Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

Probation as a total institution?

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The post and subsequent responses on the Guardian by Amelia Gentleman, Rod Morgan, Rabbi Krustovsky, and Cif commenters got me thinking. Gentleman presents an interesting picture of the Probation Service: one that is hidden but important, staffed by welfare focused people but managed by managerialist diktat, and that is firm but fair.

It is odd that the probation service gets so little attention in the press- there are three times more people supervised by probation than there are in prison and the probation service is responsible for making sure that people don’t harm anyone else when they are in a situation which is much more likely to result in harm than the other penal institution, the prison. Prison has been described as a total institution because it is surrounded by walls or fences and all activities takes place within these boundaries. Similarly, the boundaries between activities are merged- there is a breakdown of barriers between spheres of life such as sleeping, playing and working (Goffman 1962). Using this definition the Probation Service cannot be described as a total institution. But I do think there are similarities: after all, the probation service aims to control people, albeit in the community. It does attempt to control where and how people sleep, through the use of electronic tagging; it controls where people work and actively encourages them to do so; it does have fences restricting where people can go in the form of restriction orders- less enforceable or visible than a barbed wire topped fence but a fence all the same; there is also undoubtedly authority- and authority which impinges on its clients’ lives all (well, probably more likely most) of the time. Goffman argues that ‘The goal of the total institution is NOT to provide a different culture but to develop a tension between the home world and the institutional world’- the probation service does this- although it ostensibly aims to reintegrate resettle people into the community from which they have been alienated, it also works to create tension- the very fact that it allows criminals to be in the community creates tensions amongst with the ‘law-abiding majority’. And there is also tension created for the offender- they are in the community, they are supposed to be ‘getting on with their life’ but they are also being controlled by this hidden institution. I wonder if there’s an article in this idea- something along the lines of Cohen’s Visions of Social Control (not that I’m suggesting I’m anywhere near as intelligent as Cohen!) just that, as Shenkar says, ‘All organizations manifest some features of a total institution’. Maybe we need to re-evaluate the concept of a total institution taking into account technological advances, policy changes and political agendas to see what a total institution looks like now, rather than simply relying on Goffman’s excellent but 40 year old definition.


Written by criminologyandstuff

October 7, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Posted in criminal justice

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