In the ninth of our expert blog series, former UK prison governor and criminal justice expert, John Podmore, says that recognition that corruption is a widespread problem in prison systems – and subsequent action to tackle it – is long overdue.
While we recognise that there is corruption in politics, business, sport and most other walks of life we are reluctant to accept the possibility, let alone recognise the actuality of corruption within our prison systems. It is arguable that prison is precisely the sort of environment where corruption would readily develop and prosper. This is not to condemn all the hard working people in and around our prisons systems who are striving to provide decent and safe environments that protect the communities they are there to serve. It is to recognise the uniquely difficult and complex environment that is a prison. People in prison are not a homogeneous group. Many are convicted of crimes, others are innocent awaiting trial. There are children incarcerated only because prison is where their parent is. Others are locked up for political reasons or where health systems have insufficient capacity to care for those with mental health drug and alcohol problems. Nevertheless, it is a toxic combination: an environment where crime is a fact of life and an environment often under severe financial, political and structural pressure.
It is not only those incarcerated who comprise a complex heterogeneous group; those charged with their care are equally diverse. Many are carefully recruited, well trained, adequately remunerated and professionally led. Others are not. Some are directly employed while in some jurisdictions private companies provide staff. In addition there will be specialists such as doctors and teachers and NGOs and a wide range of volunteers may augment all.
The success or otherwise of prison systems depends primarily on the interactions and the relationships of these two groups of people. There are a plethora of international treaties and obligations and a wide variety of oversight mechanisms but it is staff-prisoner relationships which are the bedrock of decent and humane systems and the primary agents of reform. When we get it right policies will be implemented and practice will improve. Where we get it wrong attempts at reform will be futile. Where we get it badly wrong there will be corruption.
And it is in the complex and varied manifestations of corruption that much of our denial of the problem comes. Corruption will occur where staff prisoner relationships are inappropriate, out of balance or simply criminal, and within that context we must accept that staff can corrupt prisoners and prisoners can corrupt staff.
Corrupt practices can best be understood using Black’s Law Dictionary of 1968 where three terms are used: misfeasance, where an individual improperly performs a duty: malfeasance, involving direct misconduct or wrongful conduct and nonfeasance, often described as ‘looking the other way’ or as ‘omission’.
Most acts of misfeasance will revolve around general treatment of and conditions for prisoners and can give rise for example to families being required to pay bribes to prison staff merely for their relative to receive basic provisions such as food.
Malfeasance involves more readily identified misconduct such as the trafficking of drugs and mobile phones, embezzlement, theft, assisting escapes and active involvement with serious organised crime.
The last category, nonfeasance, is probably the most common form of misconduct reflecting a culture that sees ‘informing’ on others as more pejorative than ensuring that rules are followed and decent and humane treatment regarded as non-negotiable.
The first step in tackling corruption in a prison system is acknowledging the problem, not as a condemnation of it or as the result of a catastrophic event but as a basic recognition of the vulnerability of the system and a desire to manage it effectively and professionally. Some jurisdictions such as South Africa have enshrined their commitment in law with the CORRECTIONAL SERVICES ACT NO. 111 OF 1998 and augmented it with a code of conduct for staff (Department of Correctional Services Code of Conduct) which is distributed in laminated format to all employees.
Having acknowledged that corruption can occur it is necessary to assess the risks in individual prisons and across systems. This is often referred to as a Strategic Threat Assessment. In some prisons, serious organised crime may prosper while in others staff may simply let poor physical conditions and treatment proliferate by looking the other way. In some institutions many corrupt practices may be manifest and it may be necessary to prioritise according to needs and resources. In any even the third stage is a Corruption Prevention Strategy, a description of what action will be taken and by whom. Apart from the UK, which has operated dedicated corruption prevention units (eg one dealing with staff corruption in London prisons operated jointly with the Metropolitan Police); most countries operate units more widely across criminal justice systems. Hong Kong set up an Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974, Western Australia has a Corruption and Crime Commission, and Korea launched an Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission in 2008.
So while corruption in prison systems is inevitable it must not be ignored. To do so is in itself an act of nonfeasance. It must be tackled as a potentially insidious plague that flies in the face of penal reform.
About this blog series
To mark our 25th Anniversary and prepare for the Crime Congress in Qatar in April 2015, PRI is running a series of monthly expert guest blogs, addressing interesting current trends and pressing criminal justice challenges in criminal justice and penal reform.
Blogs will be available here on our website and as podcasts on the 25th of each month from May 2014 to April 2015. All blogs in the series so far can be found here.