Monday, 31 May 2010

European Group Conference 2005 - A personal report

by John Moore

As someone angry about prisons and crime control and hungry to understand as much as possible about the criminal (in)justice system, particularly from a critical perspective I came across details of the conference of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control in Belfast in September 2005 on the internet. The conference appeared to provide space for activists rather than being exclusively restricted to academics so I decided I would attend.

Arriving at a conference where you know no one is a bit weird. Any group of people, particularly one where many individuals have known each other for decades can be intimidating. However I confronted little hostility and after breaking the ice found the group to be very welcoming. (I would advise anyone else considering going along to e-mail the respective national representative - their contact details are on the groups website before going and introduce yourself. They would hopefully get you in touch with other people going and provide initial contacts that would be helpful in the initial hours of the conference.)

My fear on arrival was that the conference would not be relevant to me. The majority (but certainly not all) of the participants either worked or studied at university. Some of the sessions had titles and descriptions that were technical and occasionally a little intimidating. But the conference was as much focused on doing as it was on ideas. Often sessions linked both.

The conference was in Belfast and the content of the conference reflected this. The opening session included a passionate speech by Geraldine Finucane detailing the struggle she and her family have waged to find out the truth of the murder of her husband Pat Finucane, a civil rights lawyer gunned down by Loyalists operating with collusion from the British Intelligence services. A number of the sessions focused on the north of Ireland and on the Saturday we had, in quick succession, a panel discussion with key actors in the peace process and the conflicts that preceded it, a tour of West Belfast hosted by former political prisoners, the screening of a film on the hunger strike followed by a discussion with those involved. The panel discussion was the most impressive presentation I have ever heard from politicians.

Margaret Ward started off explaining the experience of women in Northern Ireland and the perspective of her party, The Women's Coalition Danny Morrison set out the Republican perspective in a remarkably considered way which honestly acknowledged the impact of the troubles on his own and the loyalist/unionist community and was realistic about the limitations what could be achieved in the future. My sympathy has always been with the Republican cause and I awaited David Ervine setting out the loyalist position with distrust. I did David a grave injustice. It was quite simply the most honest and non-sectarian analysis of a situation I have ever heard from a politician. The Peace process presents a difficult and complex challenge for working class Protestants. David Ervine articulated both the psychologically and economically challenges facing his community whose position is the most precarious of any group in Northern Ireland. Unionist politicians like Ian Paisley exploit these fears for political gain but do nothing to address their underlying causes or indeed to represent the interests (economically and politically) of working class loyalists. David' party linked to the Loyalist paramilitary groups has very little electoral impact.

We then set off on a tour around Belfast. Accompanied for the first part by a republican former prisoner we soon saw why it existed as we visited Bombay Street Road. In 1969 a loyalist mob unrestrained by the then unconstructed "wall" had driven the local nationalist community from their homes, injuring many and killing Gerald McAuley, 15, before burning the houses to the ground. My impression of this side of the wall was a disciplined and proud community. High quality murals cover the end walls of terraces as well as hoardings down the Falls Road, giving out a consistent, defiant and internationalist message. The Hunger strikes are remembered alongside support for the Palestinian struggle, anti Brit propaganda alongside support for liberation struggles around the world, and support for (the now released) political prisoners alongside wonderfully cruel caricatures of George Bush.

Particularly notable was a couple of the question of racism. They include a quote from Fredrick Douglass pointing out that the Irish had as well as suffering racism shown a capacity to behave in a racist manner to others. This self-awareness and capacity to see themselves in a critical light characterised for me Northern Irish Republicanism. As we approached a gate in the wall (these can be opened and closed by the police from the safety of their own forts - I use the word "forts" as the only adequate description having seen one!) our Republican guide left the bus.

On the other side our Loyalist guide got on. This side of the wall was in many ways the same but in others dramatically different. The houses looked the same, as did the people. But instead of murals that were works of art the loyalist side had predominately graffiti. Images designed to remind the community of centuries of history were replaced by crude sectarian graffiti. Loyalist Belfast feels scared, ready to lash out, but also resigned to defeat. The Shankill Road was closed for a march of loyalist bands. Watching them marching by was a chilling sight. I asked our Guide about the lack of any visible police presence and was informed that they policed their own events. Indeed it was clear that others on both sides of the wall carried out policing in West Belfast.

Next stop was the Conway Mill community centre where we got to see H3 a film about the hunger strikes in the early 1980's when Bobby Sands MP, and nine of his comrades died in a protest at the removal of political prisoner status. I am normally good at controlling my emotions but I found this film overwhelmingly powerful. At times I was unable to watch the screen and like many others ended the film with red eyes. {Read my full review here} But before I could recover we were introduced to the films writer Lawrence McKeown, and Seanna Walsh. Lawrence McKeown had been the eleventh hunger striker, and in a coma, when the action was called off. For years IRA statements have been issued in the name of P O'Neil, but the recent announcement of the end of the armed struggle had a human face, Seanna Walsh, a former cellmate of Bobby Sands, had made it. Yet again we were involved in dialogue with major actors. Listening to their stories and their responses to challenging questions from conference participants from across Europe was a real privilege. We then had the best food of the conference, cheap wine, passionate debate, local music and a late night.
The theme of the conference was " transition" and I attending sessions covering a wide range of different themes. The format for much of the conference was three different parallel sessions. At each two or three people presented papers followed by group discussions. These sessions often tried to cram too much into to little time with the result that presentations were rushed and there was to little time for others attending to ask questions or make contributions. I attended sessions around the theme of Iraq, Imprisonment, Drugs, Food, Health and Safety and Environmental Crime, Women, and Community Attitudes to crime. All discussions are in English and this obviously presents real challenges for participants whose first language is not English. Overall the quality of the presentations was good. There was a good balance between theory and practice and many applied critical thinking that allowed me to see issues in new ways.

One issue that came up was the use of the concept of  "crime" by progressives. On the one hand there was the view that "crime" is a flawed concept and we should be trying to resist and indeed role back criminalisation (e.g. drugs and minor anti social behaviour in working class communities). However others were effectively seeking to extend the definition of crime and the role of law to include war crimes, environmental crime, food crime, health and safety crime and other crimes by the powerful. Criminalisation has historically been used to regulate and control the poor, weak and marginalized. Can the same mechanism be used to protect them and control the powerful?

A second issue that came up for me was the way transition of the former communist countries into capitalist parliamentary democracies had resulted in them replicating the experiences of Western Europe over the last 30 years. Within these countries there appears to be a tendencies to conceive of for example drugs as a new phenomenon. In fact the adoption of policies in the 1990's that the UK had adopted in the 60's and 70's had resulted in the drug markets and cultures developing in identical ways. The only difference being the speed, possibly reflecting the increased speed with which globalisation is currently working.

A third issue was around human rights. This was linked to the idea of a progressive extension of the concept of crime. For example we explored the difficulty of defining "war" crimes. This is not as easy as it seems or indeed many of us would like. Using the UN as part of a definition was problematic given the veto. Israel would in all probability be protected by the US veto. Human rights were offered as a potential alternative route. This was also suggested as having potential in terms of environmental and issues of genocide. I remain unconvinced that any model like this can be effective when in essence its has to be policed by the very people who such laws would be intended to control. The winners of any war are never likely to be held to account.

I think the group should promote itself more to new people. For those of us engaged in resisting prisons or challenging a class based criminal (in)justice system or promoting alternatives to the punitive policies of most governments we need to spend time with comrades, we need it for the energy it can give us if nothing else. I found it incredibly exciting spending time with a group of people who shared my passions and whose knowledge and experience could not but help me further develop my thinking. The conference was informal, no one had titles, status was not an available tool. The European dimension really made this an event; I loved the different perspectives that people from across the continent (and at least three other continents!) were able to bring. With the communication potential of the Internet I know that I will maintain contact with many of them. The conference cost £250 (including accommodation and food) for someone waged. Its not cheap but I believe there is potential to help any activist who can not afford it and there are reduced rates for students, part time workers and the unwaged. One thing I must check up with other participants was the level of interest shown them at Belfast airport. I was subjected to a very thorough search, had my laptop taken away for further examination and myself and my bags "dabbed" for explosives. In the old Belfast this would have worried me given the hands I had shaken over recent days.

Next years conference is in Greece, I certainly intend to be there. But given the healthy rate at which the leaflets for the Prison Abolition Seminar disappeared and the interest expressed I suspect I will be seeing a number of people sooner than that.

Update 2010

This year's European Group's conference is again in Greece at the beginning of September.  Further details can be obtained from

Sunday, 30 May 2010

A Prison Visit

The Government and Penal Reform Charities claim the Prison service works hard to help prisoners maintain links with family and friends. It is they claim evidence of how prison works to achieve successful rehabilitation.

Elizabeth, a regular visitor to a prisoner, describes how she was treated. Sadly her experience is not uncommon.

I'm 52 years old. I have been an almost weekly visitor to the same private prison in the UK for nearly 3 years.In November 2006 I alighted from a public service bus with 2 other ladies and were subjected to having all my personal data collated by police officers in the prison car park . My bags were rummaged by 2 police officers. Nothing was found. We then lined up in the middle of the car park and had our already rummaged bags sniffed by a drug dog, as well as our persons. Nothing to report likewise.

We then went into the prison visitor's centre, and after checking in I was further questioned by police as to how tall I am. I am very petite, but have no accurate idea. Two police officers deliberated and came up with 'my height' measurements. My bags were already in a locker. The police officer ordered my bags to be removed and the entire contents, including reserve sanitary pad was screened in public gaze of prison visitor's centre snug against the communal lockers. I was then told that they needed to investigate me further, and was taken off to the prison staff toilet and a strip search was performed. I had no pockets to turn out, there were no reasonable grounds to by-pass the primary procedures of asking me whether I had any 'unauthorised articles' which I had not. They did not offer me a pat down. They did not electro scan me. They did not provide me with a F2141 consent form to read and sign so as to offer consent to the search. (see Wainwright v United Kingdom). No record of the search incident was offered to me at time of strip search nor after.

Apparrently flawed intellegence had been given to the police by the prison. This was linked to a misunderstanding 6 months ago, and cleared up, at that time, by the Governor of the prison. His letter to me was dated May 2006 accepting my honest explanation, and wishing me very positive visits at the prison. Six months later this is what they did to me. I was strip searched by a police woman whilst trying to explain that the matter had been the focus of correspondence between the Governor and myself. I mentioned his name. The police woman asked who Mr. X was whilst I was wearing no lower underwear. I was then allowed to go for a 'normal' visit. Nothing was on my person to find.

I found out my rights after the trauma. I found the case of Mrs Wainwright who was subjected to a strip search and given the consent form after her ordeal. I wasn't given the consent form before of after by prison, nor a record of the outcome of my strip search by police at time of incident.

They control the information and use our ignorance as a weapon to manipulate us into 'consenting' or we are 'expelled from the prison'. It was a choice of having no choice. Being obligated to comply or forego a visit to a low category prisoner, no drug history, and does not smoke. I have no history of drugs, never even seen drugs! No history of violence either! Please ensure you are aware of your rights as protection if you are obligated to be marched off to the prison staff toilet and strip as I was.

Has anyone else been degraded in this way without being told why it is happening, and the object of the strip search?

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Don't expand Styal Prison - Close it down

A Report of a No More prison demo held outside Styal Prison in April 2006

Within 3 month of its establishment No More Prison organised its first direct action - a demonstration outside styal prison on April 8th 2006.

The Demostration was in opposition to the Governments plan to expand the failed prison to make it Europe's largest prison for women. No More Prison called instead for the prison to be closed.

Among those attending the demonstration were former prisoners Susan May and Sandra Gregory. Also attending were three mothers whose children had been killed by Britians Prisons.

Many friends and relatives visting stopped to talk about the experiences of their loved ones inside Styal and to support No More Prison's call for its closure. A number were surprised that despite the prison's well publicised failures the Government is planning to double the number of women imprisoned in it.

Granda TV covered the demo and Pauline Campbell, whose 18 year old daughter Sarah died in the "care" of Styal, and is supporting No More Prison's call for the closure of Styal, was interviewed by MFM, Signal, Classic Gold Marcher, Wirral's Buzz, and Silk FM Radio Stations.

Although we recognise that it will take more than one demonstration to close down Styal Prison it was important as it shows both the incarerated women and the Government that people are concerned and prepared to take action. No More Prison is committed to continuing to highlight the abusive nature of prison and to campaign for its abolition.

During the demonstration an Ambulance arrived at the prison. This is a regular event. The pain of being locked up in Styal sees daily self harm and attempts by the women to end their lives.

Facts about Styal
  • Six women tragically died in the 12 months ending August 2003
  • In March 2005, Governor Hall admitted there had been 41 attempted hangings over one week-end alone (Mother's Day week-end).
  • Nine out of ten of the women caged at Styal have been convicted of non-violent offences
  • On 28 October 2005, Karen Ann Fletcher, 30, died in the 'care' of HMP Holloway, shortly after being transferred from Styal.
  • In Feburary the Guardian revealed that a 27-year-old Styal prisoner spent four hours locked in a small cage inside a prison van the day before her baby was due
  • In response to this disclosure of abuse Styal Prison banned the Guardian's correspondent from visiting the jail until further notice.
  • Two thirds of the women locked up in Styal are mothers
  • The most common offence women are caged for in Styal - Shop Lifting
  • Over 1 in 3 women will lose their home as a result of their imprisonment in Styal
  • Over half the women in Styal are victims of childhood abuse, rape or domestic violence
  • Over a third of the women in Styal have attempted to kill themselves
  • 2 out of 3 women in Styal have mental health problems

Friday, 28 May 2010

The racism continues

By: John Bowden, HMP Saughton

Less than a week after the publication of the scathing official report into the racist murder of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham, which condemned the prison system for its treatment of Zahid and held it significantly responsible for his murder, the shocking treatment of mixed-race prisoner Sean Higgins showed how absolutely nothing has changed.

Sean has been a consistent target of racism throughout his sentence and suffered flagrant abuse and serious assaults from prison officers because of his vocal objection to the sort of treatment highlighted in the Mubarek report. Always his protests and complaints have been met with violence and victimisation, and for years his enduring spirit of resistance has resulted in a vicious cycle of complaint and brutal repression with his captors that now threatens his life.

On 30 June whilst at Gloucester prison Sean became involved in an argument with a prison officer in the presence of other staff and prisoners. The officer, angered by Sean's temerity and refusal to back down, called him a "black cunt"; and threatened to take him to the punishment block and "squash him like a bug". Sean was soon afterwards transferred to Bristol prison as a "problem" and met there by a reception committee of the goon squad. Sean described to his lawyer Vicky King what happened, saying that on arrival at Bristol he was seriously assaulted by staff there, sustaining a broken arm and a broken ankle. Staff refused to arrange x-rays. Sean was left with 27 shards of glass in the bottom of his feet. He says that a senior member of staff tried to force a fire hose up his rectum and also wrapped it round his neck. Vicky King said: "He sounded absolutely dreadful. I have never heard him sound so awful. That's including the time that I sat with him in cells in Hull Crown Court whilst he was almost naked, on dirty protest, and with a freshly broken arm. He was in a bad way then but he sounds a hundred times worse now."

The truth is that Sean is being pitilessly driven beyond the limits of human endurance and systematically destroyed by the racism of the prison system. The same racism that drives a disproportionate number of young black men to self-harm and kill themselves in prison.

Despite what the official mouthpieces of the prison system say publicly about "tackling racism", the reality is that at the direct point of repression prisoners of colour are being brutalised and sometimes murdered by racist prison staff who are allowed to get away with it.

Please email and write to Prison Service Headquarters, Cleland House Page Street

LONDON SW1P 4LN and the governor of Bristol prison complaining about Sean's treatment and send cards and letters of support to Sean Higgins VA3977 HMP BRISTOL Cambridge Road BRISTOL BS7 8PS

Thursday, 27 May 2010

What is Prison Abolition all about?

The following is a copy of a document produced by an American Organisation Critical Resistance.

For more information about Critical Resistance click here to visit their web site


Abolition is a political vision that seeks to eliminate the need for prisons, policing, and surveillance by creating sustainable alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

Abolition means acknowledging the devastating effects prison, policing, and surveillance have on poor communities, communities of color and other targeted communities, and saying, "No, we won't live like this. We deserve more."

Abolitionists recognize that the kinds of wrongdoing we call "crime" do not exist in the same way everywhere and are not "human nature", but rather determined by the societies we live in. Similarly, abolitionists do not assume that people will never hurt each other or that people won't cross the boundaries set up by their communities. We do imagine, however, that boundary crossings will happen much less often if we live in a society that combines flexibility with care to provide for, and acknowledge, people's needs. To do that, we must create alternatives for dealing with the injuries people inflict upon each other in ways that sustain communities and families. Keeping a community whole is impossible by routinely removing people from it.

An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead the average person to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.


If our vision is to eliminate the need for prisons, policing, and surveillance, we must have a clear idea of what we need to make our communities safe and secure. We must make those alternatives realistic and we must be able to begin building them today. We need community alternatives that keep people out of the hands of police and out of prisons and jails, while addressing the fears that people live with on a daily basis. We can do that by building our communities and ending a reliance on, and belief in, law enforcement as the only solution. Here are just a few examples of what those alternatives might include:

Community-based economic resources:

Current cooperative economic models provide us with one set of strategies to build our communities. We can create a means for providing meaningful work - and training for that work?to all. This work and training can provide for our housing, food, and clothing, and should contribute to the well being of the community.

Community-based education models:

We have examples of small, charter and alternative schools that have been successful in showing us alternative means of educating our community. Community-based schools can offer education to anyone who wants it (youth and adults). Education can be free, participatory, and aimed toward sustaining the kinds of social environments we want to create. They can also model the community forms we want in their teaching practices. Our schools can tailor the learning process to the needs of the students and can involve the adult community in learning and teaching so schools are not isolated from the rest of the community.

Community forums:

Some current restorative justice models from around the world provide us with examples of how community mediation and problem solving is used to resolve conflicts and keep our communities safe. We must create a means of dealing with people who hurt each other (physically, mentally, emotionally, materially). We can establish community forums to address grievances people have regarding each other and as a means of resolving those conflicts. Such formations could include community councils that mediate between individuals/groups, community elders to whom community members could go to for advice and counsel, age-, issue-, and interest-specific groups for building community ties (youth groups, artists' circles, support groups, study groups, etc.), to community-based strategies for keeping individuals community members from harming themselves or others and to provide disincentives for repeating such actions. Above all, these groups can grow from the community and their direction and scope should come from the people involved in them and whom they affect.

Community Services:

Current community-based organizations provide us with good examples of how services may be provided. We must provide services to those who have difficulty providing for themselves. Such strategies can emphasize not only taking care of those who need the most help, but finding ways to help people get through these systems and come out with both what they need and their humanity and dignity intact. These models can also include working with people who currently provide such services to design workshops, trainings, and ongoing support and resources that go beyond providing indi vidual advocacy and services, and emphasize gaining independence from those systems.

Medical care:

Current neighborhood clinics and free clinics provide us with good examples of strategies for making free health care available to all. Such services can include basic health (preventative, check ups, acupuncture, etc.), health crises (major medical emergencies, terminal illness), dental and visual health, and mental health (both routine counseling and therapy as well as crisis care and care for the mentally disabled, etc.).

Many of the strategies discussed above are already in place. They are not fantasies, but real life examples of community building and growth.


Abolition means that every time we oppose or try to tear something down, we need to build something sustainable in its place. We can do this by being strategic, by researching not only what the problems are, but also what resources are available. We must look not only at what the state is doing wrong, but what is already available in our communities that could provide economic and social sustainability for all, or what needs to be created and how we will create it. Each step in our organizing must be able to do this.
Being an abolitionist means taking action and putting energy into building our families, neighborhoods?all of our communities. It means creating a firm community foundation for people to come to when we finally tear down all the walls. Together we can do this, but we must believe that it is possible.


Taking an abolitionist approach means radically shifting the way we think about providing for ourselves and living with each other. It means imagining social environments that provide all of us with basic necessities: a safe place to live, enough food, access to medical care for minds and bodies, access to information and the tools with which to understand and use that information, the resources to participate in whatever kind of economy we have, a means of expressing opinions/interests/concerns, and living free of bodily, psychological and emotional harm (both from individuals and from the state).

Can you say that you have access to all these things? Does every one in your community have that same access?

We need to start building the kinds of social environments that will provide these resources for all before we can abolish anything. We need strategies that will keep our communities whole and keep us safe, not ones that rely on punishment, caging, and bodily harm. The environments most of us live in offer us "public safety" that does not serve the entire community, but protects the interests of the state and the rich and powerful. We cannot abolish prisons if we don't have sustainable communities for people to come home to.


By: George Coombs

Crime and its ramifications are of understandable concern to many people. Prisons are full to bursting point with national figures exceeding eighty five thousand. Overcrowding with its inevitable consequences of escalating tension and violence is a national disgrace but more prisons at enormous expense often constructed by American companies are not the answer.

There needs to be new thinking. Justice equals understanding, not revenge. Crime does not equal punishment but clear thinking and seeing. The vast majority of the prison population are working class people from deprived areas and with disturbed backgrounds. Havelock Ellis is right to argue that "Every society has the criminals it deserves."

Long periods of deprivation of liberty, isolation and lack of one's own safe space are dangerous. In a 1965 paper Professor Harry Harlow described his studies of the effects of social isolation by describing how he, and colleagues had reared monkeys from birth onward in bare wire cages causing them to experience paternal deprivation and these studies lasted for periods of three, six or twelve months. They concluded that severe and enduring isolation reduced the monkeys to a kind of socio/emotional level where the primary social response is fear.

This idea and related matters are taken up by the Chinese scholar Chiang Yee "Life came into being with space in which to live. Room in which to be and in which to live. To be alive inwardly as well as the life seen by others. Take away that space, that room in which to live and inner death is inevitable. Deprivation is so often inflicted on those already deprived of so much and this, and emotional deprivation lead the scream nobody wants to actions called crimes yet are not the real criminals the creators of deprivation, isolation and fear?"

Chiang Yee asks a telling question here and elsewhere he suggests that "Justice is light leading to light. It is not revenge or pandering to the deceitful, the powerful and the selfish.....stains are on many hands I tell you truly too many hands have been washed too often."

Life needs space in which to live, Take away that space and fear is inevitable. Fear as a social response leading to resistance and anger, two expressions of the scream society seeks to ignore. The anger may well be turned outward in violence or inward in self harm and suicide.

All this find terrible expression in the death in custody in Flagstaff, Arizona of Bill Rogers. Bill was an environmental preservation activist who had been accused of destroying corporate property and is remembered as an intelligent man and full of activity.

Bill chose to end his life rather than spend a good deal of it in prison as could well have happened. On the Winter Solstice of 2005 he was found in his cell with a plastic bag over his face and his fist raised above him. If treated with understanding, compassion and awareness he might still be alive today.

In this excerpt from another of his meditations Chiang Yee gives us a fitting conclusion when he says to anyone in prison "Strive to maintain your inner life......keep alive the inner vibrations of your higher aware justice is a lone frightened child who roams your prison crying "Not in my name."

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Blair's criminal justice reforms - another step on the road to social fascism

The following first appeared in the Newspaper "Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!"

By: Nicki Jameson

On 23 June Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair made a speech in Bristol, setting out his manifesto for the "reform" of the criminal justice system. Thinly disguised as a call for a 'considered intellectual and political debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world', the speech set out the Labour Party's plans for policing Britain in the interests of capitalism in the next period. While, as in all such speeches, Blair paid lip-service to the genuine problems faced by inner-city working class communities on drug and crime-ridden estates, his words were squarely directed at the middle classes and labour aristocracy, who Blair describes as 'ordinary, decent law-abiding folk... [who] think they play fair and play by the rules and they see too many people who don't, getting away with it.'

Although the speech was peppered with attacks on immigrants and would-be terrorists, and on courts and judges that have upheld their rights not to be deported or tortured, the main target was the impoverished native working class. Blair's explanation for increased crime and alienation over the past 50 years is that along with changed demography and a less cohesive society (more social mobility, migration, divorce, employment of women, less "deference" etc) 'a more prosperous nation is a more demanding nation. Prosperity increases the opportunity for crime and makes it more lucrative.'

In this deliberately dishonest take on the world, everything can be easily explained: 'Prosperity means most people have something worth stealing. Drugs means more people are prepared to steal. Organised crime which trafficks in drugs and people make money. Violence, often of a qualitatively as well as quantitatively different sort than anything before, accompanies it. Then there is the advent of this new phenomenon of global terrorism based on a perversion of Islam.'

But the truth is that it is not increased prosperity that characterises Britain under Labour, but increased inequality. Since 1997 the rich and middle class have grown better off while the poor have become poorer. In August 2005 research by the government's own Office of National Statistics showed that the income gap between rich and poor has widened significantly under Labour.

Traditionally this situation would have resulted in at least a nod towards redistribution of wealth, usually through increased taxation of the better off. But Blair's Labour Party has no intention of taking the smallest thing away from the "prosperous"; his sole aim is to attack the impoverished working class still further. When he speaks of 'rebalanc[ing] favour of the decent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and think others should too' he is actually setting out plans to tilt the scales still further against those already suffering the most. The people who are the poorest and most alienated will henceforth be targeted, monitored, and punished not just as a result of crime they might be driven to commit, but simply for existing, for being poor, for having children who are poor, or for being addicted to drugs. This is fascism.

Blair's concrete plans break down into four sections:

  1.  More laws. A power to arrest and bring immediately to court anyone who breaks an undertaking to have treatment for drug addiction. Swifter, summary powers to deal with anti-social behaviour. Changes to limits on the seizure of assets of suspects.
  2. New systems Special summary "community courts", "anti-social behaviour courts", "drug courts" and "domestic violence courts".
  3. Tracking of 'suspects and offenders' who will be 'given not just a sentence but an appropriate process for sorting their life out; and if they don't, be followed up, brought back to court'. If you don't follow orders, you can not only be imprisoned - but also starved or made homeless, as local authorities will be allowed to take compliance into account when deciding on entitlement to benefits and social welfare.
  4. "Public service reform - this is described as 'Capturing and disseminating best practice; using different and new the management of offenders'. In effect it means more privatisation. It also includes 'giving the victim a right to be heard in relation to sentencing', which is code for lynch-mob justice, as victims who ask for leniency do not make headlines.
Blair makes no apologies for this programme: 'We need far earlier intervention with some of these families, who are often socially excluded and socially dysfunctional. That may mean before they offend; and certainly before they want such intervention. But in truth, we can identify such families virtually as their children are born.'

The children and families Blair wants to label as deviant from birth are precisely those who are not benefiting from the 'increased prosperity' he harps on about. Labour pledged when it came to power that it would end child poverty and has singularly failed to do so. In Bristol where Blair delivered this speech, 26% of children live below the poverty line. In Britain's wealthy capital city, London, 41% of children live in poverty. But the "intervention" that the government will be making in their lives is not to provide relief or assistance but simply punishment.
Nicki Jameson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!
BCM BOX 5909

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Family Unfriendly

On the 13th September 2006 the charity Action for Prisoners' Families (APF) announced it was launching its second "Family Friendly Prison Challenge". Like so many prison charities APF seems to be more concerned with legitimising imprisonment rather than supporting its victims. Beth, the partner of a serving prisoner gives her response...

I have been the partner of a prisoner for the past six years and have had plenty of opportunity to observe the way families are treated, both by the Prison System and by voluntary organisations connected to it. I want to just tell you a bit about my experiences, which are on-going and somewhat raw. Last year I became really disillusioned with Action For Prisoners Families, a feeling that had been growing for some time. I attended their AGM and found, to my dismay, that there was no platform given to any family member and the event was dominated by the giving out of gongs to Governors and Prison Officers from various prisons in recognition of their "family-friendly" initiatives. A play was performed which included that tired old theme of blaming prisoners for causing family breakdown.

I say this disillusionment has been growing for sometime because what I have observed and experienced is that the more liberal elements of the Prison Service, encouraged and supported by organisations like Action For Prisoners Families and the Prison Reform Trust tend to see families as "forgotten victims" who the Prison Service should be nicer to. There's this agenda of "lets encourage them to be more understanding", coupled with a fairly thinly disguised criticism of families for being involved with prisoners at all. I'm sure no one at Action For Prisoners Families or the Prison Reform Trust would ever acknowledge this but I have experienced first hand the subtle put-downs and criticisms. One worker who has been involved with both organisations, on meeting me started telling me how funny she found Catherine Tate's portrayal of a prisoner's partner. I have also come across that patronising stuff about how we always being pressurised in to sending in clothes.

If you mention the true scale of the abuse and humiliation to which prisoners friends and families are subjected then there is a certain embarrassed disbelief that I would imagine stems from spending far too much time at shindigs with prison staff and no time at all actually experiencing these humiliations firsthand.
How prison treats partners, children and friends of prisoners

Where's the outrage? I don't hear or see it. Most of us are just trying to survive and there's a definite reluctance to rock the boat because you don't know how that might affect your loved one. Here is just a small sample of what we face:
  • Telephone calls from prisons are substantially more expensive than normal phone lines.
  • Searching by drug dogs is routine in many jails, a humiliating experience that many visitors know is frequently inaccurate. I have been put on a closed visit after being in a train carriage that stunk of cannabis. I always take a change of clothes with me now, and I always feel nervous of the procedure.No one seems to know or care what psychological effects the long-term denial of privacy and intimacy in our relationships has on the mental well-being of thousands of human beings, denied the basic human dignity which others take for granted.
I barely look at screws now when visiting because I know that it does me no good at all to see the looks of disgust and judgement. This is a common experience and it still distresses me to hear of people being treated with such disdain. I just cannot agree that this is a "training" issue. Imprisonment is designed to cut people of from their loved ones and punish them with the torture of that separation. Visits represent a battleground for many screws because visitors are breaching that wall of separation. Visitors represent a failure to entirely cut off prisoners and totally punish them. Consequently the war on drugs is used as an excuse to conduct a war on visitors and prisoners. I would never have believed it possible that this was the case had I not seen it and experienced it over and over again for years on end.

I have been much more supported by the experience of being able to talk to other prisoners families via the Prison Chat UK website but also reading and hearing uncompromising criticism of this system helps me to survive it.

Prisons are family unfriendly

I am sick of seeing men women and children abused and humiliated by the Prison system. There is a general silence that surrounds so much of that pain and humiliation. Prisons cannot possibly be family friendly. They are designed to break up families, to separate people from those they love and to observe and threaten them constantly when they are together, with no respite. We know that family ties are the single biggest factor in preventing re offending but there is no consideration given to the maintenance of those ties, with some rare exceptions. The prisons run courses like "Family man" to encourage better parenting without any questioning of the manner in which prisons themselves undermine and, in many cases, destroy family life. Organisations like Action For Prisoners Families collude in these myths about the necessity of separation by saying that prisoners should be locked up nearer home or officers need training about the problems families face or we need better visitors' centres. What we need is to rethink the whole basis upon which we do this to people, most of them on low incomes and deprived of support and real justice. I find it hard to articulate it all here and to share even a small part of my sense of outrage and sorrow but I have also found great solidarity in talking to other visitors. Over and over again we say to one another "how can this go on like this?" and my answer is always that there are no votes in helping us and there is very little awareness out there about what we face.

Thank you for listening to me.

Monday, 24 May 2010

It doesn't change but we can learn - Some Quotes from the 1930's

This page is part of a series showing the historical experiences of prisoners and the then thinking of various Penal Reformers.  We believe this history is important to help us understand the contemporary prison and equally important it can help us develop more effective resistance to its use. Additional quotes are very welcome.

"As some men resist the system by violence & hunger strike, so others resist by self inflicted wounds and suffering."  W.F.R MACARTNEY Walls have Mouths (1936)

"Unfortunately further reform will be difficult to effect because the great weight of unimaginative opinion...........believes that convicts are already being too much coddled, and our politicians are so nervous of a public opinion........that they will not risk their popularity, even at the expense of their self respect" Compton Mackensie 1936

"Doctors in jail are incredibly heartless and are the last people to protest against brutality" Chokey by Red Collar Man 1937

"The great majority of screws hate the brutality of the system, and yet become brutes themselves. Some, of course, enjoy being brutes, but most of them go on being brutes because their bread-and-butter depends on it" W.F.R MACARTNEY Walls have Mouths (1936)

A Different Kind of Justice

By Mike Nellis

This article orginally appeared in "The Abolitionist" The magazine of Radical Alternatives to Prison No 12 in 1982 (Pages 4-6)
Although controversy is endemic whenever criminal justice is discussed, it seems particularly acute at the present time, when opinions on the control of the police, on the undemocratic nature of much judicial thinking, and on the appropriateness or otherwise of custodial sentences are more polarised than they have been for many years. The forthcoming Criminal Justice Act will underwrite the demise of the rehabilitative ideal and the corresponding decline of social work's fortunes with offenders, especially juveniles; a traditional concern with deterrence and retribution will formally replace the commitment to the offender's welfare which, in theory at least, has been the hallmark of criminal legislation for the past twenty years. Parallel to this, however, are signs of an increasing interest in restitutive principles of justice and in a number of American schemes aimed at reconciling victims and offenders, schemes to which the social work profession could profitably turn its attention. Predictably, the American literature on the subject is already vast, but two English authors - ex-Howard League Director Martin Wright and Deputy Chief Probation Officer John Harding - have recently published concise arguments in favour of such schemes, in the hope of initiating a wider debate.


Restitution, and the associated principles of reparation: mediation and arbitration are not new to Western legal systems but they no longer have a major place within criminal law. The restitution and compensation orders which are available' to modern courts are always supplements to the main sentence and rarely, if ever, involve a meeting between the individuals concerned. Meetings, however, are precisely what restitution entailed in the past, and in many· mediaeval societies a variety of mechanisms existed for the settlement of community disputes (which encompassed much of what we would nowadays call crimes), and whose aim was the restoration of harmony between criminal and victim, rather than the mere punishment of one and the cursory compensation of the other. These mechanisms vanished not because they were ineffective but because local communities gradually lost power to a more central authority. The state, as the symbolic representation of the body politic, came to regard itself as the victim of crime. and also as the institution best suited to deal with it. An act of hostility against one, became, admittedly with some justification, an act of hostility against all, and the individual human being who had previously been regarded as the victim was reduced to no more than a walk-on part in judicial proceedings, either as witness for the prosecution, or simply as the complainant. Christmas Humphreys, now a retired judge, made this point more than forty years ago (The Menace in our Midst, Humphreys and Dummett, 1937), when he argued that we have gradually moved from a position in which the victim had pride of place, to the opposite extreme, where the victim is irrelevant. It is out of renewed concern for victims that interest in restitution has grown, initially in the somewhat limited form of providing financial compensation out of public funds. Nonetheless, Margery Fry's achievement in establishing the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (now Board) in 1964, was a considerable step forward and this, combined with the publication a few years later of Stephen Schafer's Home Office inspired study, Compen-sation and Restitution to Victims of Crime, ensured that reparation regained its place - at least in principle - as a major issue in the criminal policy field.

The development in the seventies of the Victim Support Schemes and the formation in'1980 of a National Association to represent them increased the range of services which could be offered to victims of crime in certain parts of the country, but one significant gap remained, which the Howard League for Penal Reform had already highlighted in its pamphlet Making Amends (1977):
"Our law makes no provision for the making of personal amends by the offender to the victim. He gets no encouragement to apologise, to meet the victim, to see the harm he has done and to put it right and make up for it"
Roma Bannister, in an appendix to the report of Lord Longford's Working Party on Victims (1978) briefly elaborates the implications of such contact: "The idea of any confrontation with the assailant may fill many victims with revulsion, and for this reason the full consent of the victim would always be the first requirement. Time will be needed for the majority of us to accept this concept as a form of therapy; for the victim, to understand is to forgive, and to forgive is to forget for both".

It is important for the judicial process to consider the rights and needs of victims if only to ensure that they, or potential victims, are not tempted to take inappropriate action themselves. Although instances of vigilante activity are thankfully rare, the populist sentiments which lie behind them are more commonplace, particularly in areas of racial conflict or where sexual politics are involved. The police and the politicians, and certain sections of the general public are excessively sceptical of harnessing these feelings in crime prevention programmes, except in such token ways as requesting information about "suspicious behaviour". It is not as if the police are particularly successful at catching offenders, yet without capture there can be no possibility of reconciliation with victims. Their reservations suggest a very monopolistic attitude towards the control of crime, which reinforces the widely held view of the person-in-the-street as someone only interested in revenge, and whose bloodlust needs to be held in check by the appointed professionals. Vigilante activity need not, however, lead to lynch law, but although evidence of this is hard to come by in this country, a higher level/of co-operation has been achieved between such groups and the police in America, of whom the best known are the Guardian Angels in New York, the group of young people who voluntarily patrol the subways to ensure the greater safety of the passengers.


Quite why popular involvement in crime prevention has been more successful in America than here is difficult to explain, unless the stronger emphasis on the ordinary citizen's right of self-defence lies behind it. Whatever the reason, popular involvement in the administration of justice, after an offender has been caught, has also progressed more in America, and it is in that country that the best contemporary examples of victim-offender reconciliation schemes are to be found. Many different types have flourished (parallel, it must be said, to a vast and horrifying prison system in which the poor and unprivileged are massively over-represented). Some operate within the criminal justice system, some outside it and others in symbiosis with it. They tend to deal with the same kind of offences - assault, theft, vandalism, cheque forgery, telephone harassment and family disputes - but vary in the extent to which they emphasise the different principles involved - restitution, mediation or arbitration. In practice, these are often difficult to differentiate.

The Night Prosecutor Programme in Columbus, Ohio, was founded in 1971 by the city attorney and a local law professor, and is based in police headquarters. It aims to divert minor criminal cases and some traffic violations from the formal court process by arranging for the disputants to meet in a controlled setting and agree upon a settlement, which is then written down and signed by both of them. Practical help can be offered or arranged for either party, and if the prosecutor's office deems it appropriate, a Probation Officer can be used to monitor the settlement for some time afterwards. If agreement cannot be reached, or if the incident recurs, the offender can be prosecuted in the normal way. The Community Assistance Project in Chester, Pennsylvania, is organised more informally and relies on much greater community involvement. It was founded in 1970 by an activist in a tenants' association, mainly to serve the town's poor black neighbourhoods. It takes referrals from the courts, the police and direct from the community, arranges for both parties to meet and using the same local people who act as mediators between the parties, checks periodically to see that any agreements are being kept. More informal still is the House of Umoja (a Swahili word meaning "unity"), a self-help group founded in Philadelphia in 1969 by an Afro-American couple who wished to mediate between the rival street gangs, and to teach their young members a less violent lifestyle. The group's political unorthodoxy initially brought it into conflict with the Department of Public Welfare, but their proven success in reducing street violence led to a change of mind and the provision of some public funds.

Restitution itself is not an essential ingredient in any of these projects; all that they aim for is a solution which is acceptable to both parties, which mayor may not include the making of material amends, In the Victim Offender Reconciliation Programme (VORP) in Kitchener, Ontario, restitution is a key factor. It is organised by the Probation Department and originated in 1974 from the efforts of one officer who, with the consent of a Judge, ensured that two youngsters who had been on a spree of vandalism in a near-by town visited all their victims and made good most of their damage. This incident and its resolution became the VORP model; except where financial compensation is preferred. the victim, offender and Probation Officer agree on a number of hours work as restitution, and on the period over which it is to be undertaken. As in many other projects of this kind, both victim and offender were discovered to have other needs apart from those immediately at issue, and various means were developed to resolve them; in this case, a counselling group for the parents of young offenders, and a course on interpersonal conflict resolution at a local university.

Such brief details as these cannot fully convey the work of these projects (more information is available in Instead of Prisons, by the Prison Research Education Action Project, New York 1976) but predictably none of them were founded without first having to face the scepticism and hostility of those people who were content with existing arrangements for dealing with crime. There were failure~ as well as successes; not all victims wanted to meet their assailants, and vice versa; not everyone stuck to the agreements they made and some failed to carry out the restitution they had promised, just as clients in this country sometimes opt out of probation, or refuse to continue with a Community Service Order. But what is remarkable - apart from the proliferation of projects in North America - is the unanimity with which workers in them report the readiness of most victims to co-operate, the containability of the anger and emotion generated in first encounters, and the willingness of wrongdoers to apologise and make amends when the opportunity is provided. It suggests that even in a society like ours, where personal values tend "in the direction of combative self-assertiveness" (the words of Archbishop William Temple) a space can be created in which both compassion and contrition can still be expressed Without embarrassment or rancour.

Nonetheless, there are regrettably few projects of this kind in Britain. Only in Exeter and South Shields are there schemes in which personal reparation is officially included as a legitimate means of working with young offenders. It is heartening, therefore, that some interest in the general concepts of reconciliation and restitution has been expressed by key individuals in the social work field. In 1977 David Thorpe suggested to the annual conference of the Association of Community Home Schools that victims and juvenile offenders ought to meet each other in court, and negotiate on compensation, describing it as "a method of righting wrongs which does the least damage to both parties" (Community Care, 16.11.77). My own reasons for believing that these ideas warrant serious and urgent attention from social workers, stem, however, from the more expansive comments which Professor Martin Dayies has made on the profession's essential nature:
'It is about reconciliation and compromise - reconciling the personal and the political, reconciling the state and the individual, and different individuals with each other. Because of this commitment to reconciliation, trying to balance the interests of the person and the interests of the state, social work must become increasingly ill at ease, and eventually untenable in any society under absolute rule or in a state of anarchy' (Community Care 22.1.81).
The schemes outlined above fit very well into Professor Davies' philosophy and in a small, symbolic way they can offset the development of the very conditions he fears, by showing how agreement and harmony can be created in situation which have hitherto been regarded as conducive to neither.

If crime ever did get out of hand - and we have not yet reached this point - we would indeed be living in a state of anarchy, or worse. Such crime as we have is often harmful and sometimes lethal, and we cannot pretend that it will ever go away on its own, no matter how substantially social conditions are altered. If, however, we turn more and more to incarceration as a possible means of reducing and preventing it we turn our backs on the many humane alternatives which could be used instead, and in doing so we drift ever closer towards a totalitarian future. RAP has written elsewhere that:
"Imprisonment is used most in those societies which value freedom least, and the growth of the prison system is the sharpest indicator of the political direction which a society is taking".
Alternatives to prison are therefore vital, not only because they are more humane, but also because they endorse and support ' the view that mature, responsible behaviour is more likely to flourish in conditions of freedom than in conditions of constraint. This is not a popular credo at the present time but community-based restitution schemes could be a further illustration of its truth, and by making victims more central to the administration of justice, by insisting that forgiveness and regret are options which are still open to members of our selfish and acquisitive society, and in aiming to heal rather than to exacerbate rifts between people, they offer hope for a more balanced and tolerant way of life.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

POA: a history of repression

Nicki Jameson has written an excellent review of The Everlasting Staircase: A history of the Prison Officers’ Association 1939-2009 (David Evans with Sheila Cohen, Pluto Press in association with the Prison Officers Association, 2009, £20) in the latest edition of FRFI.

It can be read online here

Impressive detail but at its heart a failure to understand Prison: A critical review of the Zahid Mabarek Inquiry Report

By: John Moore - (July 2006)

Published on 29th June 2006 the Report of the Zahid Mabarek Inquiry is a weighty document that recounts in detail the prison history of Robert Stewart, Zahid's killer and the management and operation of Britain's Young Offender Institutes. Its 692 pages paint a detailed picture of the day to day reality of imprisonment both in terms of the vulnerable, powerless and damaged people we cage and the violent, lawless, and unproductive regimes they are subjected to. Racism, bullying, endless hours locked up doing nothing, managerial chaos, injustice, endemic self harm, incompetent medical services and much more is carefully documented. But this reality is no great revelation, generations of prisoners have recounted equally horrific accounts of their experiences and even the Governments own inspectorate regularly publish reports detailing one failed prison after another.

Over two hundred years ago the prison missionary John Howard visited prisons and was horrified at what he found. Like every subsequent prison reformer he believed that the abuses and failings he had discovered were the result of poor administration, staff deficiencies, inadequate policies and architectural defects. From Howard to today the grim and painful reality of prison life has not been seen as an intrinsic consequence of prison but as a defect susceptible to an easy fix. The Mubarek Report follows in this tradition with a long list of recommendations it confidently believes will resolve or mitigate the problems uncovered. This is a dangerous illusion. Feltham was no aberration - Imprisonment almost inevitably leads to abusive and violent regimes. That is the nature of prison. If we really want to stop further deaths we need to face this reality, stop trying to reform the unreformable and instead close Feltham and other prisons.
The violence of prison

Zahid Mubarek life ended violently in prison at the hands of another teenager, Robert Stewart. The report into his death seeks to address the problem of prisoner on prisoner violence. It seeks to do this without addressing wider issues of violence within prison.

Prisons exist to punish - they are meant to hurt. Although this pain is primarily intended to be mental rather than physical the very act of imprisoning someone involves deliberately inflicting violence on him or her. Prison reformers, academics and prison administrators tend to try and avoid this reality but those who have to endure prison understand that they are receiving pain and violence as an intended facet of their punishment. Power within prison, both official and unofficial, is based on the capacity to enforce through violence. For example regular strip searches in prisons humiliate and degrade. If resisted they are violently enforced. Earlier this year the Carlise Report on the treatment of children in prisons gave examples which included a 16 year old girl strip searched during her period who had her stained sanitary pad examined in front of her and then given back to her to reuse and a 15 year old boy having to part his buttocks and roll back his foreskin for inspection by prison officers.

In addition to institutional violence daily acts of individual violence occurs throughout the prison. As well as prisoner on prisoner violence, regular staff on prisoner violence occurs, as well as prisoner on staff violence and staff on staff violence. Much of the staff on prisoner violence and some of the staff on staff violence are legitimised by the system and are carried out quite openly. The Mubarek Inquiry team itself uncovered many examples of violence. They report that:
"three white members of staff handcuffed an ethnic minority prisoner on Raven to the bars of his cell, removed his trousers and smeared his bottom with black shoe polish"
Interestingly they add a footnote advising that despite the considerable embarrassment to the prison service and Home Office caused by this racist assault being discovered by the Inquiry the employees involved were not dismissed.

The Carlise Report identified that staff in Young Offender Institutions, and Secure Training Centres regularly used pain compliant techniques to impose discipline on children. These Home Office approved techniques were described in the report:
"using the thumb - fingers are used to bend the upper joint of the thumb forwards and down towards the palm of the hand;
using the ribs - involves the inward and upward motion of the knuckles into the back of the child exerting pressure on the lower rib: and
using the nose - staff use the outside of their hand in an upward motion on the septum."
Staff on staff violence is far more common in prisons than is generally acknowledged. Bullying of staff by colleagues is endemic and violence and humiliation an established ingredient of the training on new prison officers. Again despite not looking for this the inquiry stumbled across:
"two white trainee prison officers urinating on a black trainee during a training course"
This culture, particular during training, ensures that those who staff our prisons are aware of the centrality of violence in their day-to-day work. The Inquiries attempts to address violence between prisoners without recognising either the violence inherent within prison regimes or the daily acts of violence perpetrated by staff on prisoners are doomed to failure.
The Fantasy Prison

Over recent years a massive gap has emerged between the descriptions of prisons by prison reformers, the government, the media, academics and prison administrators and the daily reality of prison as experience by prisoners and front line prison staff. It is important to understand the difference between the "fantasy" prison and the real prison. The fantasy prison is well managed, focused on rehabilitating and educating prisoners, experiences no violence, respects prisoners rights and is characterised by the happy faces of prisoners and staff working together. It has a comprehensive set of policies, actively challenges racist behaviour of staff and prisoners, and produces law abiding ex-prisoners who have seen the error of their past criminality and are committed to living law abiding lives.

Of course no such prison exists except in the minds of civil servants, home office funded academics and prison reform charities. For them reports like those of the Carlise and Mubarek Inquiries by exposing the ordinary reality of prison challenge their imaginary world. The recommendations are important not because they will change the real prison but because by the prison service going through the motions of implementing a number of token 'improvements' it allows prison apologists to maintain their belief in their imaginary best friend - the fantasy prison.

The Mubarek Inquiry report demonstrates the gap between fantasy and reality by its treatment of whistle blowing. This is an important issue. The prison officer culture responsible for so much of the brutality experienced by prisoners (and to lesser extent junior staff) relies on a code of silence. New staff will, early in their career, witness violent assaults on prisoners by their colleagues. Do they ignore them, report them or join in? Reporting will result in the officer being rejected and ostracised by other prison staff. Their allegations may be "disproved" by other staff giving evidence that no assault took place. Their working life will be made hell. Most staff initially try to ignore their colleagues abuses but often this is resented and a situation will be engineered when the new staff member will drawn into an assault and peer pressure exerted. As soon as they succumb they are corrupted by the culture. It only takes a token kick and their colleagues know they are "one of us" and welcomed them into the fold. Those that enjoy the violence become active participants, those who don't try and avoid it but do nothing to stop it. All are contaminated.

The Mubarek Inquiry talks about whistle blowing in the context of policy. It refers to the 1998 Public Interest Disclosure Act and concludes on the basis of paper work:
"The Prison Service has responded to this important statutory initiative in a positive way."
However if the Inquiry had stepped outside the fantasy prison of policy and procedure manuals and had observed the employment Tribunal taking place in Leeds in November 2005 (whilst the Mubarek Inquiry was sitting) they would have found out that whistle blowing in the real prison did not only receive a violent reaction from other prison staff but an equal vicious and nasty response from the Senior Management of the Prison Service. At Wakefield Prison Carol Lingard had reported another Prison Officer for abusing Prisoners. Her complaints were dismissed by management and she was left at the hands of the bullies. The Tribunal was somewhat less impressed than the Murbarek Inquiry in the Prison Service's response to whistle blowing. It awarded Ms Lingard £477,000 damages, a massive award. Ms Lingard left the prison service, a colleague who gave evidence in support of her claim have been transferred to other prison where she faces potential victimisation, whilst the thugs remain, protected by the POA (Prison Officers Association), at Wakefield. The failure to refer to this case or other similar ones is a major and inexcusable deficiency in the Mubarek Report.
Reform doesn't work

Both the Mubarek and Carlise Inquiry reports show details of the violent and abusive reality of imprisonment for children and young people. The picture they portray is not new and similar revelations have been made through Inquiries and autobiographical accounts of prison. The response to these revelations is always a combination of horror - how could things be that bad - and urgent prison reforms "surely we can make things better?"

What is missing is a realisation of the obvious. If the deficiencies and abuses so carefully documented by the pious Prison Missionary John Howard are still occurring why do prison reformers still equally piously claim that the very solution "reform" which has a two hundred year history of failure - is the answer? Surely they must know that the reforms will fail and the abuses continue? John Howard could claim that there was insufficient history for him to have known the futility of his ideas. However that excuse is not available to contemporary prison apologists.

The Mubarek Inquiry Report continually touches on prison reform with no apparent awareness of the history of prisons or penal ideas. It suggests investigation the benefits of mixing older and younger prisoners in blissful ignorance that for decades their separation was advocated by reformers and academics not only essential but potentially as a cure for crime! The reports recommendations relating to the treatment of mentally disordered offenders are not dissimilar to the routine practices and policies in operation a hundred years ago. Like so many before them the Inquiry team time and time again ignore the fundamental nature of prison and suggest administrative and procedural solutions. Often their ideas have in fact been tried in the past and failed. Nothing it seems recycles as well as prison reform clich├ęs.

Prison reformers have started to justify their faith by picking up specific examples of prisons that were far less abusive and violent than Feltham or other contemporary British Prisons. They are of course partly right. Prisons do vary and some can claim to have had regimes that were decent. Maconochie transformed Norfolk Island in the middle of the nineteenth century from a punitive hell into a relatively civilised community. The Special Unit at Barlinne Prison was as Jimmy Boyle's account of it illustrates a serious attempt to deliver a just, constructive and non-abusive regime. Moczydlowski certainly transformed Poland's Prisons between 1981 and 1996. Many of the early open borstals provided decent and constructive regimes.

However equally important to the positive aspects of these and similar examples is that they all proved to be unsustainable. All four saw the positive aspects of their regimes eroded over time and ultimately a return to the brutal and abusive normality of prison. Short-term reforms are possible but in the long term reform simply doesn't work. Those who campaign for it can only do so by ignoring history. They are deceiving both themselves and others. Why?
Race Culture and Faith

The fact that the criminal justice system and all its institutions are racist to the core should be beyond debate. Black, Asian, Irish and other ethnic minority prisoners have through their direct experience testified to this reality. The Mubarek report, despite providing direct evidence of racism displays little understanding of either the nature of racism or its role within prisons. The report seems to suggest that racism has somehow crept into prisons, that it is an aberration that requires an administrative response, a modicum of management commitment and the prison will return to its natural "equal opportunities" status. The Inquiry team admitting they did not have the resources "to determine whether the scourge of institutional racism has now been eradicated from the Prison Service" sums up this naivety. As if!

Keith particularly struggles when having to evaluate the experience of Muslim prisoners. The response of both the state and society to the events of 9/11 and the subsequent moral panics and war on terror have had dramatic impacts on the lives of Muslims living in Britain. Those caged in our prisons have been the most vulnerable. They are isolated, outside the protection of the law, exposed to violence, and defenceless. The report suggests that the experience of Muslim prisoners may be linked to "Islamaphobia in society" and this requires the extension of the Lawrence Inquiries definition of institutional racisms to be broadened to include religious intolerance. Keith however makes clear that this recommendation should not be taken as "suggesting in any way that the Prison Service should be regarded as institutionally infected with religious intolerance". The Report's failure to cast any light on the daily abuse, violence, victimization and brutality experienced by many Muslim prisoners is deeply worrying.

Racism is ingrained in prisons and the people who work in them. Any meaningful attempt to introduce anti racist practice or policies into prisons would cause a backlash from those who work in prison that would make them unmanageable. A modest observation by the Chief Inspector of Prisons that Prison Officers should not wear St George pins saw a vicious media response against "political correctness" despite the reality that every prisoner knew that those who wear them are not only racists but also normally paid up members of fascist political parties.

Going beyond the Mubarek Report.

Those of us who understand that prisons are fundamentally flawed institutions and beyond reform need to be cautious in our welcoming of reports like the Murbarek Inquiry. Whilst we should welcome any light that is thrown on the abusive and violent reality of prison we need to be clear that these reports are also an attempt to legitimise the very institutions that generate the abuses they investigate. This legitimisation must be exposed and resisted

However sensational the revelation of this reports we must stress that they are in fact boringly normal. The racism, violence and abuse is not some aberration, it is the normal reality of prisons. It is not a malfunction requiring reform it is prison. Reform offers the illusion that the racism, violence, pain and abuse can be removed from the prison. It seeks to legitimise prison by offering the possibility, at some unspecified future point that prison will shed these embarrassing characteristics. These are however intrinsic to prison and as history has repeatedly taught us the reforms will fail.

The Mubarek Report is at its heart an exercise in legitimising the institution of the prison. Yes it does confirm the brutal reality of prison that former prisoners have consistently reported. But it perverts this truth seeking to portray it as evidence of institutional malfunctioning rather than the more damming truth that this is simply prison. This deception is necessary to allow the Report to offer up the possibility that these defects are resolvable by implementation of a list of recommendations. This is also a deception. This second deception ensures that the reality exposed in the report doesn't lead to the questioning of the legitimisation of prison. The problems exposed we are urged to be believed can be resolved without us having to consider the possibility of not caging either Zahid Muberak or Robert Stewart.  That is an agenda that Prison Reformers, Home Office Funded Academics and, Prison Administrators are happy to co-operate with. But it will not fundamentally change the racist, abusive and violent institutions that are British Prisons. To achieve that change requires the closure of Feltham and all other Prisons.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Four Tall Tales About Prison From Britain's Press (Part Two)

This discourse of evil: the swastika reference, the large colour photograph of the shadowy hooded figure and mention of Devil worship, permeates the article. The use of the word 'witchcraft', for example which appears in the headline is justified by the implication that it is interchangeable with one type of pagan religion, Wicca. The story only mentions the word once, but fails to acknowledge that the Wiccan sense of 'witchcraft' is far removed from the stereotypical representation in popular culture of pointed hats, spells, broomsticks and evil (Gardner 2004; Howe 2005; Newton 1994). Thus again, we find a story about prison bearing a headline which has little to do with what's written below it. There is also further speculation in the news report which underpins the Daily Mail's discourse of malevolent and wicked prisoners. The Instruction notes that paganism take many forms, including 'Afro-Caribbean religions practised in the Americas' (HMPS 2005 5) which the Daily Mail chooses to interpret as 'an apparent reference to voodoo'. Here the paper both reduces a whole range of Afro-diasporic religious traditions to simply 'voodoo' (Dorsey 2006); and supports the cultural stereotype of such religious practices (Parish 2005), through conflations with evil, the devil and so on. Consequently, the ideological practice of the Daily Mail here constructs the UK's prisoners as inherently 'evil', beyond redemption and undeserving of rights.

The Daily Mail's position here permits speculative comments which spiral further and further away from the original source. The story shifts from the facts about the Home Office recognising the rights of pagan prisoners, to a position where paganism is fixed within a tropes of devil worship, witchcraft and voodoo. In the latter part of the article, this new position enables privileged voices, such as that of Colin Hart, of the Christian Institute to say. "Prisoners ought to be steered away from these beliefs. Involvement with the occult is associated with obsession and depression. There may well be links between Satanism and child abuse". It is unclear what evidence or authority Mr Hart has for making either of these claims and the Daily Mail chooses not to offer any. This is the language of fear stripped of context and reason, and as Altheide has suggested:
the constant use of fear pervades crises and normal times: it becomes part of the taken-for-granted word of "how things are," and one consequence is that it begins to influence how we perceive and talk about everyday life, including mundane as well as significant events. This produces a discourse of fear, the pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of everyday life. Tracking this discourse shows that fear pervades our popular culture and is influencing how we view events and experience. (Altheide 2003: 37)
Colin Hart is one of several people used in the article to support the discourses of fear and danger that Altheide talks about, but also one of several Christian sources quoted. The Rev. David Philips is the first of three, and is used to underline the notion of a proliferation of harmful religious rituals: "we have deep reservations about the spread of these practices" he is reported as saying. This 'spread' appears also to be misleading. In keeping with the HMP Holloway story, which moved from a the specific comment of one prisoner to a general one about the prisoner population and the prison regime as a whole, the Daily Mail make little of the statistic buried in the middle of the article that 'there are currently 205' prisoners registered as pagan. This represents less than 0.01% of Britain's 89,376 prisoners.

There are two other groups used here who regularly appear in pro-prison stories. The first is the Prison Officers' Association (POA), who are also quoted in the St George tie pin story discussed earlier. In this article, Colin Moses, their national chairman describes the recognition of paganism as "nonsensical and damaging political correctness". Monitoring of prison stories in the news reveals the presence of the POA as a regular source (Gross et al. 2006), and would suggest an increasingly professionalised media relations strategy by the POA, as Schlesinger and Tumber have previously noted (1994). This also exemplifies the emergence of specialised media professionals in criminal justice agencies, such as the police (Mawby 2002). As Leishman and Mason suggest, "(i)n our mass-mediated society, the police in common with most organizations in the public and private sectors, increasingly view information and news management as being of crucial strategic importance" (Leishman and Mason 2003: 35). More broadly, it reflects the well-documented transformation of contemporary journalism towards a processing of news releases and agency releases, rather than a gathering of the news. News agenda are both shaped and narrowed by press releases, changes in industrial relations and a crisis in profitability (see for example Davis 2000; Franklin 2006; Franklin and Turk 1987).

Alongside the POA, a further regular source used in prison stories is the seemingly ubiquitous voice of Norman Brennan of the Victims of Crime Trust. Brennan, a serving police officer, heads an organisation which consists of only three permanent staff, of which he is one ( Yet he is given the opportunity to comment on pagan prisoners by the Daily Mail: "We've lost our way in the prisons. You have to ask if this nonsense is going to persuade one burglar to stop stealing when he leaves jail". Undoubtedly particular groups are being given what Chibnall (1977) refers to as "structured access" to the media in prison stories such as these. Christian, pro-prison and pro-victim groups are used to legitimise the newspaper's speculative tone about the Prison Service Instruction on religion. In contrast, there remains a deafening silence from prison reform, abolition and/or prisoners' rights groups. I shall return to this further below.
4. Con Air: High Danger in Britain's Skies

On Monday 26 October, the Scottish Executive published the HM Inspectorate of Prisons' Report on the Open Estate (HMI 2005b) on its website. It was a 52 page report about a range of prison issues - population, security, management, prisoner health and so on - pertaining to the two low-security Category D prisons in Scotland: Castle Huntly and Noranside, collectively known as The Open Estate. These prisons are intended to provide 'employment training and transitional/through-care for prisoners working towards a structured reintegration into society' (SPS 2006). In section 8 of the Report, titled "Care", the issues around home leave for prisoners were discussed. The report expressed concern that prisoners received only £7 to cover the expenses incurred in their three days of leave, which put a great financial pressure on the prisoners' families. It suggested 'a realistic payment should be made to prisoners to meet the expenses incurred during Home Leaves'(HMI 2005b: 35). The subsequent paragraph in the Report discussed the further difficulties for prisoners visiting their families:
While for most travel is relatively straight forward, some travel to the South of England. SPS only arranges and pays for bus or train travel - not budget airlines which can offer significant savings in time and money. If prisoners choose to use the airline option for long journeys, some might be disadvantaged as it is their families who are required to book and pay for such travel. The reason given is that the Prison does not have a credit card which is necessary for such airline bookings. All prisoners should have equal access to the most appropriate travel arrangements. (HMI 2005b: 35)
Thus, the Report sought to draw attention to prisoners needing increased financial support for home leave; and consequently the disadvantages that the Scottish Prison Service faced in being unable to offer the often cheaper and quicker option of them using budget airlines for such visits.

The day after the report, The Express ran the following story:
Inmates from Scottish jails should travel home to visit their families on budget airlines, says a prison watchdog. The move could see families and lone women travellers unknowingly squeezed said by side with convicted murderers, rapists and other serious offenders on budget flights across the UK. (The Daily Express, 27 October, p. 4)
Like the stories I have previously discussed, The Express report is grossly misleading, and also untrue. The Report on the Open Estate does not say that prisoners should use budget airlines to travel home, but points out the difficulties if prisoners were to use this option. The Report also notes, just one page previously, that assessment for home leave is both rigorous and frequent (HMI 2005b). The prisoners at Castle Huntly and Noranside are in open prisons, at the end of their sentences and the home leave scheme is part of re-establishing links with the community. The Express chooses to ignore this fact, instead relying once again on a discourse of fear and dangerousness around a notion of vulnerable victims ("families and lone women travellers") on a plane full of "convicted murderers, rapists and other serious offenders". Such a scenario owes more to the Hollywood film Con Air (dir. Simon West, 1997) than it does to reality. The Express article is also deceptive in its suggestion that the Scottish Prison Service are 'allowing them (prisoners) free flights' without noting, as the Report states, that bus and train travel for home visits is already paid for by the Prison Service, and thus flights would be simply an alternative. I would suggest that The Express here is fixing its report within a familiar discourse of prisons-as-holiday-camps, using the notion of "free flights" and "budget airlines" to construct (dangerous) prisoners as being given privileges they do not warrant by a soft-touch regime out of kilter with public opinion.

Indeed, The Express article supplements the discourse of threat through explicit statements about escape, lax security and lenient regimes. It juxtaposes the Report's statement on home leave with a comment about drugs:
(The Report states that) "All prisoners should have equal access to the most appropriate travel arrangements. The indepth report also reveals drugs are a major problem in both open prisons" (The Express 27 October, p.4)
While drug use is clearly a problem in the Open Estate, The Express makes an overt link between such practices and the rights of prisoners to visit their families. Here, the paper's stance substantiates Christie's contention that States, including the UK, who profess to wage "a war on drugs", construct the drug user and dealer as the least useful but most dangerous members of society. Such people are perceived as 'both as social junk and dynamite' (Christie 2000: 73), and consequently, a threat to society that need to be incarcerated. This narrow representation of prisoner as worthless / menace further solidifies The Express's discourse of dangerousness and risk in their report. In subsequent paragraphs, the story continued to reiterate this position, noting the number of absconsions and failures to return by prisoners at the two jails.

The story ends with a quotes from both Ryanair and Easyjet, a spokesperson from the latter is quoted as saying '(t) he safety of passengers and crew is paramount and we will be looking into the implications of this'. As I have illustrated in previous stories above, the use of such quotes are based upon speculation but give the impression of a current and immediate problem. This correlation between prisoners' rights, security, fear and dangerousness confirms my contention that prison stories in the press are, in the majority, fundamentally misleading, inaccurate and often false.

I have offered only four stories here, and it may appear that such an examination is no less partial than the reports I have analysed. Clearly, not every report about prison is misleading: The Guardian in particular frequently reports on the problems with Britain's prisons, its prison correspondent Eric Allison and columnist Erwin James have long campaigned for fundamental changes to the prison estate. However, the constructions of prison and prisoners in the news based upon misleading and often false information located within pro-prison discourse built around fear and dangerousness are commonplace in the British press (Gross et al. 2006; Jewkes 2006; Russell 2005; Solomon 2006). I have chosen these four stories from October 2005 as a mere snapshot, but there were several others in that month's newspapers alone: recently released prisoner John Hirst's victory in the European Court of Human Rights, granting prisoners the right to vote was reported in The Daily Mail as KILLER WINS VOTE FOR PRISONERS (7 October 2005, p6); the decision to increase eligibility for home detention curfew from those with four and a half months left on their sentence to those with six months remaining was reported on the front page of The Times under the headline TIME IN JAIL MAY BE SLASHED FOR PRISONERS, reporting that 'thousands of prisoners will be released' (my emphasis, 13 October 2005, p.1) despite the number being around 1,000 and no decision having been reached. Most recently, the government's Community Payback initiative is constructed by the Daily Mail as '60,000 WILL BE SPARED PRISON' (10 February 2006, p.12) while the next day The Express reported on a satellite TV being installed at HMP Ashworth:
" payers' money was ploughed into providing free satellite TV for Moors murderer Ian Brady. The move, costing thousands of pounds, will see some of the country's most dangerous mentally ill prisoners watch Premiership football and Hollywood films"  (The Express, 11 February 2006, p. 5)
And so it goes on.

We should of course, not be surprised. The examples I have given come largely from the tabloid press which, as Sparks notes 'devotes relatively little time attention to political processes, economic developments, and society and relatively much to the personal and private lives of people' (Sparks 2000: 10) but nor should such reports be dismissed or excused as mere knock-about farce operating outside the mainstream news arena. The manner in which prison and prisoners are constructed by the British press and by representations in wider popular culture plays a crucial role in public comprehension of prisons and punishment and, I would argue, in government policy. The relationship between public opinion and the media has always been highly contentious and widely argued and I do not propose to repeat the arguments in any detail here . However, recent British Crime Surveys have revealed that the public are unacquainted with numerous aspects of the criminal justice system (Chapman et al. 2002) and rely on the media for their information. Importantly, the Survey has reported that just 6% of the public consider their principal source of information to be inaccurate (Levenson 2001). This is particularly pertinent to prisons, where punishment remains hidden from public view and scrutiny. In this space between the reality of prison and public ignorance about it, lie the journalist and the media. Press discourses of prison therefore become a potent opinion shaper and former for the public. I would also suggest, in keeping with Mathiesen's arguments I noted earlier (1995; 2000; 2001; 2003) that the media are a key driver in government policy towards prison, where successive criminal justice measures have been built upon ostentatious punitive display (Garland 2001; Pratt 2002): highly visible and pre-packaged for media consumption such as the government's latest apparent shift away from its reliance on prison towards non-custodial sentences (Home Office 2006). These new measures of unpaid work in the community are to remain highly conspicuous: "visibly yes, because it is important that the community sees that payback is happening" explained Home Secretary Charles Clarke on the BBC's Today programme, 9 February 2006.

I would suggest, however, that in relation to prison, public opinion may well be irrelevant in this apparent triangulation between press, public and State. That while in a liberal democracy the State must be seen to reflect public opinion in its criminal justice policy, in reality that opinion is largely one constructed by, and represented in the printed press and other media. Lewis et al.'s findings would seem to also support this contention. In their study of US and UK television news over a five month period, they found that '95% of the claims about citizens or public opinion contain no supporting evidence' (Lewis et al. 2005: 135) and that engagement with citizens by the news media remained superficial. I am arguing then that misleading and inaccurate stories which construct prison and prisoners as high risk, dangerous, evil and beyond redemption, coupled with a crime-saturated news environment not only bolsters support for a government policy built upon mass incarceration, but constructs public opinion as overtly supporting it too.

This process in which news reports, purportedly on behalf of the public, shape government policy on prisons is clearly a complex process, and one I do not have the space to discuss in detail here. I must however deal briefly with two points raised by other writers on this process. First, Mick Ryan has argued that '(s)imply de-constructing individual moral panics and chastising opportunistic politicians and red top editors like Rebekah Wade of The Sun no longer has sufficient explanatory potential' (Ryan 2006: 32). He argues that mass education and the growth of the information society, illustrate the possibility for social movements to offer a "communicative rationality" in the public sphere of penology. I would like to believe this is the case: that groups such as No More Prison and Critical Resistance provide a crucial counter-discourse to government penal policy. It is certainly the case that the work in which Ryan has been an important contributor - the deaths in custody group, Inquest and the prison abolition movement Radical Alternatives To Prison had some notable successes (Ryan 1978; 1983) However, I think such victories have to be located within a much larger socio-political reality, which remains one wedded to mass incarceration bolstered by a powerful pro-prison media.

Secondly, David Garland has argued that to talk of a press-driven criminal justice policy implies that the journalists simply conjure up public opinion without reference to what is actually happening at the time: a position he suggests rather simplifies the press/public nexus and one which ignores the numerous sources of prison information which exist (Garland 2001). Notwithstanding Lewis et al.'s findings noted above which offer evidence of exactly the kind of journalistic practice which Garland is sceptical of, it is the kinds of "public" voices which are incorporated into news stories about prison that I would argue are problematic. Here, I find Hall et al's primary definer thesis persuasive.

Hall et al's have argued that structured and hierarchical access to the news by elite groups, serves to define particular media discourses, which, translated into a "public idiom" resonate with the news audience (Hall et al. 1978). Thus, journalistic practice of meeting deadlines and notions of reporting objectively and accurately, create an over-reliance on 'those in powerful and privileged institutional positions' (Hall et al. 1978: 58). Criticisms of the thesis have been widely published (see for example Greenberg 2004; Miller et al. 1999; Schlesinger 1990). Among other things, they question the coherence and homogeneity of elite groups; note occasions when the media challenge the primary definers; and the openness of journalists to marginalised groups . I do accept the difficulties in the argument noted by the likes of Greenberg, Miller and Schlesinger, but in all four of the stories I have discussed, the newspapers offer very few interventions in the debate from prisoner's rights movement, dissenting political voices or even the Home Office itself. Meanwhile, it is the "expert" legitimating function of dominant pro-prison voices that are used to represent public opinion - whether constructed as the "common sense" view that prisoners should not be allowed to visit their families using affordable air travel; or "political correctness gone made" in seeking religious and racial equality. These preferred voices - the Conservative MP, the Prison Officers Association, the pub landlord, the victim support group spokesperson - primarily define the public opinion on prison here. Further, they seek to legitimise the newspaper's position of misinforming, mythologising and distorting the aim and role of the UK prison system: examples of yet more harsh sentences directed at Britain's prisoners.


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