Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Prisons reaching boiling point

The Prison Officers Association (POA) has written to government ministers saying that it believes the prison population is rapidly approaching "crisis point." They now "fear the riots we saw in late 2010 on New Year's Eve will be nothing compared with what we will see." But the solution they offer may be even worse.

In opposition, the Conservatives promised to create 5,000 extra prison places. This fit into a long-standing narrative in British politics which saw parties competing to see who could be "toughest" on crime. A succession of home secretaries demanded harsher sentences, more prisons and an increased focus on punishment over rehabilitation - even as their opponents sneered that they were still too "soft." Tabloid outrage over prisoners living a life of luxury fed this spectacle even as prisons became so overcrowded that some prisoners were sleeping in toilets.

This reached a fever pitch when Kenneth Clarke, as Justice Secretary, suggested jailing less minor offenders and using community sentences instead he was lambasted on all sides for it. Now, we are seeing the result of such a mentality - with 87,960 people jailed in England and Wales ahead of Christmas Day. This is just 1,522 less than the maximum operational capacity.

To address this, the POA has called for "brave decisions" in order "to ensure safety within our prison estate." However, this doesn't translate into even the reformist agenda of jailing less minor offenders and focusing on rehabilitation - rather than address the number of mentally ill people who are incarcerated and the culture of oppressive violence that often prevails in such instutions, their focus is on "the curtailment in staff numbers," "prison closures, budget cuts and competition." In other words, open more prisons and employ more screws.

This isn't just conjecture. The POA's history is "couched entirely in terms which depended on depicting prisoners as wild and dangerous and liable at any moment to get uncontrollably ‘out of hand’." Whilst they "took direct action to ensure that no more prisoners were crammed into overcrowded, insanitary prisons," the POA also "oppose any reform of the system or relaxation of the strictest rules" - including demonstrating "in favour of the segregation of troublemakers in a small prison on their own," "against the closure of the barbaric Inverness cages" and "for more weaponry and riot training, resulting in the introduction of the infamous MUFTI squads which were deployed to attack protesting prisoners."

So, whilst the POA are right to say that the increased overcrowding of prisons increases the likelihood of prison riots, their only answer is violent suppression. We can see why they (and the establishment) might fear such an outcome - recent examples of prisoner rebellion in the US, such as the Georgia prison strike and the hunger strikes across California, have come with demands which exposed the brutality of the system. In Britain, with discontent generally at a considerable high and the response to the August riots already having exposed the reality of the justice system, the conditions are ripe for such a struggle here to receive considerable solidarity on the outside as well. Clearly, such a situation would be undesirable to them, but in response they have two choices: repression or reform.

Both paths have their risks, from a ruling class perspective. Reforms - as advocated by the likes of the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust - might well quieten prisoner discontent and move us away from the "crisis point." But the "tough on crime" narrative is now so embedded that it would take a lot to move away from that, and there is every chance that increasing public sympathy over prison conditions whilst prisoner discontent remains at current levels will only exacerbate support for prison unrest and the demands it produces.

On the other hand, repression may win public support easier but also increase the discontent and levels of solidarity amongst prisoners, exacerbating any unrest that may result. However, given that this is the easier option in the short term - and that it fits in with the government's overall hard line on dissent (demonstrated most explicitly by Olympic Games security measures) - this is likely the "brave decision" that they will make.

For those of us who oppose the penal system, any kind of significant change remains a long way off. But what is clear is that, contrary to reformist groups, we must continue to argue that just and humane imprisonment is a fallacy. This is not to say we oppose such reforms coming in - any more than opposing the wage system means we oppose workers getting better pay - but we acknowledge that they do not remove the fundamental nature of prisons as an institute of control and coercion within the capitalist state's monopoly of violence. Ultimately, we want the prison system to be abolished.

In the meantime, we must offer support where we can. From the simple act of writing letters to prisoners and highlighting the plight of political prisoners in the UK to solidarity demonstrations and providing support for prisoner rebellions. If we're serious about fighting the class struggle, then we cannot forget its bleakest front.