Thursday, 20 September 2012

Coercive Confinement

Coercive Confinement in Post-Independence Ireland is hot-off the printing presses and already appears to be making ripples outside the niche criminological audience, as evidenced by a recent review in the Irish Times which states that the book deserves a wide readership, and Fintan O'Toole describing it as 'a very important book'. So The DA were delighted that the authors, Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell, were able to join us to discuss the book. Decamping from our normal snug in Mulligan's on Poolbeg Street, the impressive and austere surroundings of the panopticon of Kilmainham Gaol provided the perfect setting to discuss issues of social control, coercive confinement and Irish social history.
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The idea for the book began life as an article that O’Sullivan and O’Donnell produced for Punishment and Society in 2007 in which they presented an alternative framework to analyse the ‘custodial landscape’. They decentralise aggregate prison numbers as the main strand of evidence upon which to draw conclusions about levels of punitiveness or tolerance. Instead they locate the prison on a wider spectrum of detention and chart it across a longer time frame. Using ‘coercive confinement’ as an alternative mode of analysis the authors bring together previously ignored institutions of social control, such as psychiatric hospitals, Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalen Laundries, reformatory and industrial schools as well as prisons.

The authors noted that upon the publications of the Ryan and Fern Reports there has been a collective denial of institutions of coercive confinement; ‘if only we’d known…’ has become something of a collective anthem.  As the authors told us, with a staggering 1% of the population being held against their will at one time, it affected so many families that widespread denial of their existence is utterly implausible. Both said they were moved by a John Banville article in the New York Times in which he speaks frankly about the tacit and widespread awareness of the institutionalisation which faced the poorer boys in his class when it came to post-primary. He is also honest about the silence that pervaded Irish society on this issue, ‘Everyone knew, but no one said’.

Challenging this convention, Eoin and Ian decided to use contemporary articles written in national publications about these institutions to expose the reality that this was not a covert practice. The book is divided into three sections: Part I – Patients, paupers and unmarried mothers; Part II – Prisoners; Part III – Troubled and troublesome children. Therein a wide range of source material, such as government reports, Irish Times investigative pieces and periodical articles show us, in the voices of the day, how these institutions were understood and being discussed.

These contemporaneous articles gave a vivid sense of many of the pervasive concerns of the day. One DA member noted the persistent anxiety surrounding Anglicanism and the fears of proselytising by this group, a fear which was repeatedly expressed by those within the Catholic Church and which provided an impetus to attempt to care for all unwanted babies, lest they find their way into heretical hands. Yet another thread which wound through many of the extracts was the continual comparisons to England, mention was repeatedly made to policy or legal innovations across the water, or indeed to the lamentable lapses in morality occasioned by their disintegrating social fabric.

Linking the network of institutions of confinement throughout Ireland with the development of penal welfarism in Ireland, the issue arose as to what extent the concept of rehabilitation had been 'farmed out' to sites such as the Mother and Baby Home, and the industrial school. For example, the industrial schools were originated with a clearly rehabilitationist ethos underpinning the 19th century legislation which established them.  Certainly, benign intentions were evident behind the inception of many of the institutions, despite subsequent neglect and failure. In this vein, one of the intended rehabilitating features of places such as the Mother and Baby Homes, namely their discretionary nature which was viewed as less stigmatising and therefore of more benefit to women resuming lives after confinement, was actually a factor which went on to contribute to the abuses as limited State intervention and considerable autonomy saw these sites operate without check for decades.

The authors' more expansive framework of coercive confinement combined with the rich first-hand accounts of these institutions and the reports looking at conditions within them makes for sobering and sad reading. For those who like to look back upon the sepia-toned good old days of low crime and low imprisonment rates this books brings into sharp focus the hidden reality of Irish society. It was noted by someone in attendance that it is for this reason that O’Sullivan and O’Donnell’s publication is also a wonderful probing piece of social history.

Popular accounts of Irish social history on the topic of institutionalisation commonly lay the full weight of blame at the feet of the Church and the State; however O’Sullivan and O’Donnell’s research shows how these explanations are incomplete. Many institutions of coercive confinement – Magdalen Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, orphanages and industrial schools – existed before the creation of the Irish Free State. The authors remind us that the Catholic Church wasn’t actively seeking people to confine, rather the continuing support and active participation of that most sacred institution, the family, was ultimately necessary.

What factors underpinned and drove the use of coercive confinement in Ireland? Their sophisticated analysis illuminates the fundamental role of the rural economy in sustaining high levels of coercive confinement in Ireland. This is a tricky and sensitive topic, and the authors handle it in a fair and considerate manner. 

Life had an economic calculation, for those in poverty institutions of confinement were a valuable resource, a sort of safety valve. The small farmer class also used the network of institutions as a repository for surplus family members. Further, these surplus family members, excluded from inheritance or unlucky in the marriage market, themselves often joined religious orders, thereby completing a closed system which sustained the network of institutions. While Ireland was certainly a conservative and puritanical society it was the cold calculus of economics that often drove the high numbers of those coercively confined rather than simply oppressive morality. It was only as rural Ireland began to abate that the use of coercive confinement declined; the shift away from rural fundamentalism meant the need for institutions of confinement were no longer a necessity.

The authors were asked what lessons could be gleaned from their work about the prospect of prison reduction. They pointed out that the structures that underpinned coercive confinement in Ireland took a long time to dismantle, and the captive population reduced only slowly; change happened over about 30 years. In a similar vein, even when the structures that underpin the use of mass imprisonment begin to dissolve it will take a long time for the numbers to dwindle; it is not likely to be an overnight process.

Other points were raised about the idea of transcarceration, which the authors define as the redistribution of people across the various sites of confinement. While there is some evidence of this process in Ireland, and the prison population has increased in Ireland since the end of the twentieth century – becoming the primary site of custody in Ireland – the  prison only absorbed  a tiny fraction of those in other institutions. What happened to the surplus population who didn’t move into prison? The development of the Irish welfare state certainly provided some sort of net which hadn’t been there previously. Also, as Eoin pointed out, there were less surplus members of the family as the country went through a process of modernisation and urbanisation, which created new avenues of employment. Therefore the book paints a less bleak, or dystopian picture of the current state of affairs which seems to permeate much criminology, and arguments which accentuate that we are living in the worst age of confinement look tenuous in light of O'Sullivan and O'Donnell's findings. Some people in attendance described a sharp punitive up-swing in Ireland, the authors argued, however, that by taking a historical turn it is clear that penal history has been marked by decarceration, particularly in the case of women and children.

It was suggested that this concept of transcarceration could be a useful explanatory tool for American mass imprisonment. Could the massive over-representation of minority populations in American prisons be the result, in part, of people moving from captive world of slavery to more legitimate forms of incarceration? And what about the much lauded historically low imprisonment rates in the Nordic countries, could focus on these be eclipsing a dramatic story of widespread incarceration in a traditionally welfarist-orientated region?

It is exactly these questions and this type of analysis the authors hope their work will stimulate in other jurisdictions. Perhaps there were similarly high levels of coercive confinement, and if there were perhaps they have different explanatory factors. Movie images and popular discourse would give one a sense that this is a particular Irish phenomenon; however, carceral institutions were employed across the Western world. By widening the parameters of the study of punishment from imprisonment to coercive confinement and tracking these patterns longitudinally the current character of penal regimes and the nature of penal change can be given a new clarity.

Returning to an issue we dealt with in our workshop at the North/South Criminology Conference, the perhaps less grandiose nature of Irish criminological academia also emerged. For example, there were jokes that should such a study be contemplated  in other Anglophone countries such as the UK or America (or even just a handful of American states!) it would be titled simply Coercive Confinement and there would be no recourse to an explanatory sub-title which situated the work in the specific country. The DA hope that the particularistic presentation of criminological studies based in Ireland does not diminish the quality of reception for the research and does not locate it within a small sub-group of 'local interest'.

Certainly this book carries lessons of importance for Irish society and criminology, and it is something of a refreshing antidote, challenging standards and strongly held positions both academically and socially. Criminological theories which espouse an age of punitive peril would be refreshed by shifting the view from imprisonment to the more expansive and historically sensitive vantage point of coercive confinement. O’Sullivan and O’Donnell show that by focusing solely on recent increases in prison populations that the full story of social control and incarceration is obscured from view. Secondly, the book also challenges the comfy narratives of Church and State which are quickly becoming the catch-all explanations for how over 1% of the Irish population came to be detained in the web of institutional confinement. Rather than being held hostage by the Church and the State, the authors convincingly argue that the role of the family and rural economy were fundamental in maintaining the existence of these institutions. We may have become wilfully myopic, but using contemporary rather than reflective writings the authors give us a genuine insight into how prevalent and sweeping the carceral landscape was.


This blog was written by Louise Brangan and Lynsey Black.

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