Friday, August 14, 2015

How Great is the American-European Punishment Divide?

A few days ago, I read Marion Vannier's review of Jonathan Simon's Mass Incarceration on Trial (in Theoretical Criminology). Offering a generally favorable take, the review's only critique or "caution" centered on Simon's perhaps overly optimistic assessment of the European situation:
Mass Incarceration implies that European states have strong and ongoing ties with human rights and have successfully regulated imprisonment (pp. 141–142, 165) and countered penal populism (p. 169). Despite having developed a wide array of tools to preserve prisoners’ dignity and created agencies to report and prevent human rights violations, the story of imprisonment in Europe is also disconcerting. Recent media reports have documented how the number of inmates committing suicide in England and Wales has dramatically increased as a result, in part, of poor and inadequate health care. Similarly in Belgium, an inmate was recently granted the right to be euthanized, as the conditions of prison had become unbearable (Fink, 2014). And in 2012, the French prison, Les Baumettes, was placed under the spotlight for holding prisoners in degrading conditions. Dignity, human rights, may all be appealing to foster what Simon calls a ‘new common sense’. They may also, and somewhat ironically, propel a misleading message to the rest of the world. Their existence does not ensure that prisoners will not be exposed to neglect and inhumane conditions. Without continuous action to challenge the status quo, inmates’ undignified reality is at risk of being veiled by the availability of luring humanitarian concepts.
Whether a difference of opinion or a difference in emphasis, Vannier's critique highlights an interesting problem in P&S research: the fairly routine characterization of Europeans as more committed to dignity and less-harsh punishment than Americans, compared to the myriad examples illustrating points of similarity. Both seem to be accurate portrayals, so how do we reconcile these competing descriptions?

Since the first instantiation of my Punishment and Society class, I too have used the European case to illustrate the significance of the punitive turn in the 1970s. I start with the long-term abolition of capital punishment (using works by Hood, Zimring, and Garland) to show that, in the nineteenth century, America was essentially ahead of the curve, but by the 1970s we diverge in the opposite direction, as the last of the "major" European countries fully abolish their death penalties and we bring ours back from life support with a renewed zest for life.

I then discuss the qualitative differences in contemporary prisons using James Whitman's Harsh Justice (I assign his chapter on contemporary French and German prisons). As an aside, this is a very good chapter for generating student participation when asking, "What are French and German prisons like?" as the various details he offers---calling prisoners "Monsieur" or "Madame," knocking before entering, their right to privacy, etc..---tend to stick in their mind. Together, these offer a strong contrast between contemporary American penality.

But the American-European difference is also an area that, as Vannier notes, is more complex. It's not just a matter of rhetoric v. reality or local variation it seems. By the 2010s, there was already a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. Several articles on France (Chantraine 2010 in P&S, Cliquennois 2013 in P&S, Cliquennois and Champetier 2013 in TC) offered hints that French prisons were not as different from American prisons as we might think, and that the new penology itself was infiltrating French penality. (These were actually such novel trends that a French exchange student in my summer 2011 class insisted that I was wrong. She had worked in a justice-related government department and was adamant that there was no sex offender database in France until I later produced a few newspaper articles to confirm that I, or really Chantraine 2010, was not making this up.)

Around the same time, Vanessa Barker's award-winning TC article problematized the claim of "Nordic Exceptionalism." As one of the more receptive areas to prison research, Nordic countries have produced a fair amount of prison ethnography that has also shown the darker underbelly in some of these prisons, including Ugelvik (2011, 2014, P&S), which highlights (among other things) the plight of immigrants who compose a disproportionate amount of the prison population, and Ibsen (2013, LSI), which shows guards' use of discretion and arbitrariness.

Additionally, copious amount of research coming out of UK prisons and immigration detention centers (multiple articles by Bosworth, Crewe, Liebling, and colleagues) has shown that the UK is not immune to these countertrends. Crewe (2011, P&S; et al. 2014, BJS) especially has described a kind of Kafka-esque prison experience reminiscent of Foucault's point that softer is not necessarily better. Brutality may be less common, but the psychological effects are in some ways worse. Similarly, we have good evidence of the Canadian experience from Kelly Hannah-Moffat and others demonstrating the effects of neo-liberal governance on the prison experience.

Bringing these issues into sharp relief, about a month ago, Hadar Aviram posted to her California Corrections Crisis blog about the crisis in British prisons, based on The Guardian's recent article. Citing Aviram, citing the Guardian:
"The chief inspector even reports that prison officers at Wormwood Scrubs showed him cells that were so bad that they told him: “I wouldn’t keep a dog in there.” 
A few months before this, at the LSA annual meeting, I attended several panels that discussed the high-profile case of teenager Ashley Smith's in-prison suicide in 2007 as well as other significant, and even more recent, events that have highlighted the dark side of Canadian prisons, particularly their effect on women, juveniles, indigenous people, and people with mental illness.

So, in the 12 years since Whitman's book came out, we have plenty of counter examples to his claim of "continental dignity and mildness." The question remains how generalizable these counter examples are, but also whether America still is exceptional. As a non-comparativist (at least not geographically so), my fairly uninformed sense is: yes, America is still exceptional, even if the gap is closing. (This is certainly true quantitatively, but I think these qualitative examples also demonstrate as much.) But what do we do with the counter examples?

Much of the P&S research over the last twenty years has argued for greater complexity and nuance---acknowledging local cultural variation, gaps between rhetoric and practice, the mitigating role of front-line workers, the dual presence of apparently contradictory penal philosophies supporting practices. When we engage in international comparisons, this nuance sometimes gets lost. Comparison on the international scale requires a certain amount of stepping back in the same way that, when we step back historically, we still agree that the period since the 1970s represents a dramatic shift from past practices, even while we see some continuity over time, variation over space, lags in the shift, and ongoing disagreements between different sets of actors. It's important to recognize these differences and not imply a one-size-fits-all story, but we all recognize a general shift (even if we disagree about its magnitude or extensiveness). When we do international comparisons, we are examining the big trends rather than the nuanced differences across time and space within a particular country. How do we reconcile the recent push for greater nuance and the need to continue to perform important international comparative work?

In the end, I like Vannier's point that, overall, European countries have taken formal actions to protect rights and dignity, but these formal actions (and possibly cultural commitment) does not protect against realities behind bars that are sometimes no different, or no less horrifying, than those in America. Nevertheless, I don't have a strong sense of Western penality today: are we in a situation similar to Garland's (2001) description of US and UK penality---i.e., qualitatively similar trends with similar causes, but with differences in the degree to which these trends manifest---or something more like Whitman's (2003) description of the US and European countries---i.e., significant differences ideologically and in practice---but with outcroppings in European countries that show the trend is not uniform? That is, are Europeans becoming more like Americans in their penal policy or not? Indeed, my next question is, if we are in a situation that is more Garland-esque, is it the case that we used to be in the Whitman-esque scenario, but we have relatively recently shifted away? Or is there a third option: is European penality more variegated or conflicted than American punishment---"braided" as Hutchinson (2006, P&S) describes it? Indeed, both Barker (2013) and Chantrain (2010) have used variegation to describe their countries of interest (i.e., "Janus-faced" and "dualization"). Are European countries simultaneously committed to human rights and dignity (which are still thin in the US), but also attracted to policies of exclusion, as some of the recent reactions to immigrants suggest?

Finally, for those of you who teach sociology of punishment/punishment and society classes, how do you describe the US, European countries, and their differences and similarities?

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