The UK Serious and Organised Crime Strategy sets out the governmental response to the threat of organised crime. This strategy acknowledges the role played by organised crime groups inside the prison setting and, in the attempt to tackle the proliferation of OCGs behind bars, it advocates for collaboration between police and prison forces. Using data from interviews with criminal justice practitioners involved in the enforcement of the strategy at national, regional, and local levels, and documentary analysis of regulations and public papers, this article addresses the enforcement of the strategy to fight against OCGs behind the prison walls. The results show that the implementation of prison-police collaboration is facing challenges in three core areas: the definition of what constitutes a prison gang; issues in creating effective data-sharing processes; and finally, an overall reliance on informal practices. To conclude the paper raises some questions on what could be the implications and risks of this strategy in the long term, in particular in prison settings.
Traditionally subject to conceptual and definitional dilemmas (Finckenauer 2005), organised crime is a complex phenomenon whose definition is considered “one of the most contested terms in academic criminology” (Sheptycki 2003: 490). Traditionally, the study of organised crime has focussed on the illicit activities perpetrated by organised criminals or on the criminal networks or organised crime groups whose members systematically engage in crime (Paoli and Vander Beken, 2014; Von Lampe, 2016). In the UK, organised crime has been linked to professional, urban, and localised criminal groups, interested in making profits by supplying illicit goods to the public and characterised by charisma and the use of violence (Hobbs 2004).
Recent prison-based research has focussed on the presence of organised crime inside the prison walls. Gooch and Treadwell (2021) have analysed the extent to which organised crime has flourished within a prison setting and discussed the need for new coordination between police and prison to consolidate the disruption and dispersion of organised crime groups’ activities. There are new dynamics inside the prison walls such as the availability of the internet-enabled mobile phones that allow communication as well as the possibility to conduct financial transactions from the prison (Gooch and Treadwell 2019) that have made the prison wall more porous and allowed stronger ties between inside and outside organised crime groups (OCGs). Subsequentially, new strategies of policing, prison organisation, intelligence as well as multi-agency work have been adopted in the UK (HM Government 2018).
To understand the concrete implication of criminal justice agency cooperation and its effectiveness (Schneider and Hurst 2008), and to expand the research on organised crime behind the bars and how this is tackled, this paper aims to scrutinise the multi-agency police/prison cooperation as it is implemented according to the UK Serious and Organised Crime Strategy. Based on fifty-five in-depth interviews with UK police, prison and probation officers, and documentary analysis of regulations and public papers, this article aims to investigate the effort to create prison-police collaboration and to develop a proactive approach in the fight against OCGs.
The UK experienced forms of organized crime since the first half of the twentieth century. However, in that period, organised crime was identified with gangsters able to have a professional career in crime and embedded within the local neighbourhood working-class dimension (Hobbs 2013 and 2004). In that regard, Wright pointed out that, “[i]n relation to the interwar criminal groups, it is not possible to claim with any legitimacy that the gangs described were formal-rational organizations” (2006: 167). The literature describes these groups as the ‘precursor’ to the creation of structured and institutionalised forms of organised crime (Hobbs 2013).
In the post-WWII period, the UK faced the consolidation and institutionalisation of OCGs. While British organised crime has maintained its local and territorial features, between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s the criminal firms' structure was affected by the extraordinary acceleration of deindustrialisation process 1: this forced OCG to adapt and change their structure. Summarising, they became similar to smaller and flexible networks of entrepreneurs conducting illegal businesses, such as drug trafficking or acquisitive and economic crimes (Hobbs 1995). In completing this brief, and perhaps reductive, description of OCGs’ evolution in the UK, it is fundamental to highlight how, since the beginning of the 90s, modern global markets alongside the development of new information and communication technologies have contributed to their expansion inside the UK jurisdiction, but also outside the national borders (Hobbs 1995).
These modern flexible and fragmented criminal networks demonstrate an incredible capacity to adapt and reshape their organization to conquer new territories and markets. Prison is one of these. As Gooch and Treadwell (2023) note, since the 2010s these criminal networks have begun their inexorable conquer of the British prison spaces and illicit markets.
In that sense, on the one side, OCGs expansion behind bars means they treat it as a place for lucrative activities and proliferation, such as recruiting new members, creating joint ventures with other criminal groups, and expanding their activities towards new markets with specific demands to satisfy (e.g. drugs or other commodities inside the prison walls) (van der Laan 2012). On the other side, prison and OC scholars agree in describing prisons as an increasingly relevant knot for these criminal networks that are progressively becoming significant in shaping prison governance. For example, Skarbek 's research on the US prison (2014) highlights how OCGs can offer prisoners protection and security, both from other inmates and from prison authority, generating peculiar forms of prison governance in which legal and illegal intertwine inextricably. As well as managing the criminal activities inside the prison, OCGs seem to have the power to govern and police the prison premises, maintaining a certain social order among the prison population. Gooch and Treadwell (2019) found that some of the criminal activities perpetrated inside the UK prisons include violent crimes such as assaults or homicide (inside but also outside prison), conspiracy to supply illicit goods, money laundering, and more broadly active participation in the activities of OCG (according to section 45 of the Serious Crime Act). Interestingly, their study also shed light on the role of technology (e.g. access to online banking or the use of internet-enabled mobile phones) that facilitates prisoners, especially those affiliated with OCGs, to conduct financial transactions and maintain connections outside the prison walls (Gooch and Treadwell, 2021).
A gang is a particular type of criminal association and empirical research has analysed it as a form of OCG (Decker, Bynum and Wiesel 2006). Before presenting our research a couple of clarifications are deemed necessary. First, the notion of gangs differentiates from the OCGs’ one. For example, scholars like Decker and Pyrooz (2014) highlight how gangs are characterised by a loose organisational structure, and lower levels of cooperation and leadership, but also that for gangs turf or place (such as prison) and symbolic ends are crucial. Second, while gangs can be described as a specific form of OCG, and therefore there are differences between the two notions, they also partially overlap; hence for the purposes of our study, we utilise the term gang broadly and interchangeably with OCG. In doing so, we refer to our participants’ perspectives that, reflecting the risk that these groups might continue their crimes behind bars, consider gangs and OCGS as similar categories distinguishing them mostly by the seriousness of the activities that they perpetrate.
Overall, there is a limited amount of research on prison gangs and most of this work is done in America (for instance, see the work of Pyrooz and Decker 2014) It is only in the last few years that British scholars have researched prison gangs in the UK (Gooch and Treadwell 2023). While so far the lack of attention might have been due to the slim presence of OCGs inside prison or to its scarce institutional perception, now OCGs’ expansion behind bars seems to be a growing phenomenon in the UK. English prison gangs are described by the literature as being less structured compared to the US ones (Phillips 2012) and UK gang members seem to continue the outside rivalries and conflicts once incarcerated (Phillips 2012). Finally, the level of aggregation and organisation of gangs in UK prisons is far less affected by elements such as racial hostility or religious extremism, however authorities are witnessing an increase in prisoners’ grouping and gang presence (Santorso, Rizzuti and L’Hoiry 2022) in the same way England is facing an increase of street OCGs.
Prison gangs are described as a growing phenomenon by institutional narratives, but their definition seems to present some challenges. To some extent, the classification of what constitutes a prison gang seems to mirror the controversial understandings of organised crime in the outside society (Maitra 2016). In general, one of the most reliable and shared definitions of prison gangs is considered to be the legal one (Wright 2006), which however tends to import also the fuzziness and fragmented social, political, and economic characterisation of OGCs. Therefore, importing these notions within the prison context makes the effort of defining OCGs even more complex.
While prison gangs triggered the attention of the first prison sociologists, this research field had a swinging fortune. For example, scholars like Carroll (1974) and Jacobs (1974) note prison gangs are an extension of street ones, implying there is a link between the development of the OCGs within and outside prison walls. Other scholars indicate the lack of prison governance as the main factor for the rise, consolidation, and proliferation of criminal groups behind bars; in this sense, gangs become core in ensuring prison order and promoting the well-being of the prisoner community (Fong and Buentello 1991). Accordingly, Skarbek argues that “[w]hen prison officials can effectively protect inmates, they have less demand for gangs to do so” (2014: 66). In a seminal fashion, Gooch and Treadwell (2023: 1222) argue that this permits forms of “extra-legal governance to take root with the effect that organized crime became embedded in prison”. The capacity to expand or generate a gang inside a prison setting is, therefore, linked to prison governance but also the presence and solidity of the OCGs in the urban context.
In that regard, it is fundamental to stress that prison is a specific social world in which ‘gang-involved prisoners do not appear to be recreating gang entities found in the community when in the prison’ (Treadwell and Gooch 2019:28). Rather, prisons adapt and transform the OCGs’ structure and organisation to the extent that OGCs exploit the prison setting as a highly profitable criminal market. This means their groupings generate something new and different compared to the street-level OCGs; however, the prison organisations operate in symbiosis and continuity with street ones, as Gooch and Treadwell show in their research on the Midlands prisons (2019). Therefore, since the first decade of the '00s prison has been considered as one of the domains that need to be included in strategies to tackle OCGs. A space that has been thought of as a space to tackle OCGs has been transformed into a space that facilitates the proliferation of OCGs’ criminal activities.
More recent studies further support the idea that prison and street gangs, considered different entities, are made up of similar groups of people working along the same lines and collaborating through prison walls (Pyrooz et al. 2011). As Howell (2012: 180) argues a “growth of prison gangs and the concomitant effects of returning inmates can affect local gang activity”. In that regard, on the one side, Irwin and Cressey (1962: 145) claim that “a clear understanding of inmate code cannot be obtained simply by viewing a ‘prison culture’ or ‘inmate code’ as an isolated system springing solely from the conditions of imprisonment”. On the other side, gang members, while in prison, continue to identify closely with their gang adapting their structure and activities to the new settings (Scott 2004) and, once released, they frequently transfer their prison gang culture, conduct and features to the outside gang members (Pyrooz et al. 2011). In that regard, it is plausible to argue that Wacquant’s (2004) notion of ‘deadly symbiosis’ well portrayed the symbiotic relationship between street and prison and can be easily used in studying prison and street gangs.
Accordingly, the critical argument of this paper can be articulated in three main points: first, the conceptualisation of prison OCGs needs to accept the complexity of the street-prison relationship; then, it is fundamental to acknowledge the role of gangs in bridging prison and urban spaces; finally, prison and street gangs constitute two separate entities with similar organisation and structure, but with significantly different features that, however, have a symbiotic relationship and mutual influence. In that sense ‘gang/OCG’ can be understood as a flexible phenomenon that can, empirically and conceptually, bridge prison settings with the urban space, and their governance. As a result, the challenge for law enforcement agencies is how to address and tackle such a flexible, multiform, and adaptable phenomenon that, instead of being discouraged and stopped by imprisonment, has the capability proliferate and exploit the prison system by bending it to their organisational needs.
In the UK, organised crime is considered to be a significant and serious threat to national security (NCA 2021). Since conceptually it has been associated with a set of illicit activities, the policing of organised crime has also been oriented towards the dismantling of criminal activities. According to the 2018 Government Serious and Organised Crime Strategy, serious and organised crime are “individuals planning, co-ordinating and committing serious offences, whether individually, in groups and/or as part of transnational networks” (2018: 11). The serious offenses included in this definition highlight the poly-criminality of OCGs and includes crimes such as the trade of illegal drugs, fraud, money laundering, cybercrime and human trafficking. The novelty of the 2018 strategy, which in 2023 was confirmed in the new version of the strategy, is to include prison among the domains of OCG proliferation advocating for a collaboration between different agencies in the attempt to contrast this phenomenon. Aligning to what stated in 2018, the 2023 strategy stresses the need of such collaboration between police, prisons, and probation to disrupt serious and organised criminal activity.
Typically multi-agency cooperation has been considered pivotal in several governments’ strategies to tackle organised crime groups (OCGs), including the UK (Kirby et al. 2015). In that regard, recent research discussed the need for new coordination between police and prison to consolidate the disruption and dispersion of OCGs’ activities (Staniforth et al. 2019). This trend has taken place in the UK criminal justice system as well and matches the growing number of attempts to promote collaboration and coordination among domestic criminal justice agencies that have been undertaken in many different jurisdictions (Schneider and Hurst 2008), and in particular in dealing with diverse and complex forms of organised crime-related issues (Bjelland and Vestby 2017).
Since 2018, the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy promoted by the UK Government aims to further consolidate the criminal justice system trend of shaping multiagency intervention in contrasting OCGs. Indeed, the strategy emphasises the benefits of criminal justice agencies’ collaboration in responding to the OCGs’ threats; to this end, the creation of a national and centralised infrastructure of coordination among different organisations to improve intelligence, data gathering and sharing, is implemented and driven by a single set of priorities, also ‘to maximise the value of improved intelligence and data capabilities such as the NAC2 and NDEC3’ (HM Government 2018: 29). Moreover, 2023 updated version states that a new intelligence management service will be developed to improve data sharing between prison and probation.
As mentioned before, the strategy acknowledges prison as one of the new frontlines for OCGs activities stressing how “[s]ome offenders are committed to continuing their criminal activity in our prisons” (HM Government 2018: 50) and HMPPS estimates that “10.6% of prisoners are involved in serious and organised crime” (HM Government 2023: 11).
Therefore, while the new approach to contrast OCGs aims to promote collaboration among different statutory agencies and local organisations, the policymakers promote as an urgency also the coordination of the criminal justice agencies, highlighting the need for more consistent and integrated police-prison teamwork in contrasting OGCs activities. In that regard, at the heart of the police-prison cooperation, there must “be new data, intelligence and assessment capabilities” (HM Government 2018: 6), and all this information and data need to be shared and integrated among the criminal justice agencies. Thus, it is possible to claim that the policymaker openly suggests reinforcing and better organising the policing capabilities in prison by establishing national and regional tasking procedures. Accordingly, the strategy emphasises the need for centralised coordination of the new intelligence and data integration to effectively prompt prison-police collaboration. To this end, the strategy establishes a new operational and organisational structure at the national level (the MARSOC unit4) as well as at the regional level, with local multi-agency units to further bolster the collaboration between prison and police. Moreover, other unit have been created to tackle specific issues related to organised crime or factors that might facilitate it, such as the new financial investigation unit in support of the regional organised crime units (ROCUs) (Ministry of Justice 2018).
Overall, the UK strategy promotes the development of a model based on an intelligence-led and collaborative approach among criminal justice agencies. Even though not explicitly, the strategy seems to aim at the enforcement of proactive policing on organised crime including prisons as a potential hot spot that deserves to receive greater attention from both the police and prison staff. This makes the database and data-sharing infrastructure pivotal in guiding law enforcement decision-making on what can be labelled as organised crime and the level of risk posed to society. While these issues have been analysed in the literature exploring OC policing collaboration with civil society organisations, there is almost no research that critically evaluates the collaboration between police and prison in contrasting OCGs active inside the prison walls and with connections to the outside world.
This paper originates from a project that evaluated the enforcement of the UK Serious and Organised Crime Strategy with a focus on the prison-police collaboration to tackle prison OCGs. The methodological and analytical approach of this study relies on a qualitative approach applied to a specific case study. The research design included documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews with criminal justice system practitioners dealing, at different levels, with OCGs in the UK. As Stake (2005) claims, the purpose of a case study is to provide in-depth insights into the dynamics at play in the research field. Rather than focusing merely on the official actions put in place for the application of the Serious and Organised Crime strategy, the research aims to collect perceptions and narratives produced by practitioners engaged in strategy enforcement at the national, regional and local levels. Between 2019 and the beginning of 2022, after an initial analysis of the relevant legislation, institutional documents, reports and protocols, fifty-five interviews have been conducted among criminal justice system practitioners (police, prison, and probation) active at national, regional, and local levels in the implementation of the strategy5. After having gained the first access and points of contact6, a snowballing sampling technique has been used to expand the data collection at the regional and national levels. More precisely: eighteen interviews have been with practitioners working at the national (eight of which within the MARSOC units) or regional level (then with ROC units); thirty-seven with practitioners working in the Humber region: fifteen of them working in different prison facilities and eighteen police officers. Due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the interviews were conducted online with an interactive synchronous method (Salmons 2009; O’Connor & Madge 2017). The interviews ranged in length between 45 to 120 minutes. The recorded interviews were transcribed by a professional service and then securely stored via the University of Hull's dedicated facilities. All participants were given the possibility to view the transcribed interviews. All interview data, conveniently anonymised, has been uploaded in, organised, and coded through NVivo. A subsequent thematic analysis helped spot recurring themes and critical points that were then reorganised in a codes chart. While several themes have emerged from the abundant dataset, for the aim of this paper three major analytical foci were identified - the challenges of prison gangs; data sharing; and trust, and informality.
We organise our findings according to the themes that emerged at the analytical stage. These themes have been collected within three main analytical categories which will be discussed in the following sections: 1) The challenges of prison gangs 2) Data sharing, and 3) Bureaucracy, trust, and informality.
Prison gangs are portrayed by the interviewees as a challenge to the criminal justice system. While there is no shared formal definition of what can be considered a prison gang, the participants in our research describe them as prisoners, mostly with previous OC engagement or experience, who group to exploit what is described as a lucrative criminal market: prison. As a police officer, part of the SOC unit, states “it's like £1 or £2 for spice outside and it can be £80 inside prison”. On the one side, prison gangs are largely perceived as an opportunistic and criminal entrepreneurial aptitude that some prisoners, directly or indirectly linked to OC, demonstrate once incarcerated:
They’ve just gone toward the prison as a market, it’s no different to any other drug trade, it’s no different […]. An opportunity is presented, they’ll exploit it to make money. (PrIU)
So, it’s a vicious circle really. Albeit you can get them convicted, it doesn’t mean to say that the criminality stops. (PrO)
On the other side, prison is considered a criminogenic environment (Camp and Gaes 2005) that facilitates gangs' activities, a space where criminal activities are not only more lucrative, but also much more difficult to investigate and, paradoxically, to control. Prison, therefore, is described both as a lucrative market and a setting where it is possible to learn how ‘to get smarter’, as well exemplified by the following quote:
It’s safer for them to conduct their business inside the prison because they haven’t got the threat of police intervention, rival OCGs, […] and within prison, they get taught how to be smarter and cleverer. (SOCU)
Interviewees make then clear that not all prisons are the same. For example, there is a large agreement that prison classification and its geographical position (urban/rural) affect the presence of prison gangs; gangs' presence is much more robust in the urban setting and therefore this eases the presence of prison gangs, as demonstrated by the following quote:
I have seen it before, not very often. We don’t have that much of a gang issue […] because it’s a Cat C local, so it’s not an inner city, which experiences more problems with that. (PrO)
In that regard, interviewees claim that OCG networking is not only capable of adapting to the settings but also can strategically exploit, or even ‘bend’ the physical and social environment to their needs. For example, gangs behind bars are considered core to prison order and therefore they can shape prison governance:
OCGs tend to be less argumentative because if they’re up to something, they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. They tend to be wiser than the run of the mill shoplifter who pushes back all the time. I find that OCGs are a bit more polite and pleasant with you because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. […] They’re overly nice, so they think that they’re not drawing attention to themselves, but it pricks our ears up if they’re being overly nice because we think what’s he up to if he’s being that nice to us.
I call them [gang members] prison famous because when they’re in the prison, everyone knows them and they’re all connected, and they have this group dynamic, but when they’re out in the normal population, they appear to be nobody special. (PrO)
The aim of strategic collaboration in maintaining prison order is twofold: it gives them the possibility to fly under the radar and somehow ease the control, but also it can be used as a lever to condition and coerce prison staff.
What emerges quite clearly from the interviews is the ropy and intertwined relationship between the prison and street gangs. Overall, both prison and police staff underline how prisons are lucrative markets not only for gangs operating behind bars but also for the ones operating outside: the OCG existence and possibility to operate behind bars are linked to the logistic support coming from the ‘free society’ OCGs, as well exemplified in the following quote:
Because X is a remand prison if you get a 14 or 28 [days] recall these individuals will know that they’ve got 2 or 3 months licence left. If you’re usually homeless and earning next to nothing and I say, ‘I invite you to come back for £3,000 or £2,000,’ you only have to leave the establishment, smash a window or not turn up for your first appointment and you’re recalled. […] So they’ll go out, you see it a lot, the organised criminal will arrange for somebody to meet the individual down the road, they’ll pack the individual up making him ready to go back in. (SOCU)
Therefore, it is evident how the know-how capital includes the development of strategies to link the outside gangs with the inside ones, corroborating the idea of gangs as a bridge between the inside and the outside. It is evident, how the interviewees perceived OCGs as criminal networks that transcend bars and walls, adapt and exploit prison settings. In that sense, the notion of ‘gangs’ seems to support the idea of a symbiotic relationship between the prison and the street culture, population features, social stratification, etcetera.
A conspicuous part of the interviews highlights how prison population features, as happened with the suburbs and ghettos, can be considered a factor that facilitates the recruitment and proliferation of prison gangs. The high level of vulnerability and marginalisation that characterise a large part of the prison population makes them an easy target for gangs’ exploitation or recruitment:
In this group, probably the most common issues that I encounter are substance misuse, financial issues, obviously lifestyle and associated. Quite often being threatened or intimidated by gang members in order to carry out things, and they just carry out tasks for them.
And so I've got a guy at the moment, and that's what's happened. Let me think. I think probably – but this is a feature of my offender group across the board – which is I would say they're characterised by a chaotic lifestyle, difficult family backgrounds, etc. (Prob)
Therefore, the higher the level of vulnerability of the prison population, the easier gangs can recruit, similar to what happened outside: social exclusion and vulnerabilities give OCGs fundamental leverage to exploit or recruit new members. Without getting into too many details, this highlights the need to theoretically, epistemologically and empirically elaborate on the connection between urban marginalisation, imprisonment and gangs’ proliferation.
Finally, similarly to what has been described for prison vulnerabilities, grouping behind bars and the exploitation of prison as a criminal market is portrayed as a form of specialisation of the gangs’ activities, a mixture of street and prison cultures and know-how, combined with the adaptability and flexibility of the networking. The accumulation of these skills and social capital is then maximised by grouping behind bars and networking with the outside OCGs:
And of course, they have experience of prisons, because they tend to go in and out. So, they’re educated, they understand the profits that can be made, and they tend to specialise. We have large evidence base of network talking to each other about the best prisons, the best profits, the best, what one prison is doing, and one prison is not doing. It’s very much a cottage industry if you like, to supply those prisons, because of the money, it’s easy money. (PrIU)
In summary, prison emerges as a critical knot in the proliferation of OCGs/gangs. In particular, two elements arise from this initial overview: on the one hand, OCGs have the capacity at the same time to adapt their organisation to the prison settings but also to ‘bend’ this institution to their needs; on the other hand, OCGs behind bars hardly can be understood and conceptually framed without considering the outside context. Therefore, the complexity of prison gangs, that we have only marginally scratched is the issue that the UK government strategy, and its development, aims to tackle by enforcing HMPPS-prison collaboration.
The UK Serious and Organised Crime strategy, perhaps due to the governmental definition of organised crime as a national security threat, can be depicted as a policy based on a ‘top-down’ approach (Howlett 2020), whereby central decision-makers have a core role in its implementation and mainly relies on a centralised apparatus of civil servants and administrative officials that assist the local level. The strategy identifies the key players of the strategy delivery in national/regional bureaucrats and understands its implementation as a centralised problem-solving exercise within a centrally driven network of implementers that bridges all levels:
The idea is that while custody and community are all part of the same national team, we have a regional footprint, but we belong to a national team, and we oversee and basically try to tackle those individuals who are involved in serious organised criminality both in a custodial setting but also trying to impact in terms of when they're released into the community under prison supervision through probation that we're able to influence and manage things like licence conditions, associations etc. (SOCU7)
Technology innovation has become central to criminal justice system work since the end of the Sixties, and it has received considerable attention from policymakers in the last decade. Technology-driven solutions are becoming a core part of UK law enforcement agencies. Data sharing and the creation of dedicated technological infrastructure and procedures are described by the interviewees as one of the main challenges of the process of centralisation, as the following quotes show:
[…] There is no inter database for intelligence between prison and police […] That is a completely different system as well. It's crazy. The police use one system, the criminal justice system uses a different network, and the prison service uses a different network altogether. Three completely different networks. (PO)
And I think from, sharing that data in, if you're doing it in a centralised way, at the moment, we probably get a little bit here or there. I mean, there is like data that we do get nationally from police […] but the way that we work at the moment is we work off a cloud system, of which partner data is not allowed to go into at the moment (PrIU)
For the creation of effective and networked governance, collaborative relationships are capable of providing functionality for data integration via information technology. However, while the recommendation of the strategy aims to prompt a full implementation of data-sharing infrastructure, the interviewees’ narrative underlines how the process of data integration is compromised by organisational boundaries, professional mistrust and data codification differences, to the point of questioning the reliability of information available also within the very same agency:
We haven't been able to work with that so far, just because it's not networked into our data science team, which we predominantly work with, and therefore it's a bit difficult. […] I don't necessarily have access to them, and this is all in terms of, you know, the bigger piece of the pie is that we're trying to, you know, centralise our data. (Innovation Unit Manager)
No, we use different systems. […] We have the Police National Database where I could put a name in, and if that person is recorded in Nottingham, I can see what Nottingham holds on that person, intelligence-wise and convictions. But it depends on how Nottingham updates their system. They might update it differently for us. It's difficult to get any detailed information that is relevant at the time. […]You can't always confirm that what you're reading is accurate and reported or what is being processed. That is often frustrating as well. (PO)
Interestingly, this seems to fit what Cresswell et al. (2007: 122) point out: effective collaborative networks “are essential for resolving the inevitable problems of divergent data definitions and structures, diverse database designs, highly variable data quality, and incompatible network infrastructure”. Therefore, it seems plausible to state that the IT infrastructure and the data integration should be based on a pre-existing collaborative network rather than using technology to promote collaboration, as seems to be happening in the implementation of the UK strategy. What emerges clearly from the interview is that the human element and the corporate culture are still preferred to the technological one.
The prison liaison officer, a police officer working within the prison facilities, on one side, facilitates the data sharing, even though unilaterally; on the other side, it seems to compromise information technology governance8:
The whole purpose of the role of the prison intelligence officer is intelligence exchange. So, prison officers put stuff on Mercury, refer it to the prison intelligence officer, and they transfer it to our intelligence database, and then they'll also look at the police intelligence database, and transfer it to Mercury. (PrIU)
Remarkably, confidence and trust within the criminal justice system agencies emerge as a core challenge in shaping collaboration between prison and police against organised crime that can potentially diminish or compromise the overall aim of the strategy.
The process of information integration between criminal justice agencies is portrayed by the interviews as a challenge that goes beyond the issues related to the development or use of technological infrastructures. On one side, the central coordination bodies describe their work in the definition of procedures and protocols to ensure the effectiveness of the data sharing as challenging. Ironically, on the other side, interviewees working at the national level highlight how the onerous bureaucratic procedures to access this information are deeply affecting information integration. The following quotes describe that well, and both agree that information integration is perhaps a task arduous to achieve:
We've got to get better than what we are doing now, and I think, as MARSOC, we're trying to sort out an information-sharing agreement, just to try and give some reassurances to different agencies and different organisations that they can share and share with confidence but trying to do this across the board between different organisations is… we’ve got a mountain to climb. I genuinely do believe we need to start climbing it. (MARSOC)
Interestingly, at the national level, there is also a spreading concern over potential information leaks or incidents in data integration practices; the interviewees emphasise in particular how these kinds of episodes can deeply affect the tendency to collaborate and share data:
People have encountered problems all the time. I've encountered data leaks, I've encountered intelligence leaks with different organisations, and as soon as that happens, then you are more reluctant to share intelligence next time, and that's what we've got to get over. (MARSOC)
At the local level, this fear seems to be expressed mostly by police officers, which often underlines how prison officer corruption is one of the major enablers of prison gang activities. The following quote portrays how information integration and data sharing with prison are considered by police difficult, blaming the prison’s lack of understanding of intelligence-related procedures and security, as well as the intricate bureaucratic procedures needed to obtain the data requested:
Yes, it's a bit of a difficult link for us. We sometimes struggle to get hold of them – we do some covert enquiries sometimes with regards to telephone calls if they get authorised and they have to go through strenuous channels before they get authorised. Then the authority comes back to the governor with the prisoner. They're supposed to supply us with the information […] But there is a contact, but I suppose intelligence is a bit limited, isn't it? We don't tend to get much back if we haven't requested it. (PO)
Paradoxically, the processes and the authorization chain put in place by the prison authority to ensure the security of data sharing are perceived by the police forces as a problem because they believe it to be unnecessarily intricated to the point that it compromises the action against the OGCs. On the one side, the police staff members interviewed show concern about the potential leaks to data sharing security due to prison officers’ corruption. On the other side, they also portray that access to prison information and security procedures are muddled and deeply impacting the overall action against OGCs.
While local and regional practitioners offer a realistic view of the obstacles to collaboration and teamwork, stressing in particular how trust-related issues affect the overall process of information integration and, therefore, also the effectiveness of inter-agency collaboration. What is relevant for this analysis is how the narrative produced by most of the police staff interviewed overlaps trust and security when they portray the collaboration with HMPPS, questioning the reliability of HMPPS staff. As one of the participants well summaries:
It’s not just about our ability to share intelligence, it’s about where it’s stored, who has access to it, what they do with it once they have it, it’s all those sorts of things […] if it’s a human thing, it’s around trust, it’s about what are they going to do with that piece of intelligence, so that’s what we need to try and get over. (PO)
The police officers’ distrust and suspicion, as well as the bureaucracy-related obstacles, are overcome through the prison liaison officer role. This is part of the police force but operates inside prison facilities similarly to a prison officer; these officers offer law enforcement agencies an ‘informal’ pathway to obtain the data and information required, preventing the potential concern and security-related issues described above. The following quote is taken from an interview with a police liaison officer, part of the prison intelligence unit:
We must be about culture and message. One of the problems of prison is culture, is when they accept things that are unacceptable. So, a corrupt approach to a prison officer, if a prisoner approaches a prison officer, and says, will you smuggle something for a thousand pounds, the prison takes that as routine, that should never be routine, and we offer to prosecute because it’s a criminal offence, it’s bribery. (PrIU)
A common thread of police culture is a sense of ‘mission’, as well as a sense of social isolation that is counterbalanced by strengthening belonging and solidarity (Reiner 1992; Kiely and Peek 2002). Distrust of anyone from ‘outside’, including prison and probation staff, the law enforcement agencies (Young 1991), belongs to the police professional culture.
The police officers’ storytelling implicitly shows a limited interest in defining common ground and practices to develop information integration with prison and probation. The interviewees recognise the relevance for them to gather intelligence from the prison setting and how this needs to be part of the strategy to tackle organised crime; but, at the same time, they indicate informal practices as a way forward to obtain the information they need, as described in the following quote:
We as a team don’t have access to all those databases, but we can get access to those. For example, the OCGs we’re dealing with, if we charge them and remand somebody to prison, we can identify through our prison liaison team a contact in that prison who will have a direct one-to-one sharing of information with them, and there are different things we can do with prisons and different levels of intrusion, and partnership working that we can continue whilst that individual is in prison .(PO)
On the other side also, prison staff recognise the police mistrust, as one member of the prison staff states, “[n]obody's telling us about what's coming in our prisons”. Overall, prison staff complains about the lack of communication with police, acknowledging this is linked to mistrust towards them:
[…] we need outside investigation teams to tell us the intent and capability of what's coming through the door. They need to be able to tell us who else is outstanding on the OCG, what are the intelligence requirements for their needs for the remaining OCG who has yet to be captured and jailed and use us more really in that. But also, tell us, give us the risk, so we can properly hear from the prisons so they can identify the risk and get that risk down to a manageable level. (PrIU)
The trust issues are not merely related to the poor information received on incoming prisoners, but it seems that there is a spread concern among prison staff in police capability to operate in prison.
The prison staff interviewed describes their knowledge of prison settings and prisoners as essential in understanding and distinguishing normal prison life from criminal activities; as a prison, officer claims “we know that behind the scenes, from watching, we know what's going on and we know what's happening”. However, in the interviewees' narrative police are described as not actively picking up their calls, forcing them to take action autonomously and informally:
I listened to the calls for a total other reason and it turns out this was happening on the prison’s telephone system and we’d linked him to a gang of individuals that were dealing heroin in the Leeds area and they were making deliveries. […] We’ll report that on the intelligence but I don’t believe the police pick it up that quick. So we’re telling them about active criminal ongoing activity and I don’t think anyone was ever brought to prosecution or anything ever happened of that, I removed the telephone numbers, the boy got challenged by a member of staff and wanted to leave the establishment because he wanted to go back to a different, easier place. (PrO)
There seems to be also a lack of trust towards the role of prison/police liaison officer, as this quote from a prison staff member well exemplifies:
We have one police liaison officer and he’s so busy you can never get hold of him, so it’s really difficult to have that link, we’re very much encouraged not to contact the police ourselves and go through the police liaison officer because it’s in house. (PrO)
Prison staff seems to perceive police collaboration more like an intrusion into the working setting rather than a resource. Overall, the professional cultures and a certain level of issues with the use of technology seem to affect the strategy to control OCGs behind bars.
The previous pages show how the idea of organised crime gangs as a network that has the capacity to bypass prison surveillance and transform prison into a lucrative market seems to drive the development of the UK strategy. As with earlier studies of gangs and prison, the participants in this research manifestly sought OCGs or prison gangs as an expansion of ‘outside’ organised criminal networks. Therefore, they tend to portray the criminal grouping behind bars as a specialisation of the OCGs operating external to prison walls. In that sense, prison is considered as the new frontier for OC networks and activities. The classic multiagency approach is thus expected to be accompanied by forms of proactive policing including HMPPS settings. In particular, police-prison data-sharing information is described as core in the attempt to tackle OCGs behind bars.
That being said, the data presented in this paper stresses that the strategy put in place to address prison OCG is affected by some vulnerabilities.
First, while we agree in considering ‘gangs’ or OCGs a conceptual framework that can bridge the prison with the outside, the literature well stresses how prison OCG presents specific features and different organisations, cultures, dynamics, etcetera compared to street gangs (Gooch & Treadwell 2023). On the one hand, prison and street gangs’ cultures are mutually contaminated, on the other hand, the peculiar characteristics of prison settings force OC grouping to adapt their structure to the context, making them unique and separate forms of OC. We believe this is a core element that deserves more attention from policymakers, and also from scholars. Overall, the findings of this research indicate how the strategy to tackle OGCs in prison seems to be tainted by the unclear definition of what are the core features of prison gangs, associating them with criminal networks outside the prison and partially neglecting their peculiarities.
A second element that emerges from the analysis of the interviews is that, while the literature claims that the use of technology-based solutions to promote the partnership between criminal justice system agencies moves from the assumption that technologies are a means to an end (Morozov 2014), our research indicates that human factors and the role played by professional cultures should be included in this equation making technology something more than a means to an end. The participants’ narrative shows a lack of trust between police and prison but, in places, also among the different police forces. Interestingly, the technological development seems to be rolled out over a layer of mistrust and what can be defined as turfism (Crawford 1998; Cohen and Gould 2003). This potentially conflictual relationship seems not to be limited to a lack of cooperation between the two agencies, but also to the attempt to impose a new intelligence-led police-like organisational model on the prison, and this poses the risk of distorting what in theory should be the prison’s social goal, to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders. Finally, the importation of a biased data-collection police model might increase the possibility for the prison to generate false, distorted, or systemically ‘dirty data’.
This last part seems to be the most concerning vulnerability of the strategy.
Overall, the data analysed in this article confirm a low level of trust among forces, perhaps due to what the literature on the topic defines as canteen culture (Kiely and Peek 2002). According to the participants' narrative, it is possible to claim that the lack of trust and the different professional cultures among prison and police staff, play a key role in preventing the full enforcement of the new organisation model drafted by the UK strategy on OC. Effective collaborative networks and trust are described by the literature as critical for resolving the unavoidable difficulties of diverging data definitions, database designs, information sharing and the enforcement of network technology (Cresswell et al. 2007). Therefore, it is possible to argue that the lack of a pre-existing collaboration and the mistrust that emerge from the participants’ narratives is one of the elements that prevent forms of information integration and sharing: the creation of technology infrastructure and the related data integration should be based on a pre-existing collaborative network, rather than using technology to promote collaboration as the UK policymakers seem to do. Indeed, what our findings unveil is a blind trust in the use of technology as a ‘quick fix process’. Interestingly, this can be described as a form of techno solutionism (Lindtner et al. 2016): this means that the use of technology does not function to actively and effectively improve the collaboration between forces, instead being a means to the end of cooperation, it becomes the end itself. As proven by the analysis of the UK Serious and Organised Crime Strategy rollout, an efficient form of collaboration should first aim at integrating the professional cultures of police and prison, as this would trigger changes in professional cultures and increase reciprocal trust, communication, and shared understanding and definitions of organised crime.
To conclude, we believe that these issues affecting the social understanding of OC in prison deserve further research work and additional analysis.
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