This text is one of my favourites from our new issue, it’s written by John Bowden who is currently incarcerated, and is full of good insight, wit and understanding. The prison struggle is integral to our wider fight for a more just society. The shift to a law and order state should be of massive concern to us all, and as usual this move will target working class communities disproportionately. Lumpen will always stand in solidarity with those incarcerated and if you know anyone inside who is writing and would like to see their work published then get at us! There are no wasted words in this one...
The chief dynamic of progressive change within prisons is not cosmetic liberal reform intended to achieve little more than a superficial legitimisation of the prison system, but rather a fundamental shift and change in the balance and relationship of institutional power between jailer and jailed. If prisons as total institutions of punishment and control are intrinsically characterised by the total disempowerment of the imprisoned, then only the collective empowerment of prisoners can significantly and meaningfully change the relationship of power that structurally defines prisons.
How then is this collective empowerment of prisoners to be achieved? If the essential purpose and function of prison is to disempower and totally control prisoners, then any attempt by prisoners to self-organise and collectively empower is inevitably responded to with repression and punishment, especially focused against those perceived as “ringleaders”. The entire control and discipline apparatus of prison regimes is structured specifically to prevent collective solidarity and defiance, so any attempt by prisoners to self-organise as a dynamic of institutional change inevitably generates conflict and confrontation with those responsible for enforcing and maintaining “Good Order and Discipline”. Within prisons. Prisoner uprisings or riots are the inevitable outcome and result of that conflict.
During the 1960s and 1970s there were frequent prisoner’s uprisings in British high-security jails that resulted in a shift in the balance of power within those institutions and a liberalisation of their regimes. What especially characterised prisoner society in those jails was powerful bonds of group solidarity and unity, and an organisational ability to resist and challenge attempts by prison staff to impose arbitrary authority or abuses of power. The organisational influence of imprisoned Irish prisoners of war contributed significantly to prisoner solidarity at the forefront of organised expressions of resistance and protest. The direct relationship between collective prisoner solidarity ,empowerment and radically improved prison regimes was very evident in British high-security jails at this time, whilst the attempt of liberal prison reformists to change and improve conditions prevailing in, for example local remand prisons with their transient population of short-term and remand prisoners, achieved absolutely nothing.
During the 1990s the prison authorities were successful in completely regaining control of British high-security prisons following two high-profile escapes from Parkhurst and Whitemoor prisons. A prison system investigation into the escapes claimed a direct connection between the relationship of power that had developed in British high-security jails between prisoners and staff that had “conditioned” those staff to virtually allow prisoners to run the jails and consequently compromise security. Prison security, the investigation concluded, was not just about walls and bars, but was also more effectively assured by dis-empowering prisoners and subjecting them to greater control; the term “dynamic security” was used to describe what in effect was a counter-revolution in high-security prisons, and over the following two decades the segregation of prisoner “ringleaders” in Close Supervision Centres and the introduction of the Enhanced Privileges Scheme, whereby rights previously won by struggle and protest would now be “privileges” to be “earned” by “good behaviour”, effectively shifted the balance of power back to the advantage of prison guards. The consequence of the subsequent total dis-empowerment of prisoners in high-security jails was a serious deterioration of regimes in those jails and an increase in the use of staff violence to silence and subdue those prisoners who fought back.
Prison society is essentially a microcosm of the wider society beyond the walls, and the increased dis-empowerment and repression of prisoners over the last two and three decades reflected a social climate of increasing intolerance, oppression and the stigmatisation of marginalised groups, as well as the generalised dis-empowerment of the working class generally. The increasing replacement of the welfare state with the Law and Order state is turning prisons into virtual concentration camps and the dynamic of resistance to that must originate and find expression within the institutions of repression themselves. It is also the duty of those individuals and groups who profess a commitment to the struggle for radical social and political change to recognise and support the prison struggle as an integral part of that struggle.
Traditionally, the radical and revolutionary Left in Britain has been blind to the prison struggle, unlike in those countries and societies where the prison experience is an inevitable consequence and part of the wider political struggle and therefore recognised as an important part and element of that struggle. By comparison, the British Left, with its largely educated middle-class composition, has related to the imprisoned as the “Lumpen Proletariat”, or that element of the most marginalised poor least relevant to the political struggle or even a potential danger to it. In so-called “Liberal Democracies” it is the poorest and most socially disadvantaged who populate the prisons, whilst those allowed the freedom to engage in non-violent political activity rarely experience penal repression or state violence, and so see or experience no connection with the imprisoned, or an inevitable relationship between political struggle and imprisonment. Whereas in other more openly repressive societies the prison struggle is recognised as an intrinsic part of the wider social and political struggle, in “liberal democracies” like the UK, the prison experience is mostly known only to those existing on the outer margins of that society, and those viewed as beyond the pale even by those claiming a commitment to revolutionary struggle. In fact, it is the most oppressed and marginalised that represent potentially the most revolutionary element in society, and this group is to be found most plentiful within the ghettos and prisons. In the 1960s and 1970s in American prisons the high degree of political consciousness amongst prisoners, especially Afro-American prisoners, created a dynamic that fuelled resistance in the Afro-American community generally and provided political inspiration and direction to groups such as the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army. For such groups at that time the prison struggle represented an integral part of the revolutionary struggle generally.
Prison as an institution and system is a core weapon of the state repression and any movement of real political struggle must be necessity focus resources and activity on supporting the anti-prison struggle, especially when that struggle is fought from within the prisons themselves.
An important opportunity for showing such support and solidarity is through recognising the struggle of prisoners against their enslavement by the Prison Industrial Complex and the increasing exploitation of cheap prison labour by private multinational corporations. The increasing privatisation or “contracting out” of state services to private, profit-driven companies has caused the selling-off of whole chunks of the prison system to private corporations, who are utilising their ownership of prisoner labour to extract maximum profit under conditions of overt coercion and forced labour. This represents straight forward modern slavery. In a hidden part of our society there are literally thousands of men and women forced to work in prison factories for as little as £10 per week, and the government is financially complicit in this slavery and willingly provides it under the veneer of “Law and Order” to obscure and justify it. In terms of the prison struggle, the wholesale enslavement of prisoners by private corporations is a front of conflict that all anti-capitalist groups should actively take sides in, representing as it does the savage exploitation of one of the most dis-empowered and marginalised groups in society. One struggle. One fight.