Yesterday came the announcement that the British Government plan to build 9 new prisons. Five of these are to be built by 2020 and several ‘Victorian’ prisons are to close. The finer details are yet to come. This is not a huge surprise to the Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) campaign. The state are following the advice of David Cameron’s “favorite think tank”, Policy Exchange, to the letter. In its Future Prisons report, the right-wing think tank (actually founded by Justice Secretary Michael Gove in 2002), calls for the government to shut more than ‘30 run-down and poorly-located prisons and replace them with 12 state of the art ‘Hub Prisons’, containing up to 3,000 inmates. Policy Exchange claims that the new prisons would lead to huge costs savings, a reduction in reoffending rates and a better quality of life for prisoners and prison staff.’
The first of these prisons, the North Wales Prison Project, was granted final planning permission in November 2014. It will be the second largest prison in Europe, warehousing more than 2100 prisoners.
This aim of this article is to explore the Government’s claims in more depth and bust some of the myths around prisons in the UK. It is clear that prison expansion is an escalation of the war on the poor and must be resisted.
Violence only happens in the dark corners
Linking prison architecture with levels of violence and drug use is ironic. HMP Oakwood, one of the most recently constructed jails and the biggest in the UK, has extortionately high rates of self harm, access to drugs, violence and even riots in recent years. Improvements have been reported, no doubt part of a spin strategy, by the centre-right think tank Reform, a receiver of funds from Capita (prison architects), G4S and Sodexo.
Private prisons account for a higher proportion of fighting, sexual assaults, drug-taking, self-harming, hunger strikes, and prisoner escapes than public-sector prisons, according to an analysis by The Independent on Sunday in 2014. The ‘Victorian’ prisons have always been hell holes and it is only now, with a state-business profit motive, that a small handful of them may close. CAPE’s position is that prisons are inherently violent and that the act of putting people in cages is a form of violence in itself.
The Reality of the Rehabilitation Revolution
Mr Gove claims that, “We will be able to build a prison estate which allows prisoners to be rehabilitated, so they turn away from crime.” The re-design of the prison estate is actually to facilitate greater economic relationships between private companies and the prison service.
The rhetoric of ‘rehabilitation’ is used to rationalise and justify the premise that prisons are natural, normal and necessary. In brash simplicity:
- Do prisons work? No
- Is money invested in addressing the root causes of social and economic problems that lead to ‘crime’? No
- Who benefits from the prison system? Prisoners – no. Prisoner families – no. Survivors of harm – no. Private companies – yes. Those that want to maintain a hugely stratified class society – yes.
Putting people in cages does not solve any of the problems that lead to harm, such as drug abuse, poverty, violence or mental illness. 47% of adult prisoners, and 73% of prisoners under 18, are re-convicted within 1 year of their release. Most incarcerated people will find themselves back in the same situation they were in before upon their release, perhaps still struggling with poverty or addiction, having experienced the violence of incarceration and been away from their community. It is not surprising that so many people return to the behaviour that saw them imprisoned in the first place.
Given the obvious failure of prisons to solve problems, individual or societal, we need to let go of the idea that prisons promise rehabilitation, and start exploring other means of redressing harms and helping people live the way they want to.
Gove, who is notoriously associated with harmful education reforms, is part and parcel of the state’s attempt to destroy social infrastructure and services that could actually keep people out of prison.
Let us be clear – This is all about Profit. This is nothing about rehabilitation or care for prisoners.
No prison is ‘cost efficient’. Prisons cost a lot, and drain vital resources from health care, education, housing and social programs which better address root causes of crime. De-funding the prison sector, and ensuring that everyone has a good living environment and does not lack the resources they need to take care of themselves, would vastly reduce ‘crime’ and be an efficient and humane use of money.
Exposure of the impact of public-private finance initiatives show that they never deliver cost savings, and that a private companies still accumulate wealth, while harming people through the reduction in quality of services.
Let us be clear – Prisons are never cost efficient. They waste money and drain vital resources.
Social Cleansing, Gentrification and the Prison Industrial Complex
There is a class war escalating in our communities as cities are socially cleansed through the process of gentrification. Closing prisons in areas where families can actually afford to visit, and capitalising on the land values for property development is part of this process. There is an indication that companies building the new prisons could involve a form of “lend lease” agreement in which developers agree to build a new jail in advance, in order to inherit the valuable city centre sites at a later date. Companies such as Lend Lease are already profiting in the millions from building the North Wales Prison, as well as its gentrifying Haygate development that has displaced communities at Elephant and Castle in South London. Meanwhile construction giant Carillion sponsored the Future Prisons report. It is unquestionably clear that multinational construction companies, who actively lobby for criminal justice reform, will profit in the millions from Government contracts.
The brutal irony is that these developments help maintain a growing prison population. Working class people face a constant struggle to pay rising rents with ever present threats of eviction and homelessness. It is officially estimated that rough sleeper numbers have continued to grow, with the 2013 national total up 37% on its 2010 level. 15% of new sentenced prisoners also reported being homeless before custody, with 9% sleeping rough. The companies who build these prisons, provide services in them and exploit prison labour have an endless vested interest in more and more people being criminalised and incarcerated.
The dominant middle class discourse that justifies and rationalises prisons underpins the government’s proposals. ‘Hardworking families’ deserve homes, while people who ‘do crime, drugs’ and so forth need to be removed from the city to make space. This rhetoric distorts who is in prison and why, capitalising on the class hatred and concept of the ‘deserving/undeserving poor’ so prevalent in our society.
The Government estimates that over 3,000 new homes can be built in the sites of the closed prisons. The new prison building programme, estimated to cost between one and two billion pounds is a huge state ‘investment’ in a culture of austerity and cuts. Especially when there are 56,715 empty homes in London alone.
It is very, very clear this is not about building homes – it is about capitalising on land values, so the rich can maintain power over the poor, and our cities can continue to evict families that are failing to afford growing rents.
Towards a Prison Society
Casually mentioned in the articles around the new prisons is that prison officers are likely to have body-cameras, justified by the discourse of ‘protection’. Mr Gove said, “It works both ways. It is both protection for the inmate and is protection for the prison officer.”
This couples with a Government ‘crackdown on violence in prisons’, seeing those who fight back in jail as subject to longer sentences and harsher punishments.
The Future Prisons report also introduces the technological weapons of biometric identification and tagging within prisons to control prisoner movement, while electronic tagging use increases outside of the prison walls.
Make no mistake, we are sleep walking into a prison society. Police harrassment, immigration raids and detention centres, CCTV cameras and other forms of social control are increasing. These new prisons will be pioneer new forms of control, punishment and surveillance.
The Velvet Glove of Michael Gove
Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove has been effective in appeasing liberals and building trust with reformers since overturning many ridiculous moves made by his predecessor Chris Grayling, such as the book ban and plans for the children’s prisons ‘Secure Colleges’. However he is really an iron fist in a velvet glove. No Tory minister really has working class people at the heart of its policy making. Gove ‘heartened’ campaigners with commentary about people in prison at the recent Tory Conference,
“Many of those in prison have grown up in poverty, in broken homes and fatherless families. Three quarters of young offenders in custody had an absent father. 41 per cent of prisoners observed domestic violence as a child. 47 per cent have no school qualifications at all, not one single GCSE. And prisoners are 12 times more likely than rest of population to have been taken into care as a child.”
The rhetoric of ‘Broken Britain’ reinforces individualism rather than the systemic poverty and inequalities of wealth that exploded when Margaret Thatcher escalated the class war on the poor, on which neo-liberal New Labour built upon.
Gove is most well known for his education reforms. One teacher who abandoned teaching as a result said, “It is beginning to cost the education system dearly, and my concern is that the damage inflicted upon it will be enduring.” At its 2013 conference, Gove was criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers, whose members condemned the climate of bullying, fear and intimidation they said he had created during his time as Education Secretary.
For a man wishing to build ‘modern, suitable and rehabilitative’ prisons’, he fights with the other hand to destroy the Human Rights Act. Gove is a proud ‘neoconservative’ and described the invasion of Iraq as a ‘proper British foreign policy success’. Gove has even written in support of bringing back hanging as capital punishment.
Let us be clear, there is no altruism, no class consciousness in these proposals.
Profiting from Prisons: Prison Labour and the Prison Industrial Complex
In his very first speech after his appointment Gove declared:
“One of the heaviest responsibilities of all, is to be responsible for our justice system and upholding the rule of law; because it’s upon the rule of law that civilisation depends. It’s the rule of law that protects the weak and the vulnerable from oppression. It’s the rule of law that safeguards the rights and the liberties of every individual. It’s the rule of law that allows business to proceed, individuals to become prosperous and homes to be secure.”
Allowing ‘business to proceed’ is the heart of Gove’s efforts. Free market capitalism is at the beating heart of his reforms. The law does not protect the ‘weak and vulnerable from oppression’. This allegedly benevolent Minister really cares about those experiencing oppression as he continues with legal aid cuts and criminal charges that will change the face of the ‘criminal justice’ system forever. Now the prison industrial complex continues to grow in the UK, and these 9 new prisons will only increase the ability for companies to profit from prison labour.
Designing them for ‘rehabilitation’ means designing spaces for workshops and businesses. At the centre of the design for the new prison in North Wales are two workshops allowing 800 prisoners to be employed by companies exploiting their labour.
One3One Solutions is the trading arm of the Ministry of Justice, ‘utilising a workforce of motivated prisoners who are looking to repay society and build outstanding business relationships with you.’ Watch their video below:
In 2013-2014, prisons in England and Wales signed contracts with private companies worth £14.7m according to data provided by the National Offender management Service (NOMS). Prisoners can earn betweeen £2.50 to £25 per week working for prisons and private companies within them. It was also announced in February that prisoners will now be manufacturing items for the British Army. Research in the United States show that the Iraq war was underpinned by prison labour.
Can we be more clear? These new prisons are about capitalising on prison labour.
Prison Expansion & the growth of the Prison Population
The first private prison opened in the UK in 1992. Between 1993 and 2014 the prison population in England and Wales increased by 91%. This is no accident. We are witnessing the growth of the prison industrial complex and are pioneers for its development in Europe, having a higher population of prisoners in private prisons than any other country.
These 9 new prisons will set the stage for increased prison expansion, masked by announcements of closures, more and more people will still be held in cages more than ever before.
BBC Analyst Danny Shaw writes how “the state’s projections said that by 2020 the prison population could be anything between 81,400 and 98,900, with the “central scenario” – the most likely – suggesting it would be 90,200. If the population did edge towards the upper estimates it would be extremely hard for the government’s plans to work. They would need to build thousands of extra places, as well as replacing old ones.”
Let us be clear, this is about prison expansion. This is about increasing markets for private companies to exploit people and this is about increased criminalisation and state repression.
And finally, the root of the moral justification of prisons in general, and their ‘essential’ expansion is that working class people are demonized.
Owen Jones, author of CHAVS, writes how:
“Demonization serves a useful purpose in a divided society like our own, because it promotes the idea that inequality is rational: it is simply an expression of differing talent and ability. Those at the bottom are supposedly there, because they are stupid, lazy or otherwise morally questionable. Demonization is the ideological backbone of an unequal society.”
Prisoners are essentially a manufactured ‘underclass’ allegedly at the root of all the problems in society. They deserve to be punished and any resistance or agitation for prisoner rights is met with right-wing responses and populist commentary. There is not room in this article to paint a picture of who is in prison, but it is clear that we are caging the most oppresssed and vulnerable in our society – adults with learning disabilities, mental health problems, care leavers, survivors of childhood abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, people with drug addictions, sex workers, people of colour and others at the forefront of the class war on the poor.
Working class communities experience much greater crime and harm yet they are increasingly criminalised and filling our prisons. The only people prisons serve are those with the social and economic power to dominate others.
The time is now to fight back
Reformist groups will continue writing press releases and producing reports, while capitalist prison profiteers continue to build a system that serves them and no one else.
The time is now to fight back. Community Action on Prison Expansion is a grassroots coalition of groups fighting prison expansion in our own communities and in solidarity with others. Our intentions are to practically, economically and ethically halt prison expansion in the UK before thousands more people are harmed.
We reject the myths that prisons, surveillance and policing can solve social and economic problems. We seek alternatives that keep our communities safe and achieve real social justice.
We are led by ex-prisoners and our struggle is in the streets. We are fighting for our lives and for the abolition of prisons. We organise for self-determination and against state violence.
To get involved please email firstname.lastname@example.org