The Association of Prisoners

In 2002, following legal action by then prisoner John Hirst, the Prison Service was forced to accept that Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of association) meant serving prisoners had the right to set up and join ‘representative associations’. The Association of Prisoners (AOP) had been set up shortly before this but did not become active. However, in April 2009, life sentence prisoner Ben Gunn announced via prisoners’ paper Inside Time that he was the AOP’s new General Secretary. Ben invited all prisoners to be involved in the Association. He has written the article below for FRFI. We invite other prisoners to send us theirviews on the AOP and how best it can further the struggles of prisoners.

The essence of prison is power – who has it, who is denied it, and how it is used and abused. And at the heart of the agenda expressed by the AOP are a rebalancing of that power, and a calling to account of those who use it to misuse prisoners.

We are at a unique point in prison history. On the downside, the system has spent the period since the 1990 riots developing a mesh of controls that weaves around each individual prisoner. The changes in the system’s intelligence gathering, the training of riot-control staff, changes in prison architecture and security procedures, all suggest that any attempt at ‘reform through riot’ as in 1990 is likely to fail.

The daily controls created since then comprise a managerialist bog of paperwork and procedures. Led by the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, this web includes risk assessments, sentence planning, parole dossiers, offending behaviour courses – an endless list of seemingly professional tools which are, in reality, responsible for oppressing a whole generation of prisoners. Whilst casual physical brutality and squalor have far from disappeared, most cons find greater frustration arising from dealing with ‘professionals’ in shiny suits who hide behind a mantra of risk and public protection than from dealing with thick-necked landing screws.

This is a new landscape for us to struggle upon. Using violence to fight attitudes and paperwork is attempting to punch fog. But amongst these changes there remain old truths, the most important being that prisons only work because of our co-operation. The landscape may have changed, the means used to oppress us may have become more sophisticated and subtle, but new avenues for struggle have also opened up.

Today, we are allowed to organise. For the first time in British prison history a group has organised in public and the system has had to grin and bear it. We need to capitalise on this and that means encouraging prisoners to reassert their inherent dignity as human beings. The main aim of all that I do is to try to persuade prisoners that we are not helpless, that we don’t have to lower our eyes in the face of being treated as irrelevant.

This calls for action on several levels. On the part of the prisoner on the landing this means looking in the mirror and deciding whether the person staring back is a prisoner or a willing slave. It means refusing to accept as unchallengeable the dozens of decisions made about us every day. It means questioning and challenging each assessment that determines everything from privileges to release, using all legitimate means at our disposal. While many of these arguments will inevitably run into the sand, each time any prisoner refuses to accept being misused fosters the attitude we need – that of being a sovereign individual, unbowed. Persuading people of that alone is worth a struggle.

As individuals grow in self-belief in their inherent worth and power, we need to form networks on the landings, between the wings, across the whole estate. There is a strength in numbers alone, a value in knowing that there are others helping to fight the same battles. Smaller Associations can be formed, challenging local conditions or processes, taking advantage of each others’ knowledge or specialist expertise.

Networks and campaigns are also being developed outside and across the walls. Our broad aims are not necessarily in conflict with reform groups and single-issue campaigners who press for change on our behalf. One of the main aims of the campaign for prisoners to vote in elections is to force those outside to hear our voices.

Change is possible, if we have the courage and fortitude to reach for it. We enjoy the benefits of generations of prisoners who went before us, and it is past battles which have brought us to the point where we are able to organise and support each other. But let us be clear: change doesn’t come from the formation of the AOP; it doesn’t come from the vote or media coverage. These things have their place but change originates within each individual prisoner who decides to refuse to be treated with contempt. And now is the time for each of us to stand up and be counted.

FRFI 209 June / July 2009


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