Volume 58, Issue 2
Original Article
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Soldiering On? The Prison‐Military Complex and Ex‐Military Personnel as Prison Officers: Transition, Rehabilitation and Prison Reform


Dominique Moran is Professor in Carceral Geography, University of Birmingham

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Jennifer Turner is Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Liverpool

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Helen Arnold is Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Suffolk

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First published: 16 April 2019
Citations: 1


Arguing that criminology has thus far inadequately theorised militarism as it relates to the prison system, this agenda‐setting article introduces the ‘prison‐military complex’ as a means to initiate examination of militarism in relation to institutions and practices of incarceration. In so doing, it identifies a key knowledge gap vis‐à‐vis the role of ex‐military personnel employed as prison staff; and poses key questions about the ways in which military staff and military methods are being directly targeted as a means to reform a prison service reeling from unprecedented levels of violence, self‐harm, riots, and escapes. Encouraging criminologists to think beyond stereotypical ideas about the military, the article revolves around a multiscalar articulation of the prison‐military complex, discussed here as it relates to reform of the prison system as a whole; the rehabilitation of offenders; and individuals’ ex‐military transitions to civilian life.

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Soldiering On? The Prison‐Military Complex and Ex‐Military Personnel as Prison Officers: Transition, Rehabilitation and Prison Reform

by Moran et al.

… there always used to be military contingency plans, because governments must have contingency plans for all kinds of disasters … We have updated those contingency plans, and the military are indeed involved, but I should make it clear that no one is contemplating a military takeover of any prison … .11 See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8418719/Ken‐Clarkes‐prison‐privatisations‐spark‐strike‐threat.html (accessed 18 September 2018).

According to this response by Ken Clarke (then UK Secretary of State for Justice) to a question posed in parliament in 2011, the prison service was, despite its failings, far from requiring a ‘military takeover’. A few short years (and several Secretaries of State) later, two of his successors would lay the challenge of reforming a prison system, arguably more violent and dangerous than for a generation, firmly at the feet of military and ex‐military personnel. In 2016, Liz Truss declared intended military recruits ideal for instilling ‘the virtues of discipline’22 See https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/04/liz‐truss‐to‐launch‐recruitment‐drive‐for‐ex‐forces‐prison‐officers (accessed 18 September 2018).
and two years later, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart launched bespoke prison leadership training schemes, including a military‐style ‘staff college’.33 See https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/minister‐proposes‐military‐style‐college‐for‐prison‐governors/ (accessed 27 September 2018).
Although espousing different benefits of military involvement in the prison service, these three examples are founded on an implicit assumption that prisons and the military are ordinarily distinct from one another.

This article takes the opposite view, proposing the term ‘prison‐military complex’ to describe the deep‐rooted, long‐standing, widespread, and diverse connections between prisons and the military, including the prominent role of ex‐military figures in prison reform.

As a former army infantry officer, Rory Stewart follows reformers Alexander Paterson (1884–1947) and Edmund du Cane (1830–1903) before him. A Captain in World War I, Paterson was Commissioner of Prisons and Director of Convict Prisons, 1922–46. His famous statement that ‘men are sent to prison as a punishment, not for punishment’, infused the Criminal Justice Act 1948, which abolished whipping, penal servitude and hard labour. Responsible for reforming the Borstal system and discipline in adult prisons (Ruck 1951), he oversaw prison officer training and promotion schemes, and established the Imperial Training School at Wakefield. Du Cane, former Major General of the Royal Engineers, was Director of Convict Prisons, and Inspector of Military Prisons through the Prison Act of 1865, and the abolition of penal transportation in 1867. He reformed county and borough prisons, transferring them to central government control, via the Prison Act 1877.

It may be the case that most statutory justice systems are militaristic in origin – their characteristics shaped by the influence of such key individuals. But, between national contingency planning and personal histories, there is a complex web of connections linking prisons and the military that is both under‐researched, and whose significance, we argue, is underestimated. Despite excellent scholarship of the relationship between the military and crime (for example, Emsley 2013; Treadwell 2016), little systematic consideration has been given to the many points of interpenetration between the military and the prison, such that there exists neither a comprehensive exegesis nor an overarching theorisation of this complex relationship and, accordingly, key aspects remain critically under‐researched.

This article addresses these lacunae, first, by proposing and explaining the ‘prison‐military complex’ which we intend as a means of structuring discussion of the nature of militarism and its relationship to the prison system. Next, to demonstrate the utility of the prison‐military complex in defining new lines of empirical enquiry, it uses this framing to focus on one example – the experience of ex‐military personnel employed within the prison system.

Militarism, Prison and the Prison‐Military Complex

Most commonly used to describe a society that ‘ranks military institutions and ways above the prevailing attitudes of civilian life and carries the military mentality into the civilian sphere’ (Vagts 1937, p.11), militarism is also regarded more broadly as ‘a set of attitudes and social practices which regards war and preparations for war as a normal and desirable social activity’ (Mann 1987, p.35). Shaw (2012) argues that the core idea is the ‘carrying’ of military forms into the civilian sphere, through mentality, attitudes and, critically, social practices. He contends that the core meaning of ‘militarism’ should be specified not in terms of how military practices are regarded, but rather how they influence social relations in general – or in other words, the penetration of social relations by military relations (pp.37–8).

There are undoubtedly innumerable forms of ‘penetration’ of the prison (ostensibly part of the civilian realm) by military relations: the senior leadership by ex‐military personnel discussed above; military contingency planning; Veterans‐in‐Custody (ViC); military prisons; the use of military technology in penal contexts; military ranks and quasi‐military insignia describing prison officer grades (King 2013, p.32); and the axiom of ‘military discipline’ that peppers academic, press, and policy discourses, often with very little critical engagement. But the relationship is far more complex than simply the ‘carrying’ of such military forms ‘into’ the prison. It is multidirectional, and it extends from the transnational level – where it intersects powerfully with neoliberal capitalism and geopolitics – through national prison systems and individual institutions, to individual prisoners and prisons. Prison seems to occupy a liminal status, somewhere between what is ‘military’ and what is ‘civilian’.

In light of this, we deploy ‘prison‐military complex’ to describe the multifaceted, multiscalar, entrenched and polyvalent interrelationships between prison and the military. But more than simply acting as a catch‐all descriptor for these apparently disparate but – we would argue – interrelated phenomena, the prison‐military complex is also a conceptual tool which directs attention to how and with what implications prison and the military are associated with each other, and requires that prison scholars go beyond ‘common‐sense’ notions of the meaning of ‘militarism’ and ‘the military’ as these relate to prison. In so doing, it potentially opens out a range of unexplored avenues for critical empirical enquiry, one of which we later explore in detail.

The Prison‐Military Complex

At the macro scale, especially in the contemporary US, powerful arguments are made about the synergies between militarism, mass surveillance and (racialised) mass incarceration. We view the prison‐military complex as articulated with the now‐totemic ‘prison‐industrial complex’: a term popularised by Critical Resistance and other abolitionist organisers, which Angela Davis (1998) explained with reference to ‘the structural similarities and profitability of business‐government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment’ (p.146). It reflects the increased surveillance, policing, and mass incarceration that is militarising US society and articulates the complex interrelationship between militarism, the neoliberal globalisation of capital, and the transnational expansion of the prison‐industrial complex (Sudbury 2014). It also encompasses processes that involve the prison system in military operations: for example, via the introduction, by the British State, of Acts that ostensibly combat a threat posed by political violence associated with the ‘war on terror’, but which also depart from existing human rights legislation and normalise special powers to detain indefinitely without trial (Sim 2004).

Spanning the transnational and the institutional, the prison‐military complex incorporates the relationships between individual prisons – such as Abu Ghraib – and former military bases that become prisons, and their enabling conditions. Brown (2005) has argued that ‘the prison‐industrial complex and military‐industrial complex converge in a socio‐political economy grounded in rural and lower‐class life’ (p.983). This is part of a trend towards what she calls ‘criminal justice militarization’ (p.985), in which social relations are redefined through a convergence of militaristic, police, and penal contexts. These convergences demonstrate the intricacy of the prison‐military complex, through multidirectional interpenetration between prison and the military. For example, Brown (2005, p.984) noted the exportation of civilian prison consultants to advise on prison construction and management in post‐conflict contexts. Here, she observes that, it was under their ‘tutelage’ that the types of abuses found in domestic incarceration were repeated at Abu Ghraib. And Moodliar (2014, p.80) argued that the origins of US mass surveillance now justified by the ‘war on terror’ can be found in the penalised monitoring of black and brown youth.

Considering national prison systems and prison institutions as part of a prison‐military complex enables a more informed and nuanced critique of widely‐accepted tenets, such as Foucault's (1991) often‐cited observation that ‘prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons’ (p.228). Frequently deployed to draw attention both to similarities between these kinds of institutions, and to a greater propensity for the imposition of ‘military discipline’ in certain types of prisons (Jewkes and Johnston 2007, p.187), this famous observation is partially based on Foucault's view of the military as the foundational laboratory of disciplinary power (McSorley 2014), and the soldier as central to both sovereign and disciplinary apparatuses, being both subject and object of power. The lack of understanding of militarism and the military within criminological scholarship has led to unquestioning deployment of stereotypical assumptions about its rigidity, harshness, authoritarianism, and punitivity (long recognised as outdated and in need of revision (Jordan 2007; Scarborough 1993)) – meaning that Foucault's claim has gone relatively unchallenged. Beyond criminology, there are now calls for critical rethinking of his portrayal of the military in works (including Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1991)), through which he developed notions of discipline, governmentality and biopolitics (for example, Powel 2017). Foucault's scrutiny of the evolution of the military ended at the 18th Century, and – perhaps because he left unfulfilled a stated intention to continue this analysis (Foucault 1980, p.77) – he claimed in lectures in the late 1970s that military apparatus had ‘hardly changed’ since that time (Foucault 2007, p.354). Pointing out the inaccuracy of that statement, Powel (2017) notes that militaries ‘were and are far more heterogeneous’ than Foucault suggested (p.853). Consideration of the prison‐military complex necessitates careful consideration of Powel's conclusions. If Foucault's notion of governmentality rests on a triangle of powers including discipline and the military apparatus, but if neither discipline nor the military apparatus are what Foucault claimed they were, then there are much wider implications for the notion of governmentality; not least, we would suggest, for criminological understandings of the prison.

Viewing the ‘boot‐camp’ – the specific example of a prison institution that perhaps most clearly demonstrates militarism – as part of the prison‐military complex, points towards other misunderstandings. Critical scholarship frequently describes the militarism of boot‐camps in clichéd terms – prisoners are subjected ‘to a Spartan lifestyle, to exhausting physical demands, to planned and repeated humiliation, and to authoritarian (if secretly well‐intentioned) drill sergeants … unrelenting in their discipline’ (Cullen et al. 2005, p.57). Most critical studies find boot‐camps simplistic, sometime abusive, and generally ineffective (Stinchcomb 2005). Yet, alongside the ‘common‐sense’ idea (Cullen et al. 2005) that they ‘should’ work, boot‐camps persist. Lutze and Lau (2018) argue that this is, in fact, due to their move away from such stereotypical ‘military’ tactics of humiliation, aggression and coercion, and towards what they term a ‘military philosophy’ of motivating internal change and reinforcing positive behaviour by recognising accomplishments, rather than by punishing failures. In other words, today's boot‐camps are still ‘military’, but not in a way immediately recognisable to those clinging on to outdated ideas about what the military is. At the same time, Liz Truss's recruitment of ex‐military personnel, and Rory Stewart's staff college, are also couched within uncritical repetition of timeworn clichés – but this time about military valour and virtue ‐ which are just as unhelpful as the stereotypes of an authoritarian military which infuse criminological scholarship. While militarism in many of its formulations is almost implicitly defined as a social ill, Burland (2018) emphasises its ambiguity as a social force which can foster ‘social cohesion and positive personal traits such as altruism, humility and self‐discipline’ but whose ‘misuse can cause or exacerbate social problems’ (p.149).

These examples indicate the potential of a full exegesis of the prison‐military complex as a web of practical and conceptual connections between prison and the military. In order to fully understand the relationship between prison and the military, it is vital to move beyond easy stereotypes, and critically engage with the thorny question of what militarism actually means for prison. By highlighting the extent and entrenchment of prison‐military relations, the prison‐military complex enables such enquiry. In the remainder of this article we demonstrate the utility of this analytical framing in identification of key knowledge gaps and, in thinking through the productive ambiguity of militarism, through discussion of the role of ex‐military personnel employed as prison staff.

The Prison‐Military Complex and Ex‐military Personnel

Researchers conversing with custodial staff and governors can scarcely fail to notice that many have had a military background; yet the significance of these individuals and their contribution to the prison service remains almost entirely overlooked in criminological literature.

While prior research has focused on comprehending the scale of the UK ex‐military prisoner population and the challenges they face, it seems perplexing that the other route taken into prison by ex‐military personnel, that is, as prison staff, remains unexplored. There are numerous unanswered questions about prison work as a means to ‘bridge’ the military‐civilian divide, but these also engage much broader issues about the contributions made to the prison system by ex‐military personnel, and the intertwined nature of both their life‐course transitions and the reform of prisons and prisoners. Considering ex‐military personnel as part of the prison‐military complex leads us to ask whether they can ‘reform’ the prison system and its prisoners (including the increasing numbers with whom they share a military background), while prison work ‘rehabilitates’ them for civilian life. This question speaks to the multiscalar nature of the prison‐military complex, and to articulations of criminality and rehabilitation in societies in which diverse forms of militarisation, often constructed as a pragmatic and necessary response to pressing issues, are increasingly drawing critical attention (for example, Ahmed 2011; Giroux 2004; Kappeler and Kraska 2015).

Within the prison‐military complex, ex‐military personnel embody threefold prison‐military relations which are all articulated in various ways with the slippery notion of ‘reform’: the role of the prison in resettlement of military personnel ‘transitioning’ to civilian lives; the rehabilitation of offenders; and reform of the prison system itself. We consider these in turn.

Military‐Civilian Transition

There are an estimated 3.8 million armed forces leavers in England (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2014, p.4), with more than 20,000 (Ministry of Defence 2014, p.10) leaving the UK armed forces (the British Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force) each year. The post‐military period, termed ‘military‐civilian transition’, is challenging, and the spectrum of potential outcomes ranges from ‘success’ (that is, transitioning into functioning civilian citizenship, having a job, paying taxes, etc.) to ‘failure’ (which can include unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration).

Some form of transition to civilian life is inevitable for all who complete their armed forces service alive. Whether leaving is pre‐planned (at the end of a service contract), or unexpected (through ill health or dismissal), being in the military will inevitably have influenced the development of identities (Cowen 2005; Riley and Bateman 1987; Walker 2018), and the return is ‘stressful’, and requires ‘personal adjustment’ (British Army 2018, no page). That said, most ex‐military personnel transition relatively seamlessly, requiring no assistance to cope with employment, debt, homelessness, relationship breakdown, or poor health (Ashcroft 2014, p.125). Regarding themselves as physically and mentally well, most go on to have second careers (Herman and Yarwood 2014, pp.41–2; Walker 2013).‘Pathologising’ military‐civilian transition thus risks positioning military experience as an affliction from which individuals need ‘rehabilitation’. But even those ‘successfully’ transitioning face ‘significant cultural, social and spatial changes’, and liminal identities as the ‘legacies’ of military service (Herman and Yarwood 2014, pp.41–2, 49). Probably counted among the ‘unknown, but perhaps significant’ number experiencing ‘tensions between tenacious military identity and post discharge “resettlement” with the civilian environment’ (Higate 2001, p.443), apparent ‘success’ stories go unquestioned. Indeed, most research focuses on mental health and physical health problems which accompany ‘failure’ (see Brewin, Garnett and Andrews 2011; Buckman et al. 2012; Hatch et al. 2013; Iversen and Greenberg 2009; Iversen et al. 2007;). But as Ruth Jolly (1996) reported, even those ‘successfully’ transitioning will always view themselves primarily as ex‐military personnel.

Recognising these challenges, the armed forces provide resources for reintegration into civilian life (Higate 2001). While explicitly addressing ‘employability’, activities implicitly respond to common post‐military feelings of betrayal and abandonment (Wainwright et al. 2016, p.751). As well as a lack of preset structure and routine in civilian life (Wainwright et al. 2016), familiarity with the ‘management and deployment of violence’ developed via military training results in an ‘intense military socialization’, which poses further challenges (Higate 2001, pp.444–5). Many find emotional expression uncomfortable (Atherton 2009) and encounter difficulties in finding jobs, sustaining family relationships, and maintaining housing. Sympathetic media attention has been drawn to research indicating that ex‐military personnel constitute ‘a disproportionate number of the single homeless population’ (Higate 2001, p.445) (see also Anderson, Kemp and Quilgars 1993; Gunner and Knott 1997; Randall and Brown 1994), and although opinion may be indifferent about prisoners in general (Cheliotis 2010), a slightly more compassionate attitude is sometimes expressed towards ViC (McCartney 2011; Murray 2013).

Veterans‐in‐Custody (ViC)

Such empathy may be informed by notions of military heroism, bravery and sacrifice (Becker and Eagly 2004; Franco, Blau and Zimbardo 2011; McGarry and Walklate 2011), bolstered (in the UK) by high‐profile events such as Remembrance Day, and by charitable organisations which support a sense of collective indebtedness to, and respect for, the armed forces, even while public opinion differs over the political agendas which lead to their active deployment (Foyle 2004; Rutherford 2004; Voeten and Brewer 2006).

In line with these notions of military ‘virtue’, the majority of ex‐military personnel do not offend. A military career ‘significantly improves life opportunities’ (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2014, p.3); reduces the likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system (Fossey 2010); and therefore renders the ex‐military ‘less likely to be incarcerated than the general population’ (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2014, p.3). There is no apparent predisposition to criminal behaviour. In the US, veterans were less likely than non‐veterans to have a criminal record (perhaps explained by the military's zero‐tolerance approach to drugs), and the proportion of recruits with criminal backgrounds who therefore needed waivers in order to enlist, fell over a period of ten years from 17% to a low of 9% by the mid‐1990s (Greenberg and Rosenheck 2012, p.648). In the UK, ex‐military personnel are less likely than the background population to have a criminal conviction, perhaps because the peak age both for offending and for enlisting in the military is the same (in men), and since military personnel tend not to offend while in service (or at least do not have most offences dealt with through the civilian justice system), their potential offending will be reduced during time spent in military service (Royal British Legion 2014, p.3).

The reasons why some veterans do offend are complex. Although for some, ‘mental health problems related to their military service’ (such as post‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)) may be a factor, the majority of offending behaviour is thought not to be directly linked to service (MacManus et al. 2013, 2015; Royal British Legion 2014, p.1). Post‐military offending may, instead, result from the frustrations of military‐civilian transition, when confronted with the realities of a new life. For some, military service is major source of socialisation which turns young people away from offending behaviour, with young recruits frequently enlisting to escape family circumstances or the care system (Royal British Legion 2014). Research with ex‐military personnel in prison finds that trauma and adversity, and a lack of belonging were often present prior to enlisting (Kelty, Kleycamp and Segal 2010; Wolfe et al. 2005). The military proxy family, structured lifestyle, and sustained employment can engender growing dependence and institutionalisation; and many find it hard to adapt to life outside. For these individuals, the military may act only as ‘an interlude in their offending trajectory’ (Wainwright et al. 2016, pp.746–7).

Loss of the military way of life, and resulting social isolation increases the likelihood of mental health problems (Hatch et al. 2013). Ex‐military personnel who left the armed forces before the end of their service contract report higher levels of childhood adversity and are at an increased risk of PTSD, common mental disorders and multiple physical symptoms (Buckman et al. 2012). About half of all imprisoned veterans have a mental disorder (Wainwright et al. 2016, p.741).

Serving UK military personnel are more likely than the general population to misuse alcohol and less likely to seek help (Jones and Fear 2011; Royal British Legion 2014, p.4). Veterans demonstrate even higher rates of both alcohol misuse and PTSD than those still serving. Although causal links are uncertain, MacManus et al. (2012) found that PTSD, mental health problems and alcohol dependence were associated with an increased risk of violent behaviour in ex‐military personnel, which may contribute to offending. Combat exposure also influences offending behaviour (NAPO 2009). One‐fifth of incarcerated veterans reported exposure to combat (Saxon et al. 2001) and some linked military training with subsequent violence: ‘… they are kind of training you to be violent, to be aggressive; to not really think about the consequences of it …’ (Wainwright et al. 2016, p.749).

While ex‐military personnel may be less likely than the general population to offend, they are the largest occupational group in prison (Wainwright et al. 2016, p.741), representing 9.1% of the prisoner population of England and Wales (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2014). In the US, veterans had higher socio‐economic status than non‐veterans, but also a higher likelihood of a mental health diagnosis or substance abuse problems (Greenberg and Rosenheck 2012, p.657). A higher percentage of UK veterans were sentenced for violent offences – 64%, cf. 48% for non‐veterans (Wainwright et al. 2016, p.741). In the UK in 2014, the highest proportions of ex‐military personnel were in high‐security prisons and Category B prisons (each 13%) – and were more likely to be serving sentences of over ten years (39%, cf. 26% for the general prison population) (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2014, p.5). Treadwell (2016, p.335) drew attention to the heightened representation of violent and violent sexual offences among ex‐military offenders in a Howard League (2011) study. These data suggest that when ex‐military personnel do offend, their offences are more serious and violent; and they receive longer sentences, served in higher‐security facilities.

Such headline statistics only give a partial picture and more granular data are unfortunately lacking. There is currently no formal data collection for ex‐military personnel in the criminal justice system in England and Wales. The most recent estimations are based on a 2009 data‐matching exercise undertaken by the Ministry of Defence's Defence Analytical Services (DASA) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2014, p.4). The current number of ex‐military prisoners is unknown.

The associated lack of funding and limited service provision for this group have been widely criticised (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2010; Murray 2014, 2016). Nevertheless, in‐custody needs have informed design of some supportive local interventions. ViC wings and communities are increasingly common and many prisons have ViC mentors with a military background. At HMP Grendon, specific therapy groups support ViC who ‘find it difficult to express emotion … having been trained not to’ (Bonnett, Akerman and Akerman 2014, p.37).

In some contexts, the labelling and treatment of ex‐military personnel can be problematic. There is some opacity over terminology. The commonly‐used ‘veteran’ (which, for Treadwell (2016, p.332), connotes combat experience and feels alien to many contemporary service leavers) is used interchangeably with ‘ex‐armed forces personnel’ or ‘ex‐Service personnel’ (Burdett et al. 2013). However, such terminology arguably hints that the criminality of veterans is somehow perceived differently from other offending behaviour. This discursive shift may reflect the wider romanticisation of the military, and may support a sense that veterans are somehow distinct from ‘the normative perceptions and externally imposed views about “offenders” and their “criminality”’ (Murray 2013, p.20). For Murray, the ‘veteran offender’ represents an inherent tension between the ‘stigmatic identity of being an offender and the traditional celebration of the veteran identity’ (p.20) – a tension that is felt by, and in relation to, incarcerated ex‐military personnel. Veteran offenders have been viewed as posing disproportionate risks to prison order and security – by virtue of their military experience – and their status has also afforded them more favourable circumstances (Murray 2013). As Bennett (1954) explained, in the aftermath of World War II:

I have frequently heard it argued that the veteran who commits a crime gets a better break than the nonveteran. It is said that police, prosecuting officials, and judges are more lenient with the veteran, are more inclined to let him off easily, than the non‐veteran. (p.41)

More than half a century later, The Royal British Legion (2014) suspected that ‘some individuals may falsely report veteran status in the hope that it might result in special treatment’ (p.2). Ex‐military personnel ‘report better relationships with prison staff, with a higher proportion saying that they felt most staff treated them with respect’ (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2014, p.7). Where interventions are specifically targeted to ex‐military personnel, there is a concern to ensure that they are not allowed to feel ‘less “guilty” than other offenders’ (Royal British Legion 2014, pp.1–2). The presence of veterans in custody raises complex questions which have already attracted considerable research attention, via studies which identify factors enhancing the success of ViC communities and interventions (Hawkins 2009; Matthews and Pitts 1998). Although many consider the role of prison staff in supporting ViC, very few mention the particular dynamics arising from the co‐presence of ViC with ex‐military personnel as prison staff. Bonnett, Akerman and Akerman (2014) describe this role in passing, as ex‐military staff supporting ‘their former comrades‐in‐arms’ (p.37), and Iversen and Greenberg (2009) suggest that ViC may prefer assistance from those with military backgrounds, but other than these two brief mentions, this topic remains largely untroubled by research.

Ex‐Military Personnel as Prison Personnel

ViC may, indeed, benefit from interaction with fellow armed services leavers dealing more ‘successfully’ with military‐civilian transition, but ex‐military prison officers must support all incarcerated individuals towards rehabilitation, in parallel with their own transition from the military. Many perhaps selected the prison service as a suitably familiar environment for this transition, replicating, as it does, many characteristics familiar to them from military service, since, as Higate (2001) argued, ex‐military personnel frequently ‘look to (often uniformed) occupations they instinctively assume will provide ontological or emotional security within a recognizably gendered cultural milieu’ (p.456). Alongside the police, the fire service and private security contractors, the prison service provides such occupations, but almost nothing is known about the scale at which this occurs, or the position of the prison service vis‐à‐vis armed forces leavers over time.

The lack of data pertaining to the proportion of prison staff who have a military background, means that the handful of published statements about the relative significance of ex‐military personnel in UK prisons are made without reference to documentary sources, and hence are inevitably speculative. In 1914, A.J. Todd (1914) was ‘struck by the large proportion of ex‐soldiers’ employed as prison staff noting that, at one Borstal, they constituted ‘practically all [the governor's] subordinates’ (p.484). Claims that, in the 1960s ex‐military personnel were ‘preferred’ recruits (King 2013) and that by the 1980s they made up ‘the vast majority’ of prison officers (Crawley and Crawley 2008, p.14), are unsubstantiated. It is, however, probably quite likely that recruitment of ex‐military personnel to the prison service would have tracked post‐conflict demobilisation and military downsizing (for example after the World Wars, the Falklands War, and the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland) ‐ when large numbers of ‘demobbed’ personnel required alternative employment. As Todd (1914) observed (on the eve of World War I) there is a tension between prison ‘reformers who clamor for less military routine …’ and ‘… the ex‐soldiers who must be provided with suitable jobs’ (p.484). But again, data are lacking. It is also possible that periodic shifts in prisons policy, that is, from more rehabilitative philosophies to ‘crackdowns’ on security following disturbances and escapes, may also have led to the valorisation of militarism and active recruitment of ex‐military personnel. And, such shifts may have themselves coincided with periods of demobilisation and increased availability of such recruits. However, without firmer evidence of recruitment patterns over time, these associations have not yet been explored. Best‐guesses are partially corroborated by research into post‐military second careers, in which the prison service is mentioned alongside other civilian uniformed services as a potential work destination (Jolly 1996; Spilsbury 1994). But data are, again, sketchy; for example: ‘anecdotal evidence suggests that … successful younger ex‐service personnel, particularly those who have not yet completed pensionable duty, may be concentrated in civilian‐based uniformed professions such as the prison and fire service …’ (Higate 2001, pp.11–12, italics added).

We learn a little more from criminological studies of prison staff training, in which parallels are drawn between the prison service and (assumptions about) the characteristics of the military – in particular its ‘uniformed’, ‘hierarchical’, or ‘pyramid‐like’ structure (Liebling, Price and Shefer 2011, p.3). Coltman (2004) claimed that the training regime is an area of overlap: ‘[b]y the time it came to learning to march on a parade ground and daily fitness lessons in the gym, it became apparent that the Prison Service also emulates the military culture’ (p.143). This ‘militaristic’ experience could itself be explained by the commonly‐held notion that prison staff – and particularly those at higher levels who are involved in the top‐down transfer of training regimes (see Thomas 1972) – are drawn from the military. Yet descriptions of new prison service recruits being ‘shocked at the verbal and physical abuse that was given out’ during ‘military‐style’ training (Bolger and Bennett (2008, p.392), drawing on Crawley (2004)) perhaps suggests either that very few had had previous military experience and/or that the prison service had become ‘perversely militaristic’ (Sim 2008, p.200) in its training, aping an imagined form of militaristic initiation that is, perhaps, no longer present in the military itself.

Even from rigorous and respected criminological studies of prison officers’ public and private lives (for example, Bennett et al. 2008; Crawley and Crawley 2008; Liebling, Price and Shefer 2011), information about the performance of ex‐military personnel when employed in the prison service is difficult to glean. The little we learn about motivation for the role supports the impressions reported in scholarship about post‐military careers. Tait (2011) claimed that, those ‘with military experience … sought similar camaraderie, discipline and job security’ in the prison system (p.448). Crawley and Crawley (2008) noted that, from the 1980s, the prison service valued ex‐military personnel's discipline, punctuality, obedience, and smart appearance (see also Matthews and Pitts 1998). But perhaps the most perceptive insight comes from beyond criminology, in Higate's (2001) work on post‐military careers, in which, without mentioning the prison service by name, he described it accurately. He argued that the ‘obvious next‐step’ after military service is driven by more than accustomed workplace regime and preference for uniform. Ex‐military personnel, he contended, tend to move into professions ‘characterized by high degrees of continuity with the armed forces not only in terms of the transferability of skill capital, but crucially as masculinized institutions’ (p.455).

There are intriguing hints of a potential mismatch between the appeal of the prison as a workplace and the actual requirements of the job. But, given the dearth of information, we must rely heavily on a small number of studies to piece together a picture of the performance of ex‐military personnel as prison employees. In the 1960s, Morris and Morris (1963) described ex‐military personnel as ‘martinets who have merely exchanged a khaki uniform for a blue one’ (p.77). More recently, Crawley and Crawley (2008) ventured that ‘based on conversations with prison officers and managers’ (although unfortunately no examples are given), their opinion was that although ‘soldiers … have traditionally viewed the Prison Service as an obvious “next step”’, they are ‘often too inflexible and discipline‐oriented to rise to the challenges of the “modern” prison officer role’ (p.14). In their mid‐1960s UK study of prison officers’ attitudes, Morris and Morris (1963) described those with a military background as ‘authoritarian’. Although they claimed that ex‐servicemen had, in the 19th Century, ‘provided ideal material out of which to make a warder’ (p.76), by the mid‐20th Century they had their doubts. They thought that the experience of ‘handling men’ in the armed forces was ‘a considerable advantage in a prison where so much of the activity consists of locking and unlocking, counting and recounting, and telling prisoners what to do next’, but questioned whether the ex‐military, being ‘of a wholly different order’, were equipped to ‘carry out the aims of rehabilitation and reform’ or to ‘deal with complex human relationships in which the crude exercise of coercion is not enough’ (p.76). Thomas (1972) challenged that view and, 20 years later, in a study in Western Australia, Soutar and Williams (1985) concluded that ‘prison officers with military or para military backgrounds were not, ceteris paribus, significantly more custodially‐oriented than officers without such experiences’ (p.22). These rare insights suggest that the current policy drive to increase ‘discipline’ via ex‐military personnel may be successful, but they also suggest that there may be other, less desirable consequences.

In the intervening period, very little, if any, research attention has been paid specifically to the role of ex‐military prison staff. There are passing mentions of their presence, sometimes with generalisations about their conduct, but empirical data – either quantitative or qualitative – are completely absent. A thorough search of the UK Data Service reveals that no dataset featuring interviews with prison officers has covered either previous armed forces experience or military‐civilian transition. It seems perplexing to us that, given the apparently long‐ and well‐trodden path from the military to prison work, insights are few and far between and based upon impressions and anecdotes rather than purposefully‐generated evidence.

This matters in two important ways. First, because by overlooking ex‐military prison staff in general we fail to comprehend their past and present influence on the prison service. As Crewe, Bennett and Wahidin (2008) noted, in order to understand the prison, we need ‘a refined analysis of staff cultures, practices and ideologies, and the outcomes that they produce’ (p.1). Crewe and colleagues are right to argue that prison staff matter in and of themselves, and that studies of prison staff can tell us much about the nature of power, punishment, and care within the prison system. Accordingly, there are important questions to answer about the difference a military background makes. While policy rhetoric draws attention to the virtues of armed forces leavers, they straddle a ‘hero‐delinquent’ divide: on the one hand fêted for their courage and integrity but, on the other, considered at risk of descending into criminal behaviour that can lead to incarceration. And, for example, although the effects of PTSD are widely recognised as an issue for ViC (Taylor 2010; Treadwell 2010; Wainwright et al. 2016), their significance for military leavers transitioning to post‐military careers such as the prison service, is as yet unresearched.

Second, these ‘blind spots’ mean that, at a particular historical moment when a concerted effort is being made to recruit more ex‐military personnel to the prison service (as well as borrowing military‐style leadership training for prison governors and articulation of a persuasive policy discourse about the need for ‘military discipline’ in prisons), we are ill‐placed to judge how appropriate or effective such measures are likely to be. We close this article with some reflections on this situation.

Conclusion: The Prison‐Military Complex and the Reform Agenda

The current clamour for reform of prisons in England and Wales risks masking the long‐standing calls for reconsideration of key aspects of the prison service, including the recruitment of staff. Sim (2008) pointed out that an obvious area in need of reform was the recruitment and training of prison officers. A few years earlier, Andrew Coyle (2005) had claimed that prison service recruitment procedures were fundamentally problematic because the prison service did not have ‘a clear notion of the kind of people that it wishes to recruit as first‐line prison staff’ (p.93). In the aftermath of widespread redundancies under austerity, followed by a rush to recruit,44 See https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/23/burgon‐sets‐out‐labours‐five‐demands‐to‐tackle‐prisons‐crisis (accessed 27 September 2018).
this uncertainty seems to have been replaced by at least a vestige of clarity.

As a means of restoring stability to troubled and violent prisons through improved security and to effect long‐term reform, the November 2016 White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, proposed that, among the additional 2,500 new frontline prison officers to be recruited by the end of 2018 would be men and women with ‘a sense of duty and discipline’ attracted ‘from the ranks of our armed forces’ (Ministry of Justice 2016, p.6). Claiming (without substantiation, and probably erroneously) that ‘service personnel do not currently consider the prison service as a career path’, the White Paper understood ex‐military personnel to ‘have developed skills in leadership and people management as well as the strength of character to strike the balance … between discipline and support’ for prisoners (p.56). Working with the Ministry of Defence Career Transition Partnership – the UK's official provider of armed forces resettlement – the White Paper outlined plans for a ‘Former Armed Forces Personnel to Prison Officer Programme’ (FAFPPOP) to support this recruitment. With the prison service facing frontline staff shortages, high levels of violence, self‐harm, and suicide, there was little doubt that much rode upon the promised ‘biggest overhaul of … prisons in a generation’ (p.4).

A century after Todd (1914) observed it, this recruitment drive probably aligns just as well to Ministry of Defence imperatives to find employment for those leaving a downsizing military (Edmunds et al. 2016) as it does to the MoJ's need to recruit new officers to replace those leaving the prison service. But such a frank reification and valorisation of military virtues, in which the notion of ‘discipline’ comes practically and conceptually to the fore, raises key issues about the nature of the prison officer role in support of the humanitarian, rehabilitative, and custodial goals of the prison service. Lack of attention to the prison‐military complex means that the small number of dated studies available are equivocal about the contribution of ex‐military staff, their possible authoritarian leanings, and the meaning of prison ‘reform’ which rests on ‘military’ methods. They offer little reassurance that targeting armed forces leavers for recruitment will repel ‘carceral clawback’ (Carlen 2002) – that is, the ‘tendency of the prison system to confound genuine attempts at reform by reverting back to its most basic purpose of containment and the perceived requirements of control and security’ (Bhui and Fossi 2008, p.53). Such insights would clearly be critical in terms of the strategic recruitment, training, deployment, management, and development of ex‐military personnel and, by extension, the wider penal reform agenda.

The policy direction articulated in current policy discourse is relatively simple: both the prison service and its custodial population are in need of reform and rehabilitation, and militarism, in the form of ex‐military prison officers and military‐style leadership, will help deliver it. Missing from this apparently uncomplicated equation is the kind of understanding, fostered by using the prison‐military complex as an analytical framing, of the military and, in particular, ex‐military personnel and their own processes of ‘reform’ enacted via military‐civilian transition. For those ‘successfully’ transitioning from military to civilian lives (rather than joining the ranks of ViC), work is central to the formation of post‐military identities. Researchers arguing for ‘more nuanced and holistic understandings of the post‐military lives’ of ex‐military personnel who pursue a second career, argue that entering an employment sector already heavily populated with other armed forces leavers is a factor in enforcing ‘hybrid’ military‐civilian identities (Herman and Yarwood 2014, p.42; Walker 2013) which arguably check military‐civilian transition. In other words, although ex‐military prison officers may appear to ‘succeed’ in transitioning from military to civilian life, entering the prison workforce could leave them ‘stuck’ between military and civilian identities.

Considering ex‐military personnel as part of the prison‐military complex leads us to ask how they are expected to ‘soldier on’ by injecting ‘military discipline’ into the prison service, while at the same time themselves transitioning out of military life. Does their presence ‘militarise’ the prison; or is the prison already sufficiently militarised (perhaps through their predecessors’ long‐standing contribution) that it holds both them and itself in a hybrid military‐civilian stasis? What are the implications for the multiple forms of reform, rehabilitation, and transition – of prison system, prisoner, and ex‐military staff – all of which are in motion simultaneously, with unknown but potentially powerful feedback loops between them?

Lack of research means that there is no consolidated knowledge‐base about the experiences of ex‐military personnel within the prison service. Fundamentally, we know very little about them, and future research would ideally reveal: their motivations; their experience of training; how they adapt to prison work; how they are deployed; the ways in which they feel their military background is perceived by managers, colleagues, and prisoners; their longevity in the service (given currently‐critical issues of staff retention); their potential to ‘model’ preferred behaviours; the career paths they take, and the nature of their leadership within this setting. Research is required that renews, for example, Bryans's (2007) focus on the role of prison governors, especially if, in light of Rory Stewart's recent plans (see note 3), military experience is to be increasingly influential in leading prison reform. And more broadly, there are much wider questions to be addressed about the level at which the presence of ex‐military personnel becomes a ‘critical mass’ within the workforce of individual prisons; the variety of possible effects on organisational culture and the setting of the ‘tone’ both for individual establishments, and for the prison service as a whole. And in the context of a renewed call for ‘discipline’ in our prisons, this would seem an apposite moment to address such questions.

In conclusion, we argue that criminology has thus far failed to pay sustained attention to what we have termed here the prison‐military complex. This term – which both describes the multifaceted, multiscalar, entrenched, and polyvalent interrelationships between prison and the military; and acts as a conceptual tool requiring prison scholars to overcome ‘common‐sense’ notions of the meaning of ‘militarism’ and ‘the military’ as these relate to prison – directs critical attention to how and with what implications prison and the military are associated with each other.


  • 1 See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8418719/Ken‐Clarkes‐prison‐privatisations‐spark‐strike‐threat.html (accessed 18 September 2018).
  • 2 See https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/04/liz‐truss‐to‐launch‐recruitment‐drive‐for‐ex‐forces‐prison‐officers (accessed 18 September 2018).
  • 3 See https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/minister‐proposes‐military‐style‐college‐for‐prison‐governors/ (accessed 27 September 2018).
  • 4 See https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/23/burgon‐sets‐out‐labours‐five‐demands‐to‐tackle‐prisons‐crisis (accessed 27 September 2018).
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