British Prisons - a different sort of crisis

The first weeks of 1995 saw prisons hitting the headlines on a daily basis. There was widespread talk of crisis and calls from all sides for the resignation of the Prison Service Director General and the Home Secretary. But was this crisis real or was it largely fabricated by the media and other interested parties? Nicki Jameson examines the issues.

Since the courageous attempted escape from Whitemoor in September 1994, the media has been full of 'scandal in our prisons'. The News of the World ran its coverage of the Whitemoor escape (entitled 'How did the scum get the guns?') straight into another article about the apparently easy life in Kirkham open prison. The Kirkham article included a photograph, supposedly of drunken prisoners partying in a cell, surrounded by bottles of spirits. And the paper set up a hotline for readers to report further instances of prisoners leading a cushy life at the taxpayer's expense. Tales of luxury, lobster and long-distance phonecalls abounded until the Home Secretary could publicly 'joke' that the contract for a new private prison would not be awarded to Butlins, and Tony Blair could respond that in the past it had not been Butlins which had run the gaols, but the Savoy. This kind of garbage surfaced everywhere - from The Sun to Panorama, which entitled its programme on the Whitemoor breakout 'Carry on escaping'.

Although such publicity was embarrassing for the government and Prison Service, it was also of use to them as they sought to further crack down on prisoners' rights and entitlements. Indeed for varying reasons a high profile but profoundly dishonest examination of the apparent failings of the prison system suited the Prison Service, the Prison Officers Association (POA), the government and the opposition parties.

At the beginning of January alleged serial killer Frederick West committed suicide in Winson Green prison, Everthorpe prison in Humberside was beset by riots on two consecutive nights and three prisoners described as 'extremely dangerous' escaped from Parkhurst, remaining at large for five days. In a different climate these events would not even have been discussed in the same breath. The death of Frederick West would inevitably have made headlines but had it occurred at some other time, the 'prison neglect' aspect would probably never have been mentioned. Prison riots on the scale of the one at Everthorpe occur at least once a year and often receive scant national news coverage. Escapes from high security gaols, such as Whitemoor and Parkhurst, are much less common but the degree of publicity when they do happen is also extremely variable. Ronnie Pewter's 1991 escape from Parkhurst Special Security Unit was accorded hardly a murmur compared to the saturation coverage given to Keith Rose, Matthew Williams and Andrew Rodger.

The Prison Service - modern, technological repression

The subtext to the 'crisis' is a battle which has been raging for several decades between the government and its Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association. Lining up with the latter in the current round are the Labour Party and increasingly large sections of the media.

Today's Prison Service sees itself as modern, managerial, stream-lined, an industry for the 1990s. It wants clean, efficient and cheap electronically-locking penitentiaries, neatly packaged, ready for privatisation if necessary, and will cut manpower and other costs wherever possible, relying instead on state-of-the-art technological repression. The Prison Service is no longer a government department but a separately managed Agency. This has caused huge rows about the degree to which the Home Secretary can be held responsible for its actions. Those who run the Service are not naive enough to assume automatic co-operation from prisoners and have embarked on a programme to maximise divisions and buy compliance. Prisoners, however, are not the only obstacle standing between the Prison Service and its vision of a perfect punishment industry. The other fly in the ointment is the Prison Officers Association.

The POA -old-fashioned brutality

The Prison Officers Association gets on even less well with the new Agency than it did with its predecessors, the Home Office Prison Service and Prison Department. The POA does not want managerial interference in the running of the gaols; it wants its members to rule the roost, with complete power over prison regimes, staffing levels and how prisoners are treated. Like the Prison Service it wants compliant prisoners, but it prefers the tried, tested and labour-intensive techniques of thuggery to the more 'modern' methods of repression.

In defence of its members and their jobs, the POA will make any claim, no matter how wild, about the dangers from murderous prisoners (a prison officer was last killed by a prisoner in 1923) and will attribute any crisis to understaffing. So persistent is the refrain that in 1983 when 38 Republican prisoners made a spectacular escape from The Maze, the POA had the gall to blame lack of resources: The Maze at that time had approximately 600 prisoners and 1,000 prison officers. It is widely acknowledged that 'militant' prison officers have actively encouraged prisoners to riot in order to fuel their own disputes.

The antagonism between the different branches of the prison power structure has existed for many years but during the Thatcher era the Prison Department slowly began to defeat the POA. In 1987 it introduced Fresh Start, ending prison officers' overtime and enforcing a 39-hour week. Overtime rewards had been enormous and the long shifts ideal for men happy to grumble about how long and hard they worked but equally keen to work the hours and receive the money.

Today the POA has its back to the wall. Fresh Start, the outlawing of industrial action by prison officers under the Criminal Justice Act, the loss of escort duties to private companies such as Group 4 and Securicor, the opening of private gaols staffed by members of other unions or no union: all these have sliced away at its power. In the light of other privatisations and the wholesale attack on trade unions over the last 15 years, some on the left will doubtless fall into the trap of viewing the POA as progressive and defending it against the government. But the POA is no ordinary trade union. Even by the deplorable standards of British trade unionism, it is a vicious, racist, anti-working class organisation, notorious for the brutality of its members against prisoners.

Since the removal of the power to strike, the POA has resorted to sabotage tactics, such as `by the book manning', described by a prisoner at Walton gaol as 'opening two cells at a time to feed, no exercise, no showers, no visits, no phonecalls ... they say it's not a work to rule and it isn't industrial action either'.

POA spokesmen have never been reticent but now they are never absent from TV, radio or newspapers, endlessly repeating the same message: 'understaffing' and 'danger to our members' and insisting, whatever the incident, that they had already warned it would happen. At Everthorpe staff had uncannily warned of serious undermanning hours before the first riot. At Parkhurst they apparently told management two days before the escape that prisoners might be in possession of a duplicate master-key: particularly disturbing since no keys had been reported lost or stolen, so the only people capable of getting a copy made were prison officers. The implications of this have so far been ignored, except by one-time Parkhurst prisoner Frankie Frazer, who pointed out on radio that the POA was quite capable of organising an escape if it furthered its own agenda, and by right-wing Tory MPs who claimed 'the Prison Officers Association and governors ... have come close to actively encouraging the current crisis.'

Prisoners' rights under attack

Whoever wins this round of the battle between the Prison Service and the POA, the result for prisoners will be the same: yet more attacks on their rights. And the more vitriolic the media coverage of the 'crisis', the easier the attacks can be made. Thus, Michael Howard can decide at a stroke to stop all rehabilitative trips for the 3,500 men and women detained under the Mental Health Act, following a Sun article which `exposed' an incident-free escorted trip by a man who had been in custody since being convicted of multiple manslaughter in 1976. Similarly home leave from prison was cut by nearly half in response to a manufactured 'public outcry'.

Other attacks are being introduced more gradually; some are even disguised as improvements. For example, the Woolf Report into the 1990 uprisings recommended that all prisoners receive a 'contract' or 'compact':

‘If the prisoner's expectations were not fulfilled, he would be entitled to enlist the aid of the Board of Visitors or to invoke the grievance procedures to ensure that the prison did not unreasonably depart from the "contract". As a last resort, the "contract" could provide a platform for judicial review. If the prisoner misbehaves then, as a result of disciplinary proceedings, he could be deprived of certain of his expectations under the "contract".'

‘Compacts' are now being introduced ' in a very different way from that intended by Woolf. All notion of redress or review has gone and prisoners are being compelled to sign an undertaking to conform or lose all `privileges'. Almost all Category C gaols now have such compacts and prisoners refusing them are being moved to higher security dispersal prisons. In the dispersal gaols the system has been less successful as prisoners are more organised to resist. At Full Sutton the prison management attempted to force prisoners to sign compacts before Christmas, threatening that they would be unable to spend private cash if they refused; this cut little ice and almost nobody signed up, with the result that prisoners sent to the punishment block for any reason at all are now being told they must sign before being allowed to return to their wings. The potential outcome is an explosive one.

To add insult to injury, at some gaols prisoners who would willingly sign up for six months good behaviour in return for a move nearer to their families, have not been permitted to do so.

The 'incentives' and 'disincentives' suggested by Woolf are also being moulded to fit the more repressive mood. In December Howard used the publication of the Woodcock Report into the Whitemoor escape to hammer home the message:

‘Idle and disruptive prisoners should not enjoy exactly the same regime conditions as those who are diligent and co-operative. Privileges such as additional visits or extra time out of cells should be earned by good behaviour and lost by misbehaviour.'

Prisoners from around the country have told FRFI about increasing repression. At Parkhurst collective retribution for the escape is being exacted, with prisoners, especially those classified as Category A, being ‘ghosted' daily to other gaols, far from their families. Those who remain are on what the BBC quaintly referred to as a 'Sunday regime': in other words, a virtual lock-down.

At Whitemoor the segregation unit is 'full to the brim every day ... the atmosphere is hostile and very tense and a small spark could ignite the place.' Prisoners there have been denied access to books, newspapers and radios and some who witnessed a recent suicide say they have been prevented from giving statements to the police. Both main wings saw protests and lock-downs on 2-3 January.

In Full Sutton brutality in the segregation unit is once again rife, having abated slightly following pickets of the prison, a police inquiry and adverse local publicity in the summer. One prisoner was recently beaten up by sadistic prison officers who scraped keys along his back.

This escalating repression, together with intensifying overcrowding as the numbers gaoled continue to rise rapidly, is a recipe for a different kind of crisis in the near future. This one will not be manufactured by the media and the POA but will be led, as was the wave of uprisings in 1990, by prisoners who decide to expose the reality currently being implemented behind the smoke-screen. The task of communists and progressive people will be to support that struggle.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 123 – February/March 1995


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