Her Majesty’s Pleasure

In the last issue we reported on the economic and political background to mass imprisonment in the United States, where a staggering two million people are behind bars and another five million on probation or parole. This article looks at Britain, where the last decade has seen a massive rise in imprisonment. In both countries it seems clear that over the last 25 years successive governments have accepted that to protect the privileges of their middle class supporters, they need to keep a sizeable section of the working class behind bars. NICKI JAMESON reports.

On 3 September 2004 the prison population of England and Wales was 74,776. This is equivalent to 143 out of every 100,000 people – the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe.

A further 3,509 people are on ‘home detention curfew’, having been released from prison to be monitored by electronic tagging for the last few months of their sentences. Another 200,000 are under the supervision of the probation service: 70% serving ‘community sentences’ and 30% having been released from prison sentences on parole or other forms of post-imprisonment licence. Even without taking into consideration people on bail awaiting trial with curfews, residence and other conditions, or those detained in immigration detention centres or psychiatric institutions, this adds up to some 278,000 people who are subject to imprisonment, probation or parole of some form or another. This is equivalent to 533 out of every 100,000 citizens of England and Wales or one person in every 187.

Thatcher’s war on the working class
In 1901 the average prison population was 15,900 – equivalent to 49 out of 100,000. With various fluctuations and an average rise of 800 per year (males only) continuously from 1946, it had reached 40,000 by 1971.

In 1979 the Conservative Party won the general election and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. She announced there was ‘no such thing as society’ and made it clear she was declaring war on the working class. In her first five years she took on the trade unions, most notably the miners (1984-5), and the Irish Republican movement (1979-81). She attacked ‘municipal socialist’ local councils, capped rates, sold off council houses and prepared for the introduction of the poll tax. The gap between rich and poor began to widen: between 1979 and 1989 the income of the poorest tenth of people fell 6% while that of the richest tenth rose by 46%.

Not surprisingly there was resistance in the shape of strikes, demonstrations and the inner-city uprisings of 1980, 1981 and 1985. The IRA tried unsuccessfully to wipe Thatcher and her Cabinet out at Brighton in 1984.

Just as the police in the US was caught off-guard by the resistance it faced at Watts in 1965 (see FRFI 180), the British police was taken aback in 1981 when it came up against the wrath of the people on the streets in Brixton and other inner-city areas. Turning to the occupying army in the north of Ireland for guidance, the police began, on the one hand, tooling up, obtaining more and better weaponry, armour and communications systems, and, on the other, implementing ‘soft’ policing techniques, gathering ‘low-grade’ intelligence and co-opting community leaders.

In almost inevitable consequence of widening inequality and increasing police power was a rise in imprisonment. However, at this stage it was more a spin-off from punitive policies than a policy in itself and the prison system was not ready for a really massive hike in numbers. Most prisons had been constructed in Victorian times, were already overcrowded and insanitary and were controlled by the vicious thugs of the Prison Officers Association.

Between 1986 and 1991 the prison population was reduced from 46,800 to 44,800 by a series of emergency measures as the government was forced to respond to chronic overcrowding in the decaying prisons. These interventions came too late to prevent massive unrest, repeated rioting and the historic uprising of prisoners throughout the system in 1990.

That uprising, which began at Strangeways prison Manchester on 1 April 1990, marked the turning point in British penal history in the same way the heroic actions of prisoners at Attica in 1971 did in the US. Beneath a thin veneer of concern at the dreadful conditions exposed by the protests, the government made preparations to ensure it would never lose control again.

For a brief period politicians were compelled to state publicly that imprisonment should be a last resort. However preparation was underway for a policy in complete opposition to this sentiment. New, modern, high-security, electronically-locking prisons were commissioned, including, for the first time, privately financed ones, amidst endless debate about how much carrot and how much stick would make the new regimes most effective.

The temporary fall in prison numbers was quickly reversed and from 1993 onwards lip-service to liberalism was replaced by the virulent ‘prison works’ campaign led by then Home Secretary and current Tory leader Michael Howard. All subsequent Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries of both parties have campaigned with increasing fervour for more punishment and incarceration. This is de-
spite the fact that as far as cutting crime goes, prison clearly does not ‘work’. If it did, the US would be the safest and most crime-free country in the world.

Labour continues the war
The Labour Party swept to victory in the 1997 general election, reaping the fruits of the discontent with prolonged Tory rule. However, Labour’s main pre-election pledge was ‘more of the same’. No change to Tory spending plans; no repeal of any repressive laws implemented over the previous 18 years. In fact Blair would do better, go further, interfere where even the Conservatives had not dared. As Larry Elliot, one of the few honest commentators at the time, wrote in The Guardian ‘[having decided that it will not regulate the markets] New Labour will regulate the people instead, imposing a panoply of social controls to ensure that the problems caused by uncontrollable unregulated economy – crime, juvenile delinquency, family breakdown – don’t threaten the comfortable lifestyles of its new middle class constituency.’

A 2004 Institute of Public Policy Research report shows that since 1997 the rich have continued to get richer. The richest 1% of the population increased its share of national income from around 6% in 1980 to 13% in 1999. Between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of wealth held by the wealthiest 10% of the population increased from 47% to 54%.

Policing this unequal society involves large amounts of money and large amounts of rhetoric. While the real aim is to protect the ruling and middle classes and their privilege, it must constantly appear as if new ‘anti-crime’ measures are universal and aimed at the protection of all.

In November 1999 Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw announced: ‘a crusade against crime...five year targets...for the reduction of vehicle crime, of burglary and of robbery,... the biggest ever investment in public CCTV security systems and a new ring-fenced crime fighting fund part of which will be used to enable forces to recruit, train and pay 5,000 new officers’.

Shaw parroted the pop criminology used to justify the New York-style ‘zero tolerance/quality of life’ policing of William Bratton and Rudi Giuliani: ‘there is now very clear evidence that a failure to nip disorder and anti-social behaviour in the bud, to repair vandalised windows or keep truants in school, can lead directly to more serious offences and higher crime rates’.

By March 2004 Straw’s successor, David Blunkett, could announce with pride that ‘police numbers in England and Wales have reached a new all time high of 138,000 – an increase of 11,000 since 1997...They take the total number of the extended police family to more than 212,000, including 3,346 community support officers (CSOs), 11,037 special constables and 63,000 police staff’.

The result of the importation of the ‘zero tolerance approach’ has been the proliferation of laws against ‘anti-social behaviour’. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders were first introduced in 1998. Between 1999 and 2003, 1,911 were issued against individuals in England and Wales. The latest legislation allows the police blanket powers to disperse or ban groups of people from designated areas. Breaching any of these orders can lead to imprisonment.

The ability of the state to lock up vast numbers of people without bringing criminal charges will mean imprisonment becomes even more a ‘normal’ part of the lives of large sections of the working class.

Routine imprisonment is already the experience of the black working class, and can be clearly linked to institutionalised racism and lack of opportunity in education or employment. Between 1998 and 2002 the number of black and minority ethnic people entering prison in England and Wales increased by 37% – more than eight times the increase in white prisoners. Black pupils are four to six times more likely to be excluded from school than white pupils are, although no more likely to truant than other pupils. In 1998, 5.8% of white people of working age were unemployed but among the minority ethnic community it was more than double at 13%.

Behind bars
Within the prison system, all those who argued after Strangeways over how much carrot and how much stick should be used on prisoners have had the opportunity to promote their own pet projects. Psychologists, psychiatrists, probation officers, career governors and criminologists have formulated ‘offending behaviour programmes’, ‘privilege schemes’, special unit regimes and management strategies. Armies of civil servants endlessly produce new directives. Perhaps the single contentious pledge made by Labour prior to 1997 – not to privatise the prison system – has been reversed and all new prisons are now built and run by private companies.

Some prison officers have been co-opted into the psychobabble approach, and now exercise power by writing parole reports, sentence plans and behaviour warnings. Good reports can reduce a prisoner’s sentence by years while adverse ones can ensure no parole is granted and the time is served in the worst conditions. Other prison officers have simply carried on in the old way, ruling the roost by violence, as is confirmed by the never-ending revelations of assault and victimisation at Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Parkhurst, Full Sutton and Frankland prisons, to name just a few.

Since the massive protests of 1990 there has been only sporadic resistance, and the instances which do occur, often within segregation units where prisoners forced to the limit by the naked brutality that goes on out of sight fight back by any means at their disposal, are often not publicised. FRFI will continue to support all resistance by prisoners to the conditions of incarceration and to make the link between the brutalising of prisoners and the wholesale attack on the working class perpetrated by British governments during the last 25 years.

FRFI 181 October / November 2004


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