increasing access to phones in UK prisons

The UK Ministry of Justice is considering installing telephones within prisoners’ cells.  Currently prisoners share telephones installed in common areas.  Queuing for telephone use constrains telephone use, creates arguments among prisoners, and increases tension within prisons.  Telephone equipment costs are low relative to revenue gained from prisoner telephone service.  Adding telephones to prisoners’ cells would increase prison revenue, reduce risks of prison disturbances, and increase prisoner welfare.

Prisoners in England gained access to telephones relatively recently.  Prior to the terrible Strangeways prison riot in April, 1990, English prisoners did not have regular access to telephone service.  Lord Woolf’s enquiry into the causes of the Strangeways prison riot found that lack of communication between inmates and their families contributed to tensions that burst out in the riot. That finding led to telephones being installed on landings in English prisons.

Allowing prisoners to make telephone calls from within their prison cells would not reduce public safety.  Prisoners’ telephone calls are not monitored by having a prison official watch prisoners making telephone calls or by having a prison official stand near the phone trying to overhear telephone conversations.  Prison phone networks include technology that identifies prisoners, controls who each prisoner can call, controls call length and call frequency, records every conversation, and monitors conversations for illegal activity and suspicious communication.  The location of prison phones is irrelevant to prison call control and monitoring technology.

Installing phones in prisoners’ cells could help to improve public safety by making authorized prison phones more attractive relative to contraband cell phones.  Contraband cell phones allow prisoners to make telephone calls without having to queue to use the common, authorized prison phone.  Contraband cell phones, by allowing prisoners to make calls from within their cells, also allow prisoners to make calls with less risk of other prisoners overhearing their conversations.  That element of privacy is distinct from official monitoring.  Authorized phones within prisoners’ cells would eliminate these two advantages of contraband cell phones and hence reduce the demand for contraband cell phones.

The extent of hostility towards the reasonable proposal to install telephones in prisoners’ cells is astonishing.  The Daily Mail article on the proposal generated 225 comments. Most of the commenters oppose the proposal.  Many of those commenters are angry, contemptuous, or disdainful.  A BBC article on the proposal generated 416 comments, with a similar pattern of responses.  Compared to the UK, the US imprisons a much higher share of its population, imposes longer prison sentences, and has harsher prison conditions.  The US public reaction to such a proposal probably would be even more hostile.

Important connections apparently are failing in communication with prisoners.  The problem is bigger than telephone service.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

COB-63: misunderstanding rubber stamping

Rubber stamping is typically thought to be perfunctory work.  That’s not true.  A rubber-stamping bureaucrat considers carefully and at length which rubber stamp to use.  In the Department of Planning at the Government Printing Office, bureaucrats had to manage a huge number of rubber stamps arranged on tall rubber-stamp trees.  Many bureaucrats have similar arrays of rubber stamps.

A well-developed bureaucracy considering a report requesting approval to document a proposal to form a new department does not merely stamp “approved” or “rejected” on the report.  It might be stamped “further edit” or “insufficient documentation.”  It might be stamped “in process,” “circulating,” “filed,” or “refile.” It could be stamped “reconsider,” “reconsider again,” “2nd reconsideration,” or, alternatively, “reconsider again and again.”  Documents must be triaged into “preliminary,” “draft,” “redraft,” “daft,” and “trash.”  The number of strokes and stroke force also matters for the impression. The sight of a bureaucratic in a yellowing dress shirt, perspiring, tie askance, vigorously and repeatedly rubber-stamping a report would make clear to anyone the effort that goes into the work.

Matt Mullenweg’s revelation of Automattic’s creed has seriously damaged confidence in Automattic’s prospects for joining the ranks of leading bureaucratic companies. Of particular concern is Automattic’s creedal statement, “I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me.”  Expert bureaucrats learn to be incredibly focused on their job descriptions.  Automattic needs to edit thoroughly its creed if it wants to be able to recruit expert bureaucrats.

The European Union is a bureaucratic leader.  That strength is particularly important in the current economic crisis:

Gunther Oettinger, the top German representative in the European Union, proposed that a bureaucratic invasion force be sent from Brussels to Greece to seize the struggling country’s assets “without regard to resistance.”

If Brussels had not engaged in a massive bureaucratic buildup, it would lack the strength to take over Greece.

Countries struggling with government debt need not just good taxes, but great taxes.  As Mark Cuban has insightfully declared, “Bureaucracy and Paperwork is the Greatest Tax on Small Business.”  Small business is a key engine of job creation.  Taxes on small business have to make the leap from good to great.  Payroll taxes, property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, and other taxes for small business should be immediately reviewed with the objective of considering how to implement a revision of regulations restructuring and deepening the contribution of bureaucracy and paperwork to the taxation of businesses categorized as small under the operative regulations for business-size classification.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats. Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here. Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

setting prisoners free: important ancient and modern prayers

Persons with power can make persons prisoners.  Prisoners are confined against their will.  They are confined behind locked doors and sometimes bound with shackles or chains.

Within this sense of prisoners, prisoners can be set free in essentially two ways.  Prisoners can be set free by authoritative words:

proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners

Prisoners can also be set free by violent action:

he brought them {prisoners} out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.

Prisoners, narrowly understood, can be set free by no ways other than authoritative words or violence.

In the ancient world, being a prisoner was not narrowly understood.  Consider this line of ancient biblical song:

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

In this literary form, the two half-lines are units that have a particular relation such as repetition, contrast, etc.  The relation between prisoners and the blind is not obvious today.  But another line of ancient song helps to elucidate the relation:

I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.[1]

In these two lines, their half-lines relate through emphasis and repetition.  Moreover, these two lines together associate freeing prisoners and opening the eyes of the blind with bringing light.  Light in the ancient world had very broad associations with life and an important god.

A general form of cursing in the ancient world was a “binding spell.”  Such a spell physically constrained a person, but did not kill.  Binding was thus imprisonment generalized.

Ritual services in Roman Egypt included a generally applicable release from bonds.  For example, one such service involved saying:

Let every bond be loosed, every force fail, let all iron be broken, every rope or every strap, let every knot, every chain be opened, and let no one compel me, for I am — {say the name}.[2]

“Say the name” assimilates the user to the god invoked, thus blurring the authority of binding and releasing.  Similarly, the statement is a passive construction (“let…be”) that blurs violence (“all iron be broken”) with an ordered release (“every chain be opened”). These verbal techniques helped to make the release from bonds generally applicable.

Early Christians also had a general understanding of binding persons and setting prisoners free.  A late-fourth-century Christian homily from Mesopotamia or Asia Minor declared:

the Lord descends into the souls of those who seek him.  He goes into the depths of the hellish heart and there he commands death, saying: “Release those captive souls that seek after me, those that you hold by force in bondage.”  He breaks through the heavy stones that cover the soul.  He opens the tombs.  He truly raises to life the dead person and leads that captive soul forth out of the dark prison.

This account presents setting prisoners free within a universal narrative of human life, conflicting desires, death, and redemption.  The phrase “leads that captive soul forth” alludes to the Exodus account of God leading the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt.  Immediately following this description is a highly particular example:

Take the example of a man bound with chains, hand and foot, and someone comes to remove his shackles and set him free so he may walk unencumbered.

Did the “someone” who removed the shackles have the key and do the initial shackling, or did that person forcibly break the shackles as an opposing authority?  The answer doesn’t seem to matter.  This specific example immediately expands to universality:

In a similar way the Lord removes the chains of death strangling the soul and releases it and sets the mind free so that it may amble without disturbance, but in tranquility before God.[3]

An early Christian Coptic Marian prayer similarly describes release of prisoners:

I am Mary.  Let the {stone} break, let the darkness break before me.  {Let} the earth break.  Let the iron dissolve.  Let the demons retreat before me. … They fear {his holy name, which } is Yao Sabaoth Adonai Elo {Eloi}, who, by his power, releases every one who is a prisoner.  You must destroy every spirit and power of the devil.[4]

Sin, demons, and the devil could imprison anyone.  Setting a prisoner free was a figure of common understanding and popular concern in the ancient world.

Jesus releasing prisoners of Hell

*  *  *  *  *


[1] The quotations are from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 61:1, Psalm 107:14-16, Psalm 146:7-8, Isaiah 42:6-7 (RSV trans.).

[2] PGM XIII.294-296, trans. Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. 1992. The Greek magical papyri in translation: including the Demotic spells Vol. 1, [Texts].  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  In the Acts of the Apostles, prison doors open and chains become unfastened similarly without a direct specification of means.  See Acts 5:19, 12:17, 16:25.

[3] Previous three quotes from Pseudo-Macarius, Homily 11, trans. Maloney, George A. 1992. The fifty spiritual homilies and the Great letter. New York: Paulist Press. The homily describes what came to be called the harrowing of Hell.

[4] A prayer made by Mary, London Oriental Manuscript 6796, trans. ll. 23-25, 37-41, from p. 283 in Meyer, Marvin W., and Richard Smith. 1994. Ancient Christian magic: coptic texts of ritual power. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.  For more information about such Marian prayers, see Marvin Meyer, “The Prayer of Mary Who Dissolves Chains in Coptic Magic and Religion,” in Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, eds., Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Religions in the Graeco- Roman World, 141 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002), 407–15.

[image] Icon of Christ’s descent into Hell to release its prisoners. Made in Pskov, Russia, in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Was in the Trinity Cathedral in Ostrov, Pskov Oblast, Russia. Now preserved as inventory # DRZH-2120 {ДРЖ-2120} in the Russian State Museum {Государственный Русский Mузей}, St. Petersburg, Russia. Image thanks to Icon Art and Wikimedia Commons.