a bird and a bottle

A New Kind of Incarceration: Giving Prisoners The Keys (Literally)
March 28, 2007, 8:44 pm
Filed under: criminal justice, law, news, news & views, politics, Uncategorized, wider world

There’s an uproar in the U.K. these days over a new policy in place in several prisons there: giving incarcerated men and women the keys to their cells.

Rubbing your eyes? You read it right.

It has become widespread practice in British prisons to give the incarcerees keys to safety locks on their cells. Focused on those men and women who are nearing release, the policy is meant to help inculcate responsibility for one’s own belongings and respect for others.

British right wingers, of course, are in a frenzy:

Shipley Tory MP Philip Davies accused the Government of “turning prisons into hotels”.

He said: “People will be horrified to know so many prisons give inmates their own keys. It will reinforce their views that the regime is far too lax and cushy.

“These people are banged up for a reason. But the Government seems more concerned about the human rights of criminals than those of their victims, who are footing the bill to keep them in increasingly pleasant surroundings.”

(don’t you just love how the Daily Mail puts “human rights” in scare quotes like that (not in the quoted portion)? As if it’s not a real concept.)

Anyway, of course this policy doesn’t mean that incarcerated men and women actually roam free. They are in prison, after all. There’s the whole trouble of armed guards and barbed wire fencing. It’s not as if keeping someone locked in a 8×10 cell is requisite to incarceration. The British Home Office agrees.

Home Office Minister Gerry Sutcliffe said: “It’s mainly used for people who are soon going to be released or in open prisons.

“It’s all part of providing incentives to encourage them to take more responsibility for themselves, to give them a little bit more respect and decency.”

He stressed that the prisoners’ locks could be over-ridden by staff keys and insisted: “There are no security issues about this. The keys are for their own cells and nowhere else.”

Could this work in the U.S.? Is it a good enough policy that we should care? Is this even a place where prisoner’s rights activists should be expending their energy?


9 Comments so far
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I say bring back the stockades and the dungeons.

Comment by madmouser

It seems to me that giving prisoners their own keys is more of a symbolic move – both on the part of the government (prisons are not about throwing away the key) and for the prisoners themselves (half-way to being master of their own fate again) – than a practical move. Which means it’s probably the kind of thing that could help generate highly negative, anti-prison-reform headlines without yielding many concrete results. I support the idea entirely, but think that it wouldn’t be at the top of my list for American prison reform.
The idea of the halfway house might be better suited for the American temperament.

Comment by professorplum

This is not a new concept in Denmark, where prisoners are allowed to hold off-premise jobs. They check-out in the morning and sign-in at close of day. Weekend home visits are sometimes allowed, same in/out procedure. The prospect of shame brought to the family and social ostracism is what keeps felons in line. Note: Violent crime is almost unknown in Denmark.

Perhaps a certain class of prisoner (i.e., non-violent, not threatening to society) can be treated similarly here. A prisoner holding an outside job might be a saleable proposition. Worth a try, at least.

Comment by Swampcracker

I agree, Swampcracker. My guess is that the fact that such a program is old news in Denmark is more a reflection of the lack of violent crime rather than a cause of it. And I think that the lack of violent crime is probably a result at least in part of the country’s social welfare policies.

So I say: want to lower crime rates? Think about what more socialistic countries do. And do it (I’m not saying we should be socialist. I am saying that we should have national healthcare and real public welfare supports, etc.)

Comment by bean

Hard to say what accounts for low violent crime rates in Denmark; the variables are complex: small country size (5 million), lower illicit drug use, social safety net, prevailing social customs, more equalized income distribution, health services available, population homogeneity, as examples. To determine why would require rigorous social research methods.

What accounts for higher violent crime rates here? Perhaps the inverse of “all of the above” plus a real bad attitude on the part of law-makers, politicians, and voters. An almost intractable problem, but I wouldn’t want to commit an error of mystification.

Comment by Swampcracker

I say people are ready to hear this stuff; everyone wants to save money and the cost of housing an inmate seems to be more and more in the public eye.

I live in Alaska, which is kind of a weirdo state in many ways, and they’ve just started ankle monitoring here as an alternative to incarceration. People with ankle monitors can be employed [in fact I think they kind of have to be, or be in treatment], go about their business, and get this: the ankle cuff can actually detect levels of narcotics/alcohol through the leg sweat. So I’m kind of happy, but also paranoid. Why paranoid? Because they also have this other wierd thing here, called 3rd party custodian, which is not an alternative to incarceration except for pre-trial, if you can’t get out on bail. What happens is that the court approves, in a hearing, a solid citizen who volunteers to be in sight and sound of you at all times, and who will be responsible for your appearance at future court dates. Sometimes it’s your dad, or your boss, or your friend or whatever. It’s kind of a nightmare, and you don’t get any jail credit for it. But it lets you work, see your kids, fix the leak in your roof, etc. so people do it. The problem I’m seeing is that instead of an alternative to jail, I believe it’s being used as an alternative to unsecured bond, or reasonable bond. It’s being used as a justification for crazy prohibitive bonds being set – “$10,000 cash only or court approved third party custodian” – so if you don’t have the money [my clients don’t or they wouldn’t be my clients], and all your friends are deadbeats, then you roast in jail on a nonviolent charge, so you’ll take whatever offer the d.a. gives you because you’d be time-served before trial.

WHere was I? Oh yeah, my paranoid fear with the ankle monitor is that it will be used when no incarceration at all, or a shorter sentence, would be appropriate. In other words, we’ll all be running around with ankle monitors. But we’ll see.

Comment by Phoebe Love

Phoebe – it sounds like what’s going on in Alaska is super interesting, and far ahead of the rest of the country (also, I hear the AK Supreme Court is very progressive. Is that true?). The ankle bracelet as an ATI seems great to me – allows people to keep jobs and family and community connections, and circumvents a lot of the problem of offender re-entry.

But I understand your fear of the third party custodians. I can see the pro — gets people out of local jails — and the cons — is seen as an alternative to setting realistic bonds. Do you see this happening across the offense spectrum. I mean, is this third party custodian plan being used for drug offenses only? or serious violent offenses? Or something in between? And what about the ankle bracelets? For drug offenses only?

Comment by bean

[…] Giving Prisoners the Keys: It has become widespread practice in British prisons to give the incarcerees keys to safety locks on their cells. Focused on those men and women who are nearing release, the policy is meant to help inculcate responsibility for one’s own belongings and respect for others. […]

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yes, the Supreme Court is good here.
Third Party Custodian:
They use it for every kind of offense, but it’s only a bail thing, not an alternative to sentenced time, and you don’t get any time off your sentence, it’s a bail condition.

The people who are least likely to get out on 3rd party are serious drug addicts, because they’ll do anything for drugs, including sneak out on their grandparents while the grandparents are sleeping, to get drugs, even when they know they’re going to get caught.

The second least likely are alleged violent offenders, but a “strong” third party, combined with distance from the victim’s residence, will work.

What annoys me is when it’s required for someone accused of insurance fraud, or a marijuana grow that was confiscated anyway – like they’re going to buy a lot of lamps and start up a crop while awaiting trial.

Really, I’m happy about the ankle monitor thing. They’re starting slowly – only 15 at a time, and it just started.

Comment by Phoebe Love

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