Interview: Pete Brook – Author, Blogger. Part Two

‘Dominoes, Death Row, Texas’ 1979 – Bruce Jackson

My interview with Pete Brook continues, focusing on the obstacles that reform in America faces, and the outcomes without it….

Is the public attitude able to change towards the way we use prisons and who we imprison? 

PB: What’s happened over the last 40 years is the biggest experiment in human incarceration in the history of humanity. So you’re asking me there if the biggest experiment in decarceration in human history might happen. I hope so. There’s so many things that plug into it.

To have less prisons you need to have different sentencing guidelines. I spoke to Brian Stephenson, who is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and he was the first guy I have ever spoken to who put a figure on it. He said, if there was the political will, you could reduce the American prison population by 50%. That would be over 1.1 million people, and he’s saying you could do that in the next six or seven years, if all your ducks were lined up, and he said you could do it without affecting public safety and it would be to release or not punish with custodial sentences people who were drug addicts or people who had been sentenced for property crimes or people who….all people had never committed a violent crime, you know.

But, to get there you’re asking for a fundamental change in people’s attitudes. The prison system is supported by an American culture because it backs up, and actually, it fulfils the attitudes of the people.

‘Girl With Doll’ Remann Hall, Washington State, 2002. By Steve Davis

So as long as we’re puritan about drug use, and as long as drug use is criminalised and not treated as a public health issue then it will be difficult to change the system. Before people are willing to accept that the criminal justice system and policing generally impacts lower economic groups who tend to be minorities, then we’re not going to see a change, and I dare say that there are a lot of people in America that think that police interact with minorities only because minorities deserve it because that’s the way they behave. Those are racist attitudes. But they persist.

So I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I don’t even think it’s going to happen. Maybe as generations pass. I don’t think that’s as nearly an adequate answer as you would like.

People have to care about each other. It’s just really bizarre in a country that has professed Christian ideals that when it comes to the prison system people don’t seem to love their neighbour, they seem to hate their neighbour. They seem to have an incredible amount of indifference towards the fortune of their neighbour. I mean I’m not a religious person I’m not saying that you should let these people out because of Christian ideals. It makes it easy when I’m chatting to my parents because they’re catholic and I’m like Jesus is all about visiting people in prison and stuff. But it’s a very easy line of argument to use when you’re dealing with conservatives. You should care because that’s what you talk about elsewhere.

By Sye Williams

What are the consequences if there is no change or reform? 

PB: I really don’t actually want to think about that because I might end up saying something quite extreme and I tend not to like hyperbole from others.

There’s no choice. The American public don’t have a choice. The American public have to at some point stop making prisons. Now, that might happen because they and their politicians decide to do so and have a go at implementing different types of solutions. But what also might happen is that the divisions will grow deeper and deeper.

In the past, there have been famous prison riots. I don’t think prison riots are going to happen. I think if there’s a rebellion it might happen on the outside. I don’t want this to happen, but if you push people harder and harder and keep them down and what I’m talking about here is essentially the wealth gap in America, access to reliable services.

If you talk about the American Dream, but in reality it doesn’t exist, because poor people stay poor and rich people get richer and there’s never been larger gaps between the rich and poor, eventually what it is that supports those systems will have to collapse. And, if you keep incarcerating people and destroying communities then I think those communities are going to get really annoyed and if they’re not represented by any politicians then I don’t know ….what becomes their options?

Maybe I’m just thinking about civil disobedience and rebellion because we’ve had a glimpse of it through Occupy.

I don’t know what the answer is. But either the American public takes responsibility for the broken system itself and deals with it with an informed and purposeful way, or they just ignore and it all collapses and everybody loses out.

You know what would be the best thing for prison reform? It’d be Justin Bieber. You know, I’m not precious about it. Any way you can get hard shocking facts into people’s heads is great. But so far, I think I’ve changed some minds. That’s good enough for me.

Follow Pete’s work at


Interview: Pete Brook – Author, Blogger. Part One

Pete Brook is the author of He has spent the best part of the last ten years focusing on the problems of mass incarceration in the US. His project, focusing on photography of prisons (though not a photographer himself), aims to bring to light issues of social justice, ethics and also question how we view the prison system through media and politics.

The prison population has quadrupled in America since 1980, and the States have the highest proportion of prison inmates to population in the world. I caught up with Pete a little while ago to talk about the prison system. In this first part of the interview, we discuss the American system, Pete’s work, and also, why the problem has ignored up until now.

When did you first get into your work on Prison Reform? 

PB: Being an activist in Prison Reform doesn’t pay the bills really so my first few years in America was working as a photo researcher to pay the bills. So I didn’t start writing about prisons until 2008. But the issue first came on my radar in 2004 when I was writing my dissertation at the University Of Manchester.

I always say if I was an American kid myself I would be as interested in the issues of prison reform, because it’s common sense that you would care about something that’s so agrieviously wrong, broken and ignored.

I was at a conference recently and everyone was saying they were inspired and surprised really, by the passion and the clarity that myself and other panellists have towards their work with in prisons and prison communities. But to me it’s far simpler than any other type of work. When the problem is so obvious, it’s quite easy to remain convinced about it, engaged with it and explore it time and time again.

Why is the problem ignored so much if it is so obvious? Why aren’t more people concerned, or been concerned in the stages up until now? 

PB: There is no incentive really for any group to push prison reform discourse. If the people really cared about it then politicians would chase those votes. But people don’t care about it partly because you know, frankly it’s one of many issues. People are gonna care about education and healthcare before they’re gonna care systems that affect people outside of their families. So you know, I don’t expect that everyone would care about prisons or be advocates for reform. But in a lot of cases, people either don’t know a lot or are misinformed about prisons. So that goes in my mind, back to the media. I don’t think the correct type of images or discussions are being had. And I don’t think people understand what prisons are like.

It just takes quite large leaps of imagination for people to put aside strong emotional responses…understandable…understandable emotional responses to crime and violence and fear. So those are quite large hurdles. People don’t need to….if they don’t think that  the prison system affects them and they’ve decided they don’t really have anything to do with those that the prison system does affect, then they’ve got no incentive really to look at what’s going on.

So it’s not that people are bad. It’s that there’s this perfect storm of bad media, bad politics, bad information to a degree, in some states, money and lobbying activity, that’s a corrupting force that’s coming from labour union unfortunately. I think labour unions are great, except when they get involved in making or pushing bad legislation which has happened.

But I am hopeful. I do think that’s changing. For whatever reasons, well, for economical, both Republicans and Democrats have started to question whether prisons make economic sense. The answer is obviously no. Because they don’t work and they’re expensive. And there’s been more discussion in national and international platforms.

I think it’s becoming more of a debate in the public sphere and I think that’s a good thing.

Photo by Steve Davis

How do Prisons differ across America? [Pete visited some prisons as part of the book he is writing on Prison Photography]

PB: I actually didn’t got to as many prisons as I had hoped because they’re quite difficult to get into I found.

I can certainly talk to you about different systems. Within a given state there’s County Jails as well, so if you’re sentenced to two years or less, generally, you’ll go to a County Jail. More than that and you can go to a State Prison. There’s differences between states but generally that’s how it breaks down.

Jails, because the populations are more transitory, they tend to be a bit more hectic, noisy, filthy. But that said, if you can improve the conditions, jails are better places for people to serve time if they have to serve time, because they are close to their community. When you put someone in a State Prison you can put them in a facility ten-twelve hours away. It’s very beneficial for families if they can maintain a relationship as well.

On the coasts and in the North prisons tends to be…there’s a lot of old prisons which are shitholes. Big drafted Victorian stone buildings and they’re slowly being replaced but not necessarily with anything better sometimes with something that is so punitive and brutal and stark. I don’t know what’s best for the inmates. I think architectures only one of the conditions.

Anyway what you will put in your piece is that when you go down to the South, prisons are totally different. I visited Angola. That place is operated like a thief-dom. The warden there has total autonomy. He’s gone on the record trying to bribe journalists in the past and he’s still in a job. Basically anything he wants to get done, he’ll just do it. He started the prison rodeo, and the crafts fair and the programs.  Prisons there are very busy but it stands to reason that you would keep people busy. You don’t have to be a man of God, which this warden is, to know that it’s good to keep people busy. With food and rodeo he can generate his own income and then he can put in for programmes I would say are beneficial, but all this very like loose autonomous administration in prisons you wouldn’t be able to do in the Northern states. People are divided. You know, at least the guy’s accountable. Or seemingly accountable. He only shows you bits of the prison he’s happy to show you though. He’s very media savvy also.

Then just to talk briefly about another, not a warden in this case, but a Sheriff. Sheriff Jo Arpaio in Phoenix, Arizona. He is fantastic at using visual clichés to dictate narrative. Arizona now has become a centre for immigration issues, criminal justice and Sheriff Joe Arpaio who calls himself the toughest sheriff in America has managed to use his jail system to conflate all of these things and to excise the right and dismay the left. It’s really divisive politics that’s going on. That’s a jail system operated for as alike a warning to the public at large. It operates like a circus and it’s meant to scare and perversely entertain people. And that sort of behaviour also you wouldn’t find in other parts of America.

Photo by Jenn Ackermann
A Corrections Officer comforts an inmate during a psychotic episode. 2008.

Your work must involve you quite deeply on a personal level. Where does this leave you? Is this your issue now? Is there an end-point?

PB: My activities are always changing a little bit. But I think people gravitate others if they have a passion. So there’s gonna be a lot of people who don’t wanna hear me yap on about prison reform but they’ve already made their minds up. I think there will be a lot of people who are just curious because I’m just talking about stuff that doesn’t always get talked about. I’ve been told that I can talk about these really dark and depressing issues with humour which I think may be a talent.

But yeah it has become my issue, especially talking about it through looking at people’s photography. I’m asking questions about society about a capitalist society reward of selfish behaviour, I’m talking about politics, I’m talking about media, I’m talking about our responsibility as public and consumers and those topics are inexhaustible really. So I don’t foresee an end point, yet.

But as I say I’ve diversified since the road trip. I did newspapers, I’m doing a book at the moment. I’m going to be applying for some large grants to write and there’s the photography show which is going to New York next month. I’m always doing college lectures. So it’s just a case of always trying to keep myself honest and engaged and also trying to be imaginiative about different ways I can engage the public.

Like this conference I went to at the weekend which was full of MFA Art students and art faculty and hairy liberals, but they still had quite a limited knowledge of the prison system. I’m always amazed by how shocked people are when I present stuff that I don’t suppose is novel to anyone but it obviously still is.

Follow Pete’s blog at:

The 2011 Riots – Part One.

Over 3000 people were arrested during and after the 2011 riots. Many of these were children, teenagers and young people under 25.

The youngest person prosecuted was a boy of 11, from North East London who smashed the window of a Debenham’s, causing £6000 worth of damage, and stole a bin worth £50.

The government say that the riots are one of the main reasons for the huge increases in prison population, particularly for young offenders.

David Cameron said at the time of the riots that those involved were ‘sick’ parts of society. The view of rioters became the great debate, with some people agreeing with Cameron, in that these people were criminals. Others, felt that the rioters were themselves victims.

There are many things to consider when trying to understand why so many children and young people took to the streets on August 6th 2011, to steal laptops, TVs and in other cases, food.

The approach to punishment was, as Cameron had promised, a harsh one. With some offences receiving double the punishment the same act would have received a year prior to the riots.

There are several important questions that the riots have raised:

Is the sentencing justifiable? Is it necessary to, at times, double the sentence? Is this punishing someone appropriately, fairly and in line with the offence committed, as the Justice System should?

Are children and young people entirely responsible? Is there anything else that could have added to the anger felt in these riots, or was it purely villainous crime by ‘evil’ and heartless  youth?

A lot of those involved in the riots were children and youth from unprivileged and largely poor backgrounds. The recession and lack of jobs have surely not helped in the build of tensions as more and more of those struggling fall below poverty lines and help.

Cutbacks to services during times of recession have also inevitably closed youth centres and clubs. There are many other problems involved, and I do not want to make a simplistic and vague link between the cut in youth clubs and the riots, as I do not believe this was the only factor in the tensions felt at this time. However, I do believe many youth workers from these areas were certainly not surprised by what happened on August 6th.

Here is a short video from The Guardian, shot around where I live – Wood Green. It was filmed 6 days before the riots. It focuses on the closure of 8 youth centres in the Haringey Borough, and asks some young people what they think, with one young boy predicting ‘there will be riots’.


Child Incarceration: The statistics.

To begin research in this area, here are some of the most recent statistics on child incarceration in England and Wales:

From Prison Population Statistics – House Of Commons Library – Feb 2012

At December 2011 there were:

–       1444 juveniles in prison – Juveniles are aged 15-17 years

–       Of these 1444, 250 were awaiting trial and 85 were awaiting sentence

–       268 12-15 year olds in privately run secure training centres (STC)

–       158 12-15 year olds in local authority secure children homes (SCH)

England and Wales has a Youth Justice System (YJS) which aims to monitor youth offending and reduce the number of young people under the age of 18 offending and re-offending.

Their report, published in January 2012 said:

–       The number of people in the YJS has reduced in the last few years.

–       Since 2007/8 there are 55% fewer young people coming into the system.

–       Since 2000 re-offending by young people has reduced 17%

–       10-17 year olds accounted for 17% (241,737) of all arrests in 2009/2010

–       There were 39,407 youth cautions given in 2010/2011

–       There were 176,511 proven offences by young people in 2010/2011 and 45,519 were first time entrants to the YJS

“While the overall rate of re-offending has remained broadly stable the number of young people in the re-offending cohort has gone down, with particular reductions among those with no previous offences and those receiving pre-court disposals. Because of this, those young people coming into the criminal justice system are, on balance, more challenging to work with. This is reflected in the higher predicted rate of re-offending and the higher average previous number of offences for each young person.”

                                                Youth Justice Statistics, 2012, Executive Summary

The YJS also monitor ‘risk factors’ in children. This would represent any added difficulties that may be associated with re-offending e.g. substance abuse, living arrangements. Those young people with more risks re-offended more often: 34% with 0-2 risks re-offended compared with 81% of those with 11-12 risks reoffended. This is why some of the children coming into the system may be more challenging to work with, despite an overall reduction in young offenders.

Prison Population Statistics report can be found in full HERE

Youth Justice Statistics report can be found in full HERE

Early Day Motion 2595

A campaign is currently being passed around Parliament in favour of community sentences. The Early Day Motion 2595 has gained 34 signatures from MPs and is supported by the Howard League for penal reform.

The campaign aims to replace short-term sentences with community work, in the belief that prison fails to rehabilitate or prevent further crime.

Community sentences cost around a tenth of what it costs to send a person to prison for a year, and so with severe budget cuts looming and prison populations rising, a solution must be sought.

Aside from the benefit of lower costs, community sentences have proved to be far more effective at reducing re-offending rates and ‘offer a proportionate response to relatively minor offences in comparison to short-term prison sentences which often result in loss of employment, family breakdown and homelessness’.

You can read the full motion HERE.

The Howard League is urging members of the public to write to their MP, and get them to support the campaign.

To find out more, or use one of their pre-written templates visit

The Prison Reform Trust – Talking Justice : Talking Sense

‘Prisons have become warehouses of our social problems’

Colin Moses – Chairman of POA Prison Officers Association 2002-2011


The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) is, in their own words, ‘an independent UK charity working to create a just, humane and effective penal system‘.

They have recently released a six minute film called ‘Talking Justice : Talking Sense’ presenting the case for prison as a last resort, as prisons reach close to capacity.

There are some poignant messages and certainly some food for thought as the loopholes and pitfalls of the current system are highlighted, and they make for some grave results.

The conclusion is finding alternatives. Restorative Justice comes up as one positive suggestion as Peter Woolf, a man who spent 18.5 years in prison and committed thousands of crimes finally found the will to change after facing his last victim Will Riley, in a meeting that changed both of their lives. For the better.

Take six minutes to watch the film HERE.

There is also a chance to hear each contributor speak for two minutes each HERE.

There must be…There are alternatives and these are being demonstrated in other countries but we seem so fascinated, obsessed with locking people up in this country from a very early age and for quite minor offences that we lose sight of the fact that prison should be for serious offenders and only that justifies the expense.’

Paul Tidball

President, Prison Governors Association 2006 – 2010

‘It shouldn’t become a big private industry that trades on people’s misery. It shouldn’t be an alternative welfare state where the vulnerable, the mentally ill and the illiterate founder away for years on end with no hope of rehabilitation.’

Shami Chakrabarti

Director, Liberty

Article: ‘Prison leaves 17,000 children separated from their mothers’.

I came across this GUARDIAN ARTICLE whilst doing some research. It was published a couple of months ago, and details the statistics from research undertaken by the Howard League – a penal reform trust.

The report, called ‘The Voice of a Child’, showed that over 17,000 children were separated from their mothers in England and Wales in 2010.

                                                 IMAGE: THE GUARDIAN

The consequences cause ‘long term emotional, social and psychological damage’ for the children because of restrictions on visiting hours which are mainly only allowed during daytimes when children should be at school.

The Howard League also found that many of the mothers were imprisoned for non-violent offences, which could have been punished in the community, meaning that 11,000 of these cases would not have lead to the separation of mother and child.

The matter is also affected by the number of women who are in prison awaiting trial, only to be found not guilty.

The Howard League suggests that mothers should be placed in secure units that can provide better visiting hours, and also to end the imprisonment of those who are convicted of non-violent offences.