Foreigners in Prison

It makes me very uneasy to hear that the government is adapting some prisons for foreign prisoners. The worry is that these new prisons will create a two-tier system, with a harsher justice for those of different citizenship.

Beware the tabloid Right, who will surely advocate this two-tier system. They will ask: Why should foreigners have the same rights and standards as British citizens? The answer is that anything else will hinder integration. Send out the message that the law treats foreigners differently, then surely foreigners will treat the law differently, in return. If we ask foreigners to “integrate” when they come to Britain, the least we can do is ensure that they are “integrated” into our legal system too.

Alternatively, the two-tier system could work in the foreigners favour, with more services and a cushier ride provided for those who do not speak English. We can easily imagine the furore that would surround such a revelation. Either way, this is a policy promotes inequality, and therefore invites trouble.

11 Replies to “Foreigners in Prison”

  1. Hmmm. Does it? Things don’t have to be identical to be equal.

    If “foreigners” have different “prison needs”, then to promote equality, their needs should be met just as non-“foreigners'” needs would be, even if those “needs” happen to be different.

    Look at the example of gender if you want convincing.

  2. But there is no suggestion that women’s prisons are more or less squalid than the men’s equivalent, is there? One (or both) of those charges will soon be levelled at these foreigners prisons.

  3. No, but they have different facilities, to reflect the different needs of women and men. Equality does not mean forcing everybody to be the same, but respecting everybody equally. Arguments that suggest that equality equates to treating everyone exactly the same are deeply dubious in my view.

  4. To be fair I think it’s a pragmatic measure. Foreign prisoners are perceived to need different facilities, especially translators, and I’d imagine other things to reflect religious/cultural practices, toilets facing the right way for muslims, special diets etc. Having newer, purpose built facilities I’d say if there is a 2-tier system the foreign tier will have higher standards, stand by for old lags claiming “foreign” ancestry.

  5. I don’t think that Muslims need toilets facing any particular way! Orientation is only important for prayer.

    Clarice, you’re right to some extent about what “equality” should mean, although I recall the “separate but equal” policy was deemed Not Good Enough in the USA during the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1960s. The fear then, as now, is a pragmatic one – that ‘separate’ will lead quickly to ‘unequal’.  Like I said, it makes me uneasy.

  6. Separate is not the same as different though, so it doesn’t really speak to my point. Separation, and the reasons for it, and the consequences of it is really a totally “separate” issue to the point I was making.

    Again, the gender example might be pertinent here. We have “separate” prisons for women and men, but as you say, “there is no suggestion that women’s prisons are more or less squalid than the men’s equivalent”. Which kind of scuppers the argument that “separate will quickly lead to unequal”, at least in the squalor stakes at any rate. Ditto for separate public conveniences.

    Actually, I’m completely right about what “equality” should mean. Of course, as the philosopher Nelson Goodman pointed out in 1977, sameness and difference are really meaningless concepts unless you specifiy the regards in which the similarity (and difference) of two things are to be measured. I wish I had a ppe degree, to be able to articulate this more clearly 🙂

  7. Hmm. This, though, is exactly the criticism of multiculturalism and one of the reason given for the breakdown in society – the lack of no common ground at all. Is there no point where “equality” does require exactly the same service? We don’t segregate women or ethnic groups for everything. I think the case for segregation needs to be properly made in each case. It cannot be quietly imposed without discussion.

    In the case of prisons, I am already convinced of the case for segregation of men and women. But I’m not convinced of the case for segregation based on ethnicity or nationality.

  8. Yes, Rob, this is the thing. Equality can mean exactly the same service, depending on what you’re saying is the same as what. You have to be precise, and people mostly aren’t. They think “the same” is quite precise enough, but it isn’t.

    In one sense, men and women are treated “the same”, in the sense that they both get dedicated single-sex prisons (for eg). Of course, there’s also a sense in which they’re getting something different – a man might be in Brixton, while a woman is in Holloway. In this sense, to treat both genders “the same”, they’d have to be holed up in identical cells within the same building. Do you see the distinction I’m making?

    In my view, equality is when two parties are receiving something of identical value to them. To be able to conceive of this type of equality, however, requires the equality deliverer to be able to see things from the point of view of both parties, and this seems very often to be rather difficult for a lot of people to do. Some people think applying their prejudices is good enough in this regard, but of course that can lead in the wrong direction, and some people might say it was presumptuous or even arrogant, ignorant, self-centric etc.

    On this latter point, for instance, owing to ignorance, my prejudices are all I have to go on, when considering a case either for segregation, or for the separate issue of “different” treatment. I am not convinced of a case for either, but I could conceive of hypothetical different needs of “foreigners” which in the name of equality would actually necessitate “different” treatment.

  9. I think something that perhaps isn’t being said officially is that prison mirrors wider society, but with shorter haircuts, more tatoos and less “tolerance”. Consequently, there is probably a degree of friction between various groups in overcrowded, mixed prisons, and, rather than facing possible disorder and violence, maybe the authorities took the view that segregation was a pragmatic solution.

    The debate about equal meaning “the same”/”not the same” never seems to go away. In the context of public services it can only ever mean “an equal loss to the provider of the service” so in this example the prison authorities must be seen to be spending the same amount of resource, per head, on foreign versus UK prisoners. The value of that resource to the recipient cannot be considered or measured because it is relative. Some prisoners might value satellite tv more highly than a library and so on. So the authority can only consider the comparitive cost of those two services, not the value that individual prisoners might place on them.

    In different scenarios, especially in something like private sector pay, the calculation becomes a little more complex, how do you measure and thus reward, for example, the added value of a secretary, compared to a salesman ?
    I think Clarices’ argument is slightly dangerous in that it has been shown that many women will, all other things being equal, do the same job for lower pay than their male counterparts. So, in a competitive environment, an unethical employer could impose unequal pay and justify it on the basis that it is of equal relative value to each recipient. In other words they are both equally happy doing the same job for unequal pay ?

  10. I do not think the debate is about whether equality = “same” or “not the same”. It is rather more subtle than that, Matt M. It is about the relevant points of comparison in same-different judgements. And actually, I don’t think it’s even a debate, it’s just that some people can’t (or won’t) grasp this subtlety.

    I disagree with MM about equality of treatment being defined by equality of loss to the service provider. I think that’s utterly backwards, and highly dangerous. It’s a recipe for inequality, as he shows in his equal pay example.

    By his argument, health services should not be providing care for pregnant women or women giving birth, because that would constitute an additional loss, relative to the loss incurred by providing for men’s health. You see how backwards this is. Men are entitled to healthcare that meets their needs, but women, by this argument, are not.

    Equality has to be defined by the value to the individual of the service received. Men should be entitled to healthcare that meets their needs, and women should be entitled to the same. Even if the cost to the service provider of providing this is not equal in both cases. Rather crudely, I am assuming that the costs of treating gender-specific illnesses on both sides would cancel eachother out, and that pregnancy and childbirth related care is the only substantive factor that does not have a cross-gender equivalent in terms of cost. Then again, imagine there was a gender difference in the incidence of certain conditions (eg depression, autism, learning disabilities) – by Matt’s argument, whichever gender had the higher incidence would miss out in terms of resources, because presumably the upper limit on the costs would be those of the lower-incidence gender. You see how bonkers (and unequal) this is?

    So it is MM’s argument which is dangerous, not Clarice’s. For the case of equal pay for equal work, I am too irritated by the ignorance of the MM argument here to even bother to take it apart. It is wrong and twisted on soooo many levels…..

  11. I don’t see how you can have points of comparison when need is a subjective judgement. If you measure anything according to “need” then what tends to happen is the most resources are given to the group that shouts the loudest. Emotionality and fashion then replace science and rationality as arbiters of what constitutes a “need” versus a “want”.

    Worse than that, groups that are adept at organising themselves and loudly articulating “need” tend to then get what they want, generally at the expense of groups that aren’t. That is why for example, mental health has always been the poor relation of the NHS.

    “Rather crudely, I am assuming that the costs of treating gender-specific illnesses on both sides would cancel eachother out, and that pregnancy and childbirth related care is the only substantive factor that does not have a cross-gender equivalent in terms of cost”.

    But that’s the whole problem, there is no equivalence. Men have shorter life expectancy, get ill more often, and it tends to be more serious when they do get ill. Women live longer and enjoy better health. If there were to be equivalence in terms of need the result would be a huge reallocation of resources to some very unfashionable people (mostly white, mostly male, mostly heterosexual, mostly old and mostly working class) with some very unfashionable diseases (coronorary heart disease, diabetes, bowel and lung cancer). Instead we get people dying of preventable infections in hospital, whilst the NHS spends millions on anti smoking leaflets (fashionable middle class obsession), homeopathy (fashionable middle class quakery) and innoculations for schoolchildren against a disease that’s already screened for, and less than 1% of them will ever suffer from (blatant sexist bias). That is a needs based NHS and it’s not rational. Curing cancer must always be more important than curing the common cold, no matter how much the cold suffer “needs” a cure.

    “by Matt’s argument, whichever gender had the higher incidence would miss out in terms of resources, because presumably the upper limit on the costs would be those of the lower-incidence gender. You see how bonkers (and unequal) this is?”

    But it’s bonkers now. Six times more people (mostly men) die of colon as compared to ovarian cancer (women) but there is no screening programme for the former because it’s “too expensive”. Unless you are suggesting that women need to be saved from a slow and painfull death more than men, that is an example of the fundamantal flaw in a needs based system. I was proposing the opposite, that need is independently, objectively and systematically assesed and diease treated on the basis of it’s seriousness, not the colour, age or gender of the suffferer.

    In terms of pay it’s not my argument. I’m not supporting it and it may well be twisted, but it’s reality, and is probably still happening in every economy in the world.

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