Probation and Politics: Academic Reflections from Former Practitioners M. Vanstone and P. Priestley (Eds.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2016) 412pp. £89.99hb ISBN 978‐1‐137‐59556‐0

Published date01 March 2019
Date01 March 2019
AuthorGeorge Mair
The Howard Journal Vol58 No 1. March 2019 DOI: 10.1111/hojo.12308
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 127–140
Book Reviews
The Role of Prison in Europe: Travelling in the Footsteps of John Howard (Palgrave Studies in
Prisons and Penology) T. VanderBeken. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2016) 243pp.
£79.99hb ISBN 978-3-319-29387-5
Between May 2013 and November 2014, criminologist Tom Vander Beken visited 15
prisons in six European countries. This book (which first appeared in Dutch in 2015)
recounts his experiences. As the subtitle indicates, Vander Beken drew inspiration from
John Howard’s celebrated tours of European penal establishments in the 1770s and
1780s, and, like him, chose to present his findings in the first person, ‘complete with my
personal experiences, hesitations, doubts and feelings as they progressed’; in short, ‘with
as great a degree of honesty and transparency as possible’ (Prologue, pp.x–xi). With
one exception (more on which presently), the author followed literally ‘in the footsteps
of John Howard’, at least in so far as he visited prisons in countries where the 18th-
Century prison reformer had preceded him, and significantly he begins his tour in the
UK, in Bedford, where Howard had officiated as county sheriff in the years 1773–4.
It was this post – generally seen by its occupants in the late 18th Century as, above
all, a ceremonial one – that had sparked Howard’s interest in prison management and
led him to investigate for himself, first conditions in the local county gaol, and then to
widen his researches to other gaols, bridewells, and houses of correction in Britain, and
later overseas. Four years and more than 500 prison inspections later, Howard (1777)
interrupted his programme of visiting to prepare his influential book, The State of the
Prisons in England and Wales: With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of some Foreign
Prisons. Other volumes and updated editions of The State of the Prisons would follow.
The Role of Prisonin Europe devotes its six main chapters, respectively, to visits to prisons
in the UK, Norway, Holland, France,Italy, and Azerbaijan (the latter standing in for the
Crimea, where Howard died in 1790, having fallen ill after visiting the military hospitals
of Kherson). The author makes clear that the parallel with Howard’s visits should not
be taken too far.Many of the innumerable prisons visited by his predecessor (sometimes
on numerous occasions) are no longer in existence or have been transformed beyond
recognition. In addition, it was clearly impossible to replicate Howard’s method of simply
turning up alone and unannounced at the prison gates, requesting to be admitted. Each
of the chapters, therefore, presents to readers the local specialists who served as Vander
Beken’s guides and dealt with the sometimes formidable paperwork needed to gain
access to Europe’s 21st-Century prisons. The author argues convincingly,however, that
his project shares with Howard’s a focus on empirical observation: a determination to
see prisons with his own eyes before forming a judgment on them; on ‘drawing . ..
conclusions on the spot and not just going by what the regulations or other documents
suggested’ (Prologue, p.vii).
The book, then, is part travelogue, part study in comparative penal policy, with the
author switching skilfully between the two; between, on the one hand, the practical
details of his journeys, his choice of guides and his encounters with the various prison
administrations, prison buildings and prisoners, and, on the other, a broader discussion
of each country’s penal history and policy. The latter makes insightful reference to the
2019 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK

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