What The Fuck Is Happening In Prisons Right Now?

This is a guest post in response to the news and events surrounding the rioting in UK prisons.

The recent “incident” in HMP Birmingham is just the latest in a wave of rebellions taking place across the country this autumn, from Bedford to Lewes and elsewhere around the country, and it has little to do with the availability of televisions. And it’s not over – it looks like Hull is next.

When the Birmingham rebellion started, snitches paid, debtors were punished, guards fled and G4S reassured the ignorant. Wings got locked down, fires started, power was cut off and food stopped. Paint was thrown over officers to prevent them seeing through the visors of their helmets. Then Tornado teams arrived to quell the uprising. Those caught rioting face an extra ten years on their sentences, yet the same day the Birmingham prison riots started a prisoner charged with hostage taking during a protest over poor conditions was acquitted after the governor gave evidence about the conditions he was protesting over.

Despite this coincidence, much of the wilfully ignorant press has sided with wilfully ignorant politicians, “challenged” in the main by hypocritical leftists who are against prison, kind of, but lack the coherence to follow through their slogans. The news reporting is of course pretty standard. Liz Truss says bad, a prison governor says not good, an inspector says he didn’t notice anything, the prison officers’ association gives a quote and each and every lie about the authorities “taking back control” is faithfully repeated by servile journalists.

In all this of course the prisoners and their interlocutors are simply left out. For parts of the “tough punishment” right, prisoners have no right to speak; on the sanctimonious left, “prisoners” gain support but actual prisoners of course don’t. They’re too scary and unsafe for snowflakes, so are replaced at best by the odd criminologist tutored in being inoffensive.

Consequently, very little is known about what happened, but opinions abound, even among those who should know better. The inability of much of the left to coherently criticise the law, the courts and prison prevents them from seeing this for what it is. At base it is a rebellion against a legal system further degraded the austerity activists campaign so hard, and so unsuccessfully, against.

Indeed it is the accused and convicted who are some of the most significant victims of austerity, uncool as it is to say. Cuts to legal aid and to court funding have seen magistrates quit and lawyers protesting, and have no doubt resulted in innumerable miscarriages of justice.

The austerity inflicted on the criminal law system has opened the door to privatisation. In prison this has led to smaller numbers of inexperienced staff with low morale and little commitment replacing seasoned, experienced staff. They simply cannot cope with the increased number of prisoners in a decreasing amount of space overseen by a decreasing number of staff.

This has led to overcrowding on a massive scale, the resultant lock-ins for prisoners of around 23 hours a day, cuts to prison facilities, including libraries and educational facilities have been causing tension for years. Prison campaigners and a few prison bloggers have been trying to bring this approaching calamity to the attention of anyone who will listen for what seems like forever, but of course nobody who can do anything will listen.

Indeed, it is unpopular to give reasons for such actions. Just as with the 2011 riots, the participants in the prison rebellion are as depoliticised as they are dehumanised. “It’s not what I would do” is the refrain. Yet of course those who take such an easy route haven’t been there and don’t know. They’ve been protected in both their gated communities on the right and their safe spaces on the left.

From the unthinking right we hear variously that prison is too easy, that they should be locked up more, presumably for 24 hours a day instead of 23 hours, and that they should receive punishment for rioting. Few if any of these people consider for a second that when there are hundreds of angry men in a building, no amount of force will make them conform, especially those with nothing to lose. Some people have to try to hold together the pressure cooker constructed through the gormless ideas of the unthinking right, and it is they who face the grave risks the chatterati escape.

It was without irony that Liz Truss came out to reassure the public that those involved will face “the full force of the law”. The ignorant were reassured, the wise pointed out that they’ve already faced this, which is why they’re in prison.

The voices that might be heard are governors calling for fewer prisoners and more staff, but this does nothing to alleviate the problem. Others call for prisons to be more fundamentally reformed. The occasional well-meaning but naïve Guardian reader will have seen a meme referring to Scandinavian prisons – we need to be more like them.

Unfortunately for the sanctimonious left and the “lock ‘em up” right, the reality is much more complex and much more difficult. Simply put, prison doesn’t work. The reasons are plentiful and have been recited enough times for me not to bother. But there’s a deeper problem too. The court system doesn’t work, structurally and practically. Rich, bitter white men and women sit in judgement of poor, rough, impolite men whose lifeworlds are unknown to those judging them. The class basis of acceptable behaviour is clear. The class basis of access to “justice” is clear.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that prison populations are made up of disadvantaged men. But neither is that the root problem. The root problem is the whole conceptualisation of “criminal”. Forget the notion that so many “criminals” are innocent. It’s more to the point that criminalisation dehumanises human beings. All criminals are humans. Many mistakes and regret them. Many intentionally commit criminal acts as career criminals. Others have profound mental health issues or addiction problems. None should be dehumanised. The notion that locking those people in a room for 23 hours a day might have some beneficial effect is nonsense.

Those who made mistakes will simply find their lives destroyed and thereby struggle to become productive members of society. Many of those will conform to their new identities, or indeed become broken by their ostracisation. That helps nobody. For career criminals prison is just part of the job. It is an opportunity to catch up with friends, and often to make a lot of money out of the more lucrative drugs and commodity trades in prison. Addicts and those with mental health issues simply find themselves in hopeless positions, knowing they’ll probably never re-enter society but end up on the streets on release.

Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens (i.e. criminals who haven’t been caught) regard their alter-egos with contempt, alienating and marginalising them, removing any last vestige of hope in reform. Those for whom the Daily Mail agitate for longer sentences have no hope in the first instance, so have no reason to behave in prison. The whole process, from arrest on the street, to police cell, lawyer meetings, court and then prison removes the normal communicative capacities that outsiders have. So what’s left? Ostracised, marginalised, dehumanised, what alternative is there?

For some on the sanctimonious left, there’s a slogan pulled out for when the “right people” riot – Martin Luther King’s quip that riot is the language of the unheard. It’s not a bad sentiment if applied coherently, for there are none so unheard as prisoners. We must start listening and changing how we think of them.


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