Reducing the violence of imprisonment – rehabilitation or prehabilitation?

Dr Diana Johns1

1University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia

Violence is embedded in every aspect of the prison: its physical, emotional, psychological and relational forms, as well as the symbolic, institutional, structural, and epistemic violence it perpetrates and represents. Prisons are also conceived in terms of health: as places of supposed rehabilitation or cure, and as ‘sick places’ (De Viggiani 2007) of disadvantage, deprivation, disability, and despair, whose iatrogenic conditions bring forth populations further damaged and disabled by the experience of imprisonment. Conceptualising imprisonment in these terms locates the prison on a continuum of harm and wellbeing, of which violence and health are intertwined components, connected and contingent. Seeing the prison from this perspective begs the question: How can a setting shaped and characterised by violence possibly achieve the positive transformation (‘rehabilitation’) of its inhabitants?

Recognizing that penal harms militate against prisons’ rehabilitative capacity, I apply a therapeutic justice lens to argue for prehabilitation as a means of achieving rehabilitative aims: strengthening communities, protecting against criminogenic conditions and the violence of the prison, and ultimately reducing the reliance on imprisonment as a supposed crime-reduction strategy. Decentring the prison as a site of penal or rehabilitative intervention, prehabilitation takes in the wider social context of violence-offending-imprisonment cycles and highlights the need to work ‘upstream’ of the prison to effect such changes. Here, I start to map out what prehabilitation might look like in practice.


Diana Johns is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include post-prison reintegration, restorative and therapeutic approaches, and the experience of young people and ‘vulnerable’ groups involved with the justice system. In recent research projects she has explored: young people’s prolific offending in Wales, UK; Children’s Court-based youth diversion; men’s serious sexual and violent offending; and the criminalisation of South Sudanese young people in Victoria. Diana’s current research is focused on: African-Australian young people’s experience of criminalisation; restorative responses to adolescent family violence; and the use of apps in rehabilitative settings. Her book, Being and Becoming an Ex-Prisoner, was published by Routledge in 2018. She is involved in collaborative writing projects, including two books (under contract): #Africangangs: The Construction of a Law and Order Crisis (Weber et al., Emerald), and Coproducing Criminal Justice Knowledge (Johns et al., Routledge), which are due to be published in 2021.


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