‘The noble art of governing prisons’: The European Custody & Detention Summit, the Tower of London and historical narratives

This week, the European Custody & Detention Summit is convened at the Tower of London (15-16 November). Set against this historic backdrop, the summit is seeking to address ‘significant challenges in the modernisation of custody and detention facilities’ through business meetings, drinks receptions, technology demos and professional panels. The link between historic setting and modernising agenda seemingly wasn’t missed by the organisers, who reportedly described the Tower as ‘the world’s original high security prison’ (this quote no longer appears on the ECDS site, but a member of the Reclaim Justice Network confirmed that this was the original source). The organisers may have thought better of this description, but the choice of venue nonetheless implies such a connection. And the problem with that link, whether made explicitly or implicitly, is that it serves to essentialise the concept of imprisonment.

3 - hollar tower.png
Wenceslas Hollar, Tower of London, c.1607-77

If the Tower was the first high security prison, then it acts as the historical blueprint for a self-evident response to self-evident questions of crime and punishment. Yet the Tower of London bore little resemblance to modern prisons, not least in terms of scale and social function. It has a cruel and often bloody history, yet typically served as a small political prison (among many other state functions) rather than as a lockup for innumerable criminals. Imprisonment wasn’t a common criminal punishment before the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Additionally, although there was undoubtedly money to be made in pre-modern imprisonment (as I have recently discussed), it was not the centre of a major industry invested in the ongoing growth of incarceration (widely referred to as the prison-industrial complex).

(As an aside: the summit’s website does include a passage from Wikipedia describing how the Tower ‘was built by William the Conqueror in 1078, and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite’, although I suspect that the intention is not to suggest that the ongoing practice of imprisonment in England is a lingering effect of the Norman yoke.)

Photo courtesy of Global Justice Now, via Flickr

As the Summit began this morning, protesters from the Reclaim Justice Network, alongside Global Justice Now, Right to Remain and other groups, picketed the Tower and will resume again at 4:40pm this afternoon, calling for the end to the privatisation and expansion of criminal justice and prisons, as well as an end to criminalised border enforcement.

Indeed, the summit is taking place in a context of ever-increasing private speculation in expanding prison systems. In the US, the ailing private prison industry experienced a sudden boost following Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Meanwhile, the UK faces a growing prison crisis (as I write this, I learn that prison officers across the country are unofficially striking today over health and safety concerns). Justice Secretary Liz Truss has responded with a commitment to expansion: increased staffing levels, expanded surveillance and a new statutory commitment to the social necessity of prisons, rather than reduction in inmate numbers. The UK already leads the pack for levels of incarceration in western Europe, and the trend across much of the continent seems to be towards continued growth.

The necessity of expansive and expanding prison systems is taken for granted. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice’s recent prison white paper emotively insists that the ‘first duty of government is to keep people safe, and prisons are vital to making sure this happens’, despite extensive research that challenges the apparently insoluble link between these two claims. It is assumed that imprisonment is an inherent part of human society, and that over time reform and technology have made this foundational facet of justice more efficient and humane.

Nowhere is this narrative of improvement better revealed than in a penal industry conference focused on modernisation, held in ‘the world’s original high security prison’ and hosting a ‘spotlight session’ on the ‘noble art of governing prisons’.

Better surveillance. Better discipline. Better constraint. Better prisons. The perfection of the ‘noble art’. The refinement (made more efficient by private capital) of an existing, inevitable system set down in time immemorial, rather than a relatively novel means of punishment and social control. The only substantial difference between prisons now and prisons almost a millennium ago, the narrative goes, is one of progress and improvement.

Screenshot of the European Custody & Detention Summit website

But the Tower doesn’t provide the origins of mass incarceration, or even of criminal imprisonment. The long history of imprisonment is not one of gradual modernisation, but of epochal shifts and dramatic changes in purpose and effect. We learn from Foucault of the significance of the modern prison system not just to criminal justice but to social ordering as a whole (although the nature and extent of this is debated), and powerfully from Angela Davis of both the dramatic role of the prison in perpetuating systemic racism and the development of economic interests surrounding incarceration in recent history. Prisons have often served as a means of coping with “social problems” (unruly political opponents; recalcitrant debtors; dangerous criminals) but these were and are particular solutions to particular challenges as perceived by particular interests.

One thing that all this reveals is the importance of telling the long-term history of imprisonment. The organisations and businesses that profit from incarceration already implicitly chart the history of these institutions. In their narrative, they are the engines of ongoing progress, rather than architects of the prison-industrial complex. In response, we need critical accounts of how and why prisons have been used through time and what this reveals about the societies in which they operated. We need to ask how these institutions came to be and how our assumptions about punishment and incarceration developed.

Otherwise, faced with growing prison crises, we risk believing that the only option is investment in even more institutional “progress”—better funding, more labour, improved technology, greater oversight—rather than to question why we imprison men and women on the scale we do, and if we even should.

Richard Bell


Other references:

Helpful prison statistics are available at the World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)

Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003)

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