had seen no real improvement and consisted chiefly of bread and thin gruel or broths. There was cause for cautious optimism, however, following the introduction of prison inspections in 1835. Prison diet became a national scandal and inspectors made an explicit call for food to no longer act as an instrument of punishment. Advances were made in the quantity—if not the quality—of prison food but an instrumentalist line of thought endured, in part, due to widespread public support for a retributive approach and the prevailing conservative ideology of the period.

By the mid-nineteenth century, prison food had once again been called into question, with leading physicians of the time recommending a substantial reduction in portion sizes on the grounds that the food provided was excessive and insufficiently penal. To provide food sufficient to ensure good health would be to provide conditions of relative comfort, and the extremely poor with a positive incentive to commit crime.

Integral to more progressive developments was the commissioning of a Departmental Committee on Diets and the publication of its report in 1925 (289-292). Following the Committee’s investigation into prison food, the motivation to provide a nutritious diet to inmates was firmly established. The following year, the Committee made further calls for a more balanced and varied diet which included the provision of regular vegetables, the replacement of prison ‘cans’ with aluminium trays and utensils, and opportunities for prisoners to dine in association in the hope that it might cultivate in them a sense of self-respect. These reforms were indicative of a newly configured relationship between the state and its subjects, and a sustained attempt to afford prison mealtime a visibility and form that brought it into line with a society that considered itself to be civilised.

In the decades that followed, prison mealtime was visibly transformed. Prisoners were given increased involvement in menu design, and meals were gradually made available to those with religious, ethnic, cultural, and medical requirements. However, there is compelling evidence to suggest that, in prisons in England and Wales, food—if only implicitly—continues to form part of a penal strategy. Subtle institutional attempts at degradation through food persist, and daily meals serve as painful and periodic bodily expressions of the power that the institution exerts over the individual.

The National Audit Office, for example, noted concerns among prisoners that standards for the storage and preparation of ethnic and cultural food were not met consistently. It seems that prisoners’ lack of trust in this regard was not unfounded. The National Audit Office confirmed several cases in which prisoners had signed up in good faith to receive ethnic meals, which were later found to have been unethically prepared. Four out of sixteen prisons did not store halal meat separately from other meat and, in eleven prisons, kitchen equipment intended for those with Muslim diets was not labelled separately: by no means a peripheral problem in view of the expanding Muslim community in detention in England and Wales.

Such incidents make clear that, in practice, respect is not always reciprocal, whereby prisoners do not—even cannot—respect those responsible for preparing their food. When prisoners are denied ethically prepared ethnic meals, they are likely to become too distracted by the conditions of their confinement to respond respectfully to prison authorities who so unethically denied them respect.

The elusive promise

On 11 July 2018, HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales published its Annual Report, in which it documented two unannounced inspections that caused deep concern. HMP Wormwood Scrubs suffered from ‘appalling’ (p13) living conditions, violence, an almost complete lack of rehabilitative or resettlement activity, and seemingly intractable problems over repeated inspections. At ‘squalid’ (p5) and fundamentally unsafe HMP Liverpool, inspectors found some of the worst conditions they had ever seen. An impoverished regime, many cells lacked even the basic requirements for health and hygiene and the leadership and management focus on respect was ‘inadequate at every level’ (p15). It appears, then, that respect remains somewhat of an elusive promise.

Although respect is a precious commodity, in our prisons, it need not be utopian. It simply requires a degree of mutual understanding when it is owed to, called for, deserved, elicited, or claimed by another. With a sense of modest realism, the book sets out those challenges in detail—and envisages the advances that could be made—in inscribing respectful relations between state and subject.

Respect and Criminal Justice (2020). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 256 pp.

 

Contact

Dr Gabrielle Watson, Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law, Lincoln College, Oxford.

Email: gabrielle.watson@law.ox.ac.uk

Website: www.law.ox.ac.uk/people/gabrielle-watson

 

Images courtesy of the author