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Social work and the penal state

Cummins, ID

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The Criminal Justice System (CJS) has historically been a key site of social work intervention. Wacquant (2008, 2009a and 2009b) argues that the growth of social insecurity and the expansion of the penal state are endogenous features of the neo-liberal political project. The key premises of neo-liberalism have been accepted by parties of both the left and the right. Wacquant identifies that the “doxa” of the penal state such as “prison works” “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” have been widely accepted in an uncritical fashion. This shift alongside an increase in inequality had led to increasing social anxiety and mistrust. One manifestation of these trends is the “decline of the rehabilitative ideal” (Garland, 2001). Offenders, who were once generally viewed as marginalised individuals in need of social and welfare support are now regarded as sites of risk. The USA has led a penal arms race, in which, the use of imprisonment has grown significantly. In Europe, England and Wales has followed this trend most closely. Whilst acknowledging that penal policy is the result of a complex inter-relationship between social, cultural and historical factors, there are lessons to be learnt from the US experience. These include the impact of race and class inequalities as manifest in the CJS. The act of imprisonment is arguably an act of state violence and alongside the impact on individuals, communities and families, it has huge symbolic significance and value. The expansion of the penal state: the increasing numbers, poor conditions and the over-representation of minority groups mean that it should be a core social work concern. The paper outlines the ways, in which, risk and managerialism have sidelined core social work values in the CJS. It concludes that developments in the USA, particularly the decision in Brown v. Plata highlight a way out of the current impasse. Penal policy and conditions can only be reformed if the inherent dignity of offenders is rediscovered and placed at its centre.


Cummins, I. (2016). Social work and the penal state. European Journal of Social Work, 20(1), 54-63.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jun 14, 2016
Online Publication Date Aug 2, 2016
Publication Date Aug 2, 2016
Deposit Date Oct 31, 2016
Publicly Available Date Feb 2, 2018
Journal European Journal of Social Work
Print ISSN 1369-1457
Electronic ISSN 1468-2664
Publisher Routledge
Volume 20
Issue 1
Pages 54-63
Publisher URL
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