Swaleside – collective misery will become common purpose

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On 22 December 2016 the fifth ‘serious disturbance’ in English prisons in two months broke out at Swaleside Category B prison in Kent. The unrest throughout the system now seems uncontainable as conditions within most prisons become increasingly inhuman. Long-term prisoner and FRFI contributor John Bowden, who was recently moved back into the English prison system from Scotland, comments from Swaleside.

Following each recent riot the Prison Officers Association (POA) offered its own well-publicised and opportunist explanation for the ‘crisis of control’ now afflicting most prisons: insufficient staff. Whilst it is certainly true that financial cutbacks in prison resources have caused a serious decaying of conditions and infrastructure, as well as reduced staffing levels, the actual cause of the current prisons crisis originates in the ‘get tough’ criminal justice policy of the Tony Blair government, and those that succeeded it.

This is especially true of the Labour government’s introduction of US-style indeterminate sentences which led to the mass imprisoning of mostly young and usually black ‘gang offenders’. The Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), introduced by Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, resulted in the sweeping up of young, marginalised men from inner-city ghettos, who were then dumped in a prisons system already filling up with the products of the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to even petty offending.

The more recent overtly punitive changes to already repressive prison regimes initiated by Tory attack-dog Chris Grayling only sowed more seeds for these riots which now routinely break out. The problem or issue is not simply one of prison understaffing but of how prisons have been increasingly used as dumping grounds for the human consequences of poverty and increasing social misery. In fact, research carried out by Cambridge University (McDermott and King) in the 1980s into the relationship between levels of staff and quality of prison regimes discovered it to be an inverse one – the more guards ‘supervising’ regimes the more oppressive and restrictive those regimes tended to be.

Unfortunately, the recent disturbances have generally been characterised more by nihilism and blind destruction than by any of the type of organised and focused protest which was at the core of the 1990 Strangeways uprising. This in itself is a symptom of the hopelessness and despair that now permeates the prison atmosphere, as evidenced also by dramatic increases in levels of self-harm, suicide and general violence, together with a gang culture that hinders solidarity.

Despite the bleakness of the current situation, it remains clear that the collective misery experienced by all prisoners will eventually translate into a common purpose and identity, and that, as in the past, the prison struggle will form an important front in the universal class struggle.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 255 February/March 2017