Prison Inc: An Interview With The Maker of Injustice – A Film About Prisons and Crime In 21st Century Neoliberal UK

As plans are unveiled for four more prisons in the UK – creating “up to 10,000 modern prison places by 2020” – and as the prison population, suicide in inmates, abuse, mental health problems, and rioting are all reaching record levels, surely it is time to reevaluate our methods of “serving justice”.

Appalled both by the way that our society is treating its convicted criminals, and by the silence and lack of solidarity on all sides of the political spectrum, one radical film-maker is seeking to spark debate and shed some much needed light on an issue we have all too happily turned our backs on.

[Paddy Vipond] Could you please introduce yourself and your experience as a film-maker. Why do you do what you do? What methods do you use?

[Injustice] Film is a good vehicle for certain narratives. It is also an awful vehicle! There have always been a number of forms of film making, which can be crudely divided into the conventional narratives and those which challenge them. I tend towards to latter. The reason for this is political – the frameworks through which people think about and articulate the world around them are far from straight-forward. They are, if you like, akin to a container into which you might pour a substance – no matter how the substance may adapt or flow, its shape is determined by the container. It is the same with our thoughts – they are constrained by the frameworks in which they are contained. The trick of good film making is to try to shift the framework, to change the language. And that is often a very unfashionable task!

Largely Latin American Third Cinema sought to obliterate these frameworks, using techniques such as montage to disrupt frameworks, or to take the side of the oppressed without consideration of the dominant modes of thought. Unfortunately, such approaches have also become incorporated into the system, where so many seek to disrupt for the sake of disruption – it’s fashionable to “resist – en route to a safe career in official activism or institutional politics. Indeed the styles of activism and of radical film making have now been adopted in advertising campaigns and PR. Activism and activist film making has become sanitised by modern-day puritans.

Can you tell me why you have chosen to make a film on this latest topic? 

Michel Foucault called prison ‘one of the hidden regions of our social system, one of the dark zones of our life’. For all the adoration of Foucault and other radical intellectuals on the left, the domination of much public discourse by the middle classes has meant that the radical intent of Foucault and other left intellectuals came to be forgotten. In particular, the middle-class liberal left has conspired with the state to bureaucratise their demands. We see fashionable causes taken up as activists compete to win the title of most oppressed, so the black, Jewish, lesbian queer sits atop the throne, surveying oppressed subjects from her seat at Oxford University, raining fire down upon the dreadlocked white guy from Shepton Mallet because his hairstyle is oppression through appropriation. Toilet signs have become rallying calls, and punctuation in the grammar of life has become an obsession of middle class activists who wouldn’t know oppression if their lives depended on it.

In the meantime the actual victims of society are warehoused in the prison system. They are dumped and forgotten about. The vast majority of prisoners are poor, working class men with mental health problems from brutal backgrounds, unemployed, homeless, often addicts with little education and even less hope.

The statistics on prison are startling. 47% of prisoners have no qualifications, 41% were excluded from school, 68% had no job before prison, and 15% were homeless before incarceration. The levels of mental health problems among prisoners are astronomical. It’s probably unfashionable to mention that 80% of prisoners are male. Prisons do nothing to reform or rehabilitate prisoners, so even those who went in with a job, a home and sound mental health, will leave with no job, no home and severe mental health problems. They are further marginalised, ostracised, and left hopeless and angry. Most will likely never recover their lives, so it is no surprise that most get sent back to prison within a year. It’s a sign of the crisis of political rationality that “society” thinks that the best way to resolve a problem is to make it far, far worse. It is perpetual oppression, the most intense “intersectionality” there is.

So, needless to say, prisons aren’t working?

I don’t think anyone in their right might believes prison works. I sat in a room with a bunch of philosophers, campaigners, ex-convicts and their families the other week. The philosophers spent a long time contemplating why we have prisons. I suggested that perhaps there is no reason other than that we have them. They’re a hangover from our past. For all the talk of civilisation, we are not.

But this film is not just about prison. The more one researches, the more one realises how the whole thing works (or not) within a social system. The legal system, itself the epitome of petty bourgeois values, is not a justice system. It is a system for the administration of law. Politicians and the media whip up hysteria and the legal system quells it. It takes the most complex matters and translates them into the most simplistic terms to satisfy simple minds.

Even for a critic the failings of the legal system are shocking. In researching the film it is startling to see how many cases of wrongful conviction there are. And even those who “deserve” to be punished, the “guilty”, are never simply bad people – to think so, one is forced to think there to be a quasi-religious concept such as evil, which takes people over. Of course this is not the case. This point was reinforced in our interview with a prison governor of 34 years who told us:

“Once you work in prisons and see the numbers of prisoners in jails, although some are serious criminals, most are no different to normal people. You get to understand, you could be where they are”.

Those prisoners who have “no excuse” tend to be people who have had a catastrophic moment in time, for which their lives and the lives of their loved ones are ruined. It takes a special kind of ignorance to think that destroying lives might result in rehabilitation or be socially useful.

And why have you chosen to make this film now?

I followed the 2016-17 prison riots. It was disgusting to see the media and public reaction to them. Campaigners have been warning for years that miscarriages of justice, procedural failings, cuts, and awful conditions within prisons would cause them to erupt. But as so few care about prisoners, the government sees no reason to act. So more and more victims of society are stuffed into overcrowded pressure-cookers.

The immediate response from the right-wing media and the sanctimonious left was to punish those who were rioting. This warranted a response of sorts. Whilst my initial idea of the film, in the tradition of Third Cinema was to use only prisoners as subjects, it became immediately apparent that prison workers suffer too. Whatever one thinks of the punishment solution, it seems that few care that there are people who have to deliver that further punishment – the prison officers. They are also the ones whose lives are at risk in prison. A few dozen officers trying to control several hundred hopeless and angry inmates will face grave risks, and so the baying mob threaten to punish not just prisoners but prison workers too.

The path that opened up presented more shocking statistics. There’s a death in prison every three days. Most of these are suicides. Of 80,000 prisoners, there are something like 24,000 assaults each year. If this were happening in Iran or the USA, British activists would be holding vigils. It says a great deal about hypocrisy that it’s happening right here, right now, and nobody seems to care.

What would you say to those people that think those in prison deserve to be there, and thus deserve whatever occurs inside?

I’m sure many readers will think to themselves “well they shouldn’t have committed crimes”. The thing is, and I think this is what makes our film different to the nonsense broadcast on the BBC and other corporate media – crimes don’t just exist. There’s some disagreement on the exact figures, but the Blair government alone introduced more than 3000 new criminalised acts, most of which targeted poor and working class communities. The solution to a failing society seems to be to make it fail further!

We interviewed one ex-prisoner, who now can’t be in the film because he fears for his future, whose “crime” was to flee certain death in Iran for publishing a magazine that the government didn’t like. On arrival in the UK he was arrested and then sent to Wormwood Scrubs for 2 months and then Canterbury Prison for 2 months. Welcome to the UK! (Funnily enough, as I wrote this I’ve just seen a Tweet from Diane Abbott calling for the release of a British prisoner in Iran. The hypocrisy of the liberal left never ceases to amaze me)

Of course there are those who chose to commit crimes – two of our interviewees are such people. But both were from troubled backgrounds and were beaten and abused as kids. Is it irrational to think that they’d have been better off with care and encouragement than punishment?

Then there are the innocent – I can’t imagine what it must be like to languish in a cell for 23 hours a day knowing one didn’t do what one was accused of. Indeed, once one has been convicted of one thing, one is then fair game, as a journalist told me. There’s little one can do to defend oneself from further allegations, especially from a prison cell.

So there’s a huge crisis right now. The danger, which is perpetuated by the awful films on the BBC, is that the crisis is one of prison management. It is not – it is a social and political crisis.

The context of this film (Injustice) comes during some of the worst prison riots that this country has seen. Personally, I have seen little of the issue raised in any of the media organisations or news agencies, and despite thinking I am well-informed and have well-informed friends, I am yet to see/hear any of them discuss the recent events either. Why do you think that is?

I refer you back to Foucault’s comment about prisons being a hidden region. The whole point of criminalisation is to sweep social problems under the carpet. As Angela Davis said, ‘prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings’. Indeed for the media to properly recognise prisons as a reflection of social problems will threaten the social order. To consider the riots, one has to consider causation, and in this world of prejudice and immediate gut reaction, that’s not happening.

The riots were a way of those social problems exploding out of the pressure cooker, just like in 2011 with the nationwide riots. And just with the 2011 riots, discussion of causation is pretty much forbidden (as it is in crime more generally). To admit these causal relations would lead to a path that no politician is willing to step onto, lest she or he incur the wrath of the indignant majority and their cheerleaders in the media.

So the causes and consequences of the riots cannot be considered in public discourse, any more than those of the 2011 riots. Indeed, there was an inquiry into the Strangeways Riots of 1990. There were strong recommendations of what to do to avoid it repeating, but none of these were taken up. I’m surprised that prison officer associations haven’t sued the government on health and safety grounds!

But of course, were the government to act, it would have to admit that the whole social system needs to change and it cannot do this. It’s not just prisons that are a system of social control, but also the way in which we think about them, our frameworks of thought about them.

There’s a more pernicious element here too. The discourse of criminality is long-standing, and we’ve not moved much beyond medieval times in terms of the way we think of offending public sensibility. People still want to burn witches, because in so doing society is cleansed and “law abiding citizens” (of which in my experience there are none) can feel better about themselves. As I keep putting it to people, a criminal is just an ordinary person who has been caught for something.

But in the public imaginary and from all sides of politics the black and white dichotomy of criminal and citizen holds firm. It is what our society is based on: in groups and out groups. Prisoners are the most out of the out groups and deserve everything they get, they are the sub-humans.

The austerity measures introduced initially by the Con-Dem coalition, and then continued under the Conservative government, have impacted on many areas (disabled, students, job seekers, NHS, etc), have they also impacted on the prison system, and if so, what effect has this had?

Well this is a big issue here. And it’s another area that demonstrates the inconsistency of the liberal left. The riots themselves are certainly linked. Conditions in prison are awful at the best of times, but prison offers are paid very little for a very dangerous and demanding job. As more and more prisoners are stuffed in, there are fewer staff to deal with them as the government makes cuts there too. Prisons are being privatised and even the probation service has been privatised, so there are the usual problems associated with privatisation. I think it was Birmingham where a riot kicked off and the company running it just walked away, leaving the tax payer to pick up the bill, with the company continuing to extract profits.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The cuts to social services, mental health services, housing services and increasing unemployment all contribute both to increasing crime rates and to the sorts of behaviour that have now been criminalised. Lots of people seem to care about beggars being criminalised, but few seem to care about the criminals they then become.

At the same time that there is an increasing “crime rate” the court system and legal aid have been cut. Cases are rushed through – they are administered rather than heard. It is not particularly controversial to assume that with these cuts there are more and more wrongful convictions. There is no record of miscarriages of justice, but if there were, they would include only those proven ones, not the countless cases that we don’t know about as forms of representation, spaces for hearings and the like are cut. So I expect lots more innocent people to be found guilty.

On your IndieGogo site, where you are seeking financial support for Injustice, you mention that “Injustice tells the story from the view of prisoners, prison workers, campaigners & criminologists explain the prison crisis and the social crisis it reflects.” Briefly, what is this “social crisis” that you speak of?

The social crisis occurs on a number of levels. On one hand we have a crisis of social care. Neoliberal individualism has shattered communities and the forms of solidarity that they generate. The state has now been withdrawn from most of its social roles but there’s nothing to replace it. As one of our interviewees put it, “if people think society doesn’t give a shit about them, why should they give a shit about society”.

The activist left could learn a lot from this dynamic. It has been strategically inept since its take-over by liberal middle classes, preferring to shriek at any given enemy than try to strategise outside of its self-referential bubble. There are huge problems in this respect, but I can’t go into them now. Suffice to say, screaming “racist” and “misogynist” at Brexit voters did nothing to benefit the remain camp – it just made people dig their heels in. Again, the now unfashionable sociologists of the 1970s have a lot to offer – consider labelling theory for instance: If you call someone a name for long enough, they’ll adopt it. At the very least insulting someone merely makes them insult back; push and push back; action, reaction. It’s characteristic of spoiled middle classes that they don’t consider normal social dynamics to affect them.

In this sense we see a merging of social crisis and political crisis. We are witnessing a polarisation of society of the sort not seen before. Both the liberal left and far-right share a commitment to identity politics in which particular subjectivities are prioritised and others bracketed out as the “Other”. Each refers to the other as irrational and prejudice, removing any basis for a politics as such: there are fascistic characteristics of each and as such political claims are formulated within self-referential bubbles and seem intent on prioritising their agendas at the expense of the “Other”, of the constituted enemy. The “Other” is then entrenched as an opponent, to be defeated. But of course that defeat will never come. As such the only result is further and deeper social control and social repression that is mediated through criminalisation.

Strangely, despite being a resident and citizen of the UK, I have read and seen more on the US prison system than I have on the UK one. I can tell you that across the pond they have for-profit prisons, and the largest number of people incarcerated in the world, that the system and the society are racist, but with regards to the UK system, I can say very little. Why do you think there has been less of a focus on the UK? And how does the UK system compare to the US system that we all hear so much about?

Again this goes back to the arrogance of the British liberal left. What we find is cognitive dissonance, which stems from a multiplicity of sources. It is always easier to criticise other countries than it is to reflect on one’s own, just as it is easier to blame someone else’s politics than it is to look at the shortcomings of one’s own.

To unpack this a little, we’ve shown interviews from the film to a number of people. One group of working class men were able to tell me story after story of their friends who’d been stitched up, wrongfully convicted and so on. They were transfixed by some of the stories in the film and afterwards said “I knew this happened in the US, but not here”. I reminded them of the stories they’d told me, and it became clear to them, they made the connection. It’s not that one country is worse than another – the problem is the status of crime and criminalisation in neoliberal society.

You have to understand here the status of law, crime and punishment in any given society. The mythological belief that the legal system works is what holds a given control system together. Massive resources are spent within the legal system to ensure its legitimacy is not generally questioned. There may be the odd example of a miscarriage of justice, but these exceptions prove the rule that it normally works. But of course it doesn’t. Consider what journalists are told about the justice system when they train as journalists: they are told about the principle of Open Justice, as if it were a fact rather than an ideological concept. The principle of Open Justice (i.e. the right of journalists to report on court cases) holds that “justice must be seen to be done”. That’s why hearings are public. They don’t hold that justice must be done, just that it is seen to done. So the whole notion of court reporting is one in which journalists are willing, or at least naïve, accomplices to the state.

That principle is also what allows journalists to get juicy stories that they make more scurrilous to attract readers. While many on the left turn to the liberal media such as The Guardian or the Independent for more favourable news, they don’t realise they are commercial operations like any other – they feed a segment of the market with the sort of junk news they like to hear. They get fed their scandals just as the Daily Mail readers get fed theirs. So at this point legal stories reinforce or confirm biases.

It is not very common for the media to report miscarriages, but it is even less common of for all court cases and all legal principles to be questioned. The basic position of the British press on the left and on the right is that the system works, but might experience hiccups. To suggest it simply doesn’t work would be discombobulating.

On the other hand, it is easy to point to the USA and suggest it doesn’t work there. We can sit and sneer at them as racist, while the proportion of black men in UK prisons is twice the proportion of black men in the general population. One of the biggest documentary series of late is Making a Murder. British liberals flocked to it, but failed to take anything home as it were – does it not happen here too? Is not every “criminal” made in the courts and media? Is it inconceivable that every case is Making a Criminal?

Lots of people tell me how it is terrible in the US because prisons are private, or prisoners are provided as cheap labour. I’ve listened to convicts on works gangs here telling me in astonishment about the documentary 13th. I reply that that’s what they’re doing here too, and ask why they think they don’t realise it. The criminal processing system in the UK is full of unpaid labour – indeed it’s what you’re forced to do should you avoid prison.

The prisons here are privatised too, as is the probation service, community service and most aspects on the punishment system. It’s absurd and it doesn’t work! But big profits are being made and conditions are deteriorating, while convicts are processed as human rubbish. But to return to the main point – it doesn’t matter to most people because prisoners are dehumanised and forgotten. Who cares if they suffer? Who cares if they’re stuck in a concrete box for 23 hours a day going slowly mad? Who cares if their children are reduced to poverty? Who cares about the suicides, self-harm and assaults?

It’s sickening that when on release they might become homeless, suffer mental health problems or addiction problems and then Liberal England wakes up to look after them. Suddenly they are deserving of pity. Same for the right wing – I don’t suppose many if any of those who turn up to Remembrance Sunday know that last year alone 2,500 ex-soldiers were sent to prison. Certainly the likes of Britain First are stuck, because the contradiction between their fascistic position on crime (which is not unlike that of the liberal left) and their support for soldiers is utterly insurmountable.

While the British liberal left is happy to campaign to get Americans off death row, or to complain about this or that injustice, I don’t suppose many know about things like Joint Enterprise (JE)– wherein you can go to prison for just being around when a crime is committed. We are going to interview a woman whose brother is serving 16 years for being around when someone was murdered. CCTV footage was presented in court showing him trying to stop it, but JE is JE. It’s a pity there seems to be no activists trying to support such victims or overturn the law – but then it does tend to target working class men, so it must be part of their privilege.

Ultimately, all of this is why we need to make this film. It seems nobody cares except a small group of ex-prisoners and prisoner families.

Injustice is a film about crime and prison.
You can support this radical project by donating through their IndieGogo page here.
Follow updates through their blog here.

And/or watch and share the trailer here.

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