Author Q&A with Victor Bailey

Victor Bailey is the author of , The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal, 1895-1970. Spanning almost a century of penal policy and practice in England and Wales, this book is a study of the long arc of the rehabilitative ideal, beginning in 1895, the year of the Gladstone Committee on Prisons, and ending in 1970, when the policy of treating and training criminals was very much on the defensive.

We caught up with Victor to discuss his latest title...

Victor Bailey was Director of the Hall Center for the Humanities from 2000 to 2017 and the Charles W. Battey Distinguished Professor of Modern British History at the University of Kansas, USA. Additionally, he is also the editor of Policing and Punishment in Nineteenth Century Britain (Routledge, 2015).

1. Congratulations on the publication of your recent book. Why did you decide to write The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal, 1895-1970?

When I started the research, which led to my first book, Delinquency and Citizenship, the intention was to include all offender age groups. It quickly became evident that the young delinquent was more than enough for one book. The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal is the sequel on adult offenders. The overarching themes of the two studies are very different, however. In the first book, I explored the reasonably-successful efforts of penal administrators and reformers to craft the principles and practices (the juvenile court, probation, and reformatory schools), which they hoped would return young offenders to full citizenship. In the new book, I sought to explore what I saw as a yawning gap between intention and outcome in the treatment of the adult offender. In 1895 the Gladstone Committee on Prisons recommended that reformation should be combined with punishment. Thereafter, courts were told to impose prison sentences, and make them longer, in the belief that this would help offenders’ rehabilitation, which was in time promoted to be Prison Rule number 1: “The purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life” (Prison Rules, 1964). What went wrong with this rehabilitative paradigm? For a start, the judges had their own views on the punitive tariff. They remained remarkably retributive in approach, and suspicious of measures that abandoned the just desert between crime and punishment. Strangely, the criminal courts are a part of the penal system which scholars have consistently neglected. In the prisons themselves, the speed of change was glacial, in part because the prison estate was old and difficult to adapt to new ends, in part because of prison overcrowding, especially post-1945. It all meant that the rehabilitative ideal was honored more in the breach than the observance.

2. It looks like you have drawn upon a vast number of sources, how long did all of that research take? And were there any challenges along the way?

At a minimum, the book has taken two years of full-time research, and two years of full-time composition. The archival base of the book are the papers of the Home Office, the Prison Commission, and the Lord Chancellor’s Office, all of which reside in the National Archives in Kew Gardens, London. I spent a year in this archive, thanks to a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. These sources can be extremely seductive. Each file offers the eloquent reflections of the mandarin class on a single policy, practice, or case. For sure, the official documents reveal the urgent issues at stake in the punishment of criminals -- but they offer us a “history from above” with a vengeance. It is essential, therefore, to read this documentation “against the grain,” and to interleave it with alternative voices, whether from penal pressure groups, prisoner memoirs, the national press, or measures of public opinion. It is this “against the grain” scrutiny and the interleaving of evidence which takes time and reflection to compose. Fortunately for the historian, the mandarins and ministers in the various departments rarely saw eye to eye on the issues before them. This was manifestly the case between the executive and judicial arms of government.

3. Is there one piece of research which surprised you or challenged your previous understanding of the topic?

There are two themes in the book which only slowly revealed themselves to me. One is the role of the judiciary in the vast abatement of imprisonment between the 1880s and the 1930s. Nothing less than a recalibration of the tariff of punishment occurred over these fifty years, leading to a precipitous decline in the use of imprisonment and a consequent fall in the numbers imprisoned. Teasing out the reasons for this judicial activism became a focus of the early chapters of the book. This narrative has salience for a present-day judiciary which too readily declares powerlessness in the face of an ever-expanding prison population. The second theme is the death penalty, which assumed a place in the book I had not anticipated. Only gradually did I shed the normative view that capital punishment does not fit with a standard history of penal policy. Rather, I was ever more struck by the long shadow the gallows cast over the entire penal landscape. It became evident to me that omitting this penalty from a history of penal policy and administration was, to use the old saw, Hamlet without the prince.

4. Do you think this book will change how readers view rehabilitation today?

I hope readers of the book will come away with the following considerations in mind. There is nothing wrong in principle with the rehabilitative aim: it has surely contributed to the improvement in the living conditions of prisoners over the years. Yet Churchill anticipated the modern critique of penal measures when he wrote in 1910: there is “a great danger of using smooth words for ugly things.” This book is a caution against the smooth rhetoric of rehabilitation, especially when it leads to false promises, illiberal measures, and longer incarceration than the crime deserves. If rehabilitation is to have any role in our penal practice, and I believe it still should, it must be offered as a voluntary ancillary (whether in the form of education, work experience, or drug rehabilitation) to the tariff sentence for the crime

5. Finally, how would you describe the book in a sentence?

The book is a critical assessment of the rise and demise of the rehabilitative paradigm, one which incorporates the punitive context that the language and rituals of the judges in the criminal courts did much to construct, and which underlines the enduring, injurious influence on penal policy and practice of the penalty of death.

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About The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal, 1895-1970

Drawing on a plethora of source material, such as the official papers of mandarins, ministers, and magistrates, measures of public opinion, prisoner memoirs, publications of penal reform groups and prison officers, the reports of Royal Commissions and Departmental Committees, political opinion in both Houses of Parliament and the research of the first cadre of criminologists, this book comprehensively examines a number of aspects of the British penal system, including judicial sentencing, law-making, and the administration of legal penalties.