Moving targets: Reputational risk, rights and accountability in punishment.

Published: July 2014

SCCJR 8th Annual Lecture by Professor Kelly Hannah Moffat (University of Toronto, Mississauga; Director, Centre for Criminology and Socio-legal Studies)

Despite the passage of human rights legislation in Canada, prison activists find themselves dealing with the same troubling situations as before. In SCCJR’s 2014 annual lecture, Professor Hannah Moffat used a recent and highly publicised case of a prisoner’s suicide to inquire why real improvements in the legislative and regulatory oversight of prisons have not produced a significant decline in the kinds of incidents such oversight was brought into police. Ashley Smith was a young woman whose act of tossing an apple at a postman triggered her initial institutionalisation, and provided the setting for four more years of incarceration and troubling and defiant behaviour. In 2007, Ashley finally succeeded in killing herself in her cell, as guards watched, interpreting orders from above as preventing them from intervening.

Professor Hannah Moffat argues that contemporary punishment and society studies have failed at explaining tragedies such as Ashley Smith, and new questions and frames of analysis are needed. She notes that in the case of Ashley Smith, the guards and prison administrators followed every regulation put in place to protect the human rights of inmates. Rather than calling simplistically for more rights recognition or better enforcement of rights, we need to understand how penal administrators attempt to protect rights, while at the same time ‘justifying extreme interventions (such as prolonged isolation, chemical sedation, restraint, force, and insufficient health care)’. One way this becomes possible, according to Prof Hannah Moffat’s analysis, is that ‘prisoners’ rights become risks to be managed’, entailing development of copious institutional standards and procedures. This in turn tends to create a focus on particular incidents rather than on overall prisoner well being, protecting the penal organisation from legal challenges and limiting the prisoner’s ability to raise a rights problem. These developments require us to  shift our attention to the world of policy, considering the ‘agency of documents’ in fighting for and realising more justice and humane results for people like Ashley Smith.

The accompanying PowerPoint slides are from Professor Hannah Moffat’s lecture, illustrating the key points of her talk.

Authors / Editors