Strategy and tactics in the struggle for prisoners’ rights

In FRFI 209 Ben Gunn wrote about how he envisaged the Association of Prisoners (AOP) taking forward struggles for improved conditions and treatment. In subsequent issues John Bowden and Dermot Donovan responded. Here we print Ben’s response to their criticisms and a further response from John Bowden. (Both have been edited due to lack of space.) Further contributions are welcome

Ben Gunn

Some people have allowed wishful thinking and ideology to obscure their intelligence in their criticism of the AOP.

Some believe the 1990 riots were the start of positive change. I disagree. Whilst the 1990s did see physical refurbishments across the estate, including in-cell sanitation, it would be a lie to claim that this was a direct result of the riots. These critics overlook the range of new mechanisms brought in to control us after the riots: the IEP Scheme; Sentence Planning; Volumetric Control; MDT; risk assessments; offending behaviour courses; NOMS; C&R; Close Supervision Centres ... I could go on.

Even on the most positive reading, the riots got us the Ombudsman, TV and bogs. That’s it. On the other hand, it saw us being wrapped up in a mesh of control mechanisms that mess with our daily lives to an extent greater than ever known in prison history. It can easily be argued that the 1990 riots were a disaster. And I say this as someone who was on the roof at Bristol in 1990, not as some armchair historian.

I think that violence has only one use – as self-defence against brutality. When a prison is out of control, when governors, area managers and IMB cannot or will not restrain the worst excesses of staff, then rebellion is a just method in a just cause. Think of the old Dartmoor or Scrubs in the late 1990s as examples where violence was the only means left to prisoners to defend themselves.

Apart from that, I believe violent rebellion would be wrong on every level. Politically, it would be a disaster for prisoners’ rights, playing into the hands of those who characterise us as animals. Practically, it would lead to even greater methods of control.

This doesn’t mean we are powerless. What critics overlook (whilst calling me naive) are the lessons from other situations where one side seems to have the preponderance of force. That lesson is the one that Gandhi taught the British Empire and Vaclav Havel taught the Czechoslovak dictatorship. The lesson is simple – whilst the system may have Force, it is the masses that have Power.

Without our co-operation, the system could not function for a day. We cook the meals, clean the landings, march to the workshops, populate psychology courses and walk to our cells at bang-up. We walk into servitude day after day, accept endless indignities, and say nothing. All we have to do is say ‘not one more step’, and there aren’t enough segregation blocks or privilege warning forms in existence to deal with it.

My critics (who never offer solutions of their own) also argue that we should never enter negotiations with the system. How the hell is that meant to work? Movements need not specify their end and the aims of the AOP are but a beginning. But to say, ‘no talks’ is to guarantee that nothing is ever achieved. It is yet another self-serving avenue to excuse our own inaction. The only way forward, short of global socialism popping up soon, is to alter the balance of power within prisons. Once that is achieved, the system will be forced to talk. And are we meant to send them away? Or are we to sit and negotiate so that prisoners can begin to exercise influence over how we are treated? That is the beginning. History will reveal how it ends.

John Bowden

Ben Gunn’s response illustrates exactly why prisoners should treat the AOP with caution. His position is essentially this: any radical ideas that support the struggle of prisoners in a revolutionary way are foolish and false; violent protests and open resistance are counter-productive and inevitably result in even worse treatment; the only way forward is negotiation with the gaolers. This message is one frequently sent out by those who administer the system - ‘Don’t have anything to do with dangerous and radical ideas; if you openly resist and fight back your punishment will be harsher; bring your grievances to us and we’ll decide whether they’re legitimate or not’.

Gunn says that violent rebellion is only ever justified in self-defence against brutality. What does he imagine it was that provoked prisoners into open rebellion in virtually every single major prison riot? Parkhurst 1969, Hull 1976, Gartree 1972, Strangeways 1990 etc were all provoked by prison officer brutality and violence. Prisoners do not rise up and suffer even greater retributive repression unless the brutality they’re already subjected to becomes unendurable.

While criticising those who embrace a revolutionary analysis, Gunn offers an ideology of his own – a Gandhi-like philosophy of peaceful moral protest. Maybe he would tell us how the poor neo-colonised masses of India were liberated from extreme economic poverty and political powerlessness by Gandhi’s peaceful protests, or indeed why Vaclav Havel was feted by the imperialists but never by the poor of Czechoslovakia? The reality is, of course, that the concept of peaceful protest is an absurdity, based on the ridiculous belief that those who wield total power are susceptible to moral persuasion. Apparently prisoners should spontaneously become aware of their common interest, en masse withdraw co-operation and, while infused with ‘people’s power’, seek out negotiation with a morally responsive prison system. Ben understands nothing of the realities of power or political struggle or what prisons truly represent in a society viciously divided by class, wealth and power.

The AOP has nothing to offer prisoners beyond an illustration of how collaboration is often dressed up and disguised as reform.

FRFI 213 February / March 201