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The Disposal of Liberty

I have already commented on the pervasive influence of preventive security information in the deliberations of the visit review board. There are two other significant features of the board's decision-making. The first is that generally the discussion by board members took place with very little reference to the legal regime, the Smith case being a notable exception. As a result, the presumptive entitlement of prisoners to open visits was often observed only in the breach.

The other noticeable feature of deliberations of the visit review board, which distinguishes them both from disciplinary hearings and segregation reviews, was their tone; this was not just collegial -- which one would expect where everyone works together on a day-to-day basis -- but also convivial, reflected in the trading of humorous, cynical and in some cases sarcastic comments about both prisoners and staff. At one level this is entirely understandable; the visit review board at Kent usually met late in the afternoon at the end of a working day and the humour and the repartee was a way of releasing tension, if not frustration, that work inside a penitentiary creates. However, the repartee between board members, while understandable as end-of-the-day unwinding, fits uncomfortably within a legal framework in which significant rights of prisoners and their visitors to maintain open communication are at stake. My point is not that the conduct of serious business inside a penitentiary has to be done with the solemnity of a funeral, but rather that staff deliberations at the visit review board, when prisoners are not present, take on a style which gives not only the appearance, but which actually encourages a casual approach to the disposal of liberty. Lest I be accused of a "holier than thou" attitude, there were occasions in which I shared in the humour as well as enjoying the cookies and candies that always seem to appear at visit review boards. On these occasions, in writing up my notes afterwards, I invariably observed that, had I been a prisoner witnessing some of the exchanges between Board members, I would have been angry that my lifeline into the community was being addressed, and in many cases curtailed, in so cavalier a fashion.

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