The state of British prisons: overcrowded, violent and angry

birmingham prison
Birmingham prison, December 2016: prisoner protected then and again in August 2017

On 26 August prisoners at Haverigg in Cumbria staged an angry protest as the prison joined the increasingly long list of those introducing a ban on tobacco. A further upheaval occurred the following week at Birmingham prison. Such disturbances are now routine within a prison system that has always been punitive and austere, and which is once again at a tipping point as both numbers and violence continue to increase. The prison population has doubled since 1980. According to the National Audit Office, there is no consistent correlation between prison numbers and levels of crime. Nicki Jameson reports.

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Letter from Ben Stimson

stimson 2

Ben was sentenced to five years and four months imprisonment on spurious terrorism charges, after he spent four months in Donbass. He is the only British citizen to have been prosecuted for assisting the anti-Government militia in Ukraine. He writes:

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G4S – making money from brutalising vulnerable detainees

g4s

In summer 2017, staff employed by private security firm G4S, which runs Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) near Gatwick Airport, were secretly filmed abusing detainees. The footage showed one custody officer allegedly trying to choke a detainee. In other clips, staff were verbally and racially abusing inmates and ridiculing suicide attempts, saying they did not care if detainees died.

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Video: DIY Cultures panel discussion on prison solidarity – 14 May

diy

The panel was chaired by Hamja Ahsan, who began campaigning in support of prisoners when his brother Talha was imprisoned and subsequently extradited to the US. Speakers were Nicki Jameson, the editor of the Prisoners Fightback page in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and co-author of Strangeways 1990: a serious disturbance; Leah Jai-Persad, who is a campaigner for freedom for Leonard Peltier and who has written for FRFI about the campaign, and Harriet and Becka from the Reclaim Holloway campaign, which North London RCG comrades have been supporting.

Parole Board keeping lifers behind bars

Swaleside Prison

There is currently a massive population of post-tariff life sentence prisoners overcrowding British prisons; lifers detained long beyond the time originally recommended by the judiciary or Secretary of State. This includes prisoners sentenced under the Indefinite detention for Public Protection law which, although now scrapped, has left a legacy of thousands of prisoners. Britain has more indeterminate sentence prisoners than the whole of Europe combined: a consequence of a ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ culture that pervades the judiciary and justice apparatus. Parole Board collaboration in detaining lifers who represent little or no actual risk to the community was typified in my own case in June 2017, when, after 37 years’ imprisonment – more than ten years beyond the original judicial recommendation – the Board denied my application for release for nakedly political reasons. John Bowden writes from HMP Swaleside.

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Organising behind bars to fight prison slavery

pelican bay hunger strike protest
Pelican Bay hunger strike protest

If there is one thing that I learned in my time inside, it is that prisons cannot function without the labour of prisoners. We cook the food, maintain the gardens, clean the wings, work at reception, do the laundry, pack the canteen bags…Without us, prisons could not afford the cost of keeping us imprisoned. Ironic isn’t it? It has inspired me to see, therefore, recent prisoner resistance in the United States. Across the country, prisoners have started to recognise the system’s economic dependence on them. Nicole Vosper of the Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee (IWOC) writes.

In 2013, the largest hunger strike in recorded history took place in California. More than 30,000 participants effectively ended solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison. This huge victory is as a result of prisoner organising. With mass incarceration so linked to for-profit prison industries, prisoners now have more opportunities for leverage than ever, and are moving beyond hunger strikes to withdrawing their labour as well.

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Inside News

breack the chains rcg

Court rules against ‘deport first appeal later’ policy

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of R (Kiarie and Byndloss) v Secretary of State for the Home Department, that the policy of deporting foreign national prisoners who have ongoing appeals was ‘unfair and unlawful’. This does not mean that the government will not try to reintroduce the so-called ‘certification’ of appeals in the future, but for now all appeal certificates have been withdrawn and no more are being issued.

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Segregation and solitary confinement

KevanThakrar

Before entering the notorious Close Supervision Centre (CSC) system back in 2010 I had very little knowledge of either segregation or solitary confinement. Having just turned 23 years of age and having spent as little as two and a half of those years in prison, my mind had never had been focused on or even interested in this topic. Now, midway through my seventh year of isolation things have changed; the horrors I have witnessed over this period have left me with little option but to become fully aware of the devastation even short periods in these conditions can have.

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Solidarity with Ben Stimson

Banda Basotti en DNR

On 14 July, Ben Stimson, a political prisoner currently held at HMP Manchester, was sentenced to serve five years and four months imprisonment, following his conviction for ‘facilitating Acts of Terrorism’ under Article 5(b) of the Terrorism Act 2006. He was sentenced under special provisions introduced under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 whereby there is no automatic entitlement to early release and sentences are subject to an additional year on licence beyond the final release date.

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New prisons for old ... as prime sites redeveloped for luxury flats

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On 22 March the Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced plans to build four new prisons in England and Wales. Three of these will be on sites next to or replacing existing prisons at Full Sutton in York, Hindley in Wigan and Rochester on Kent, with the addition of a new site in Port Talbot in Wales. The four prisons will together provide 5,000 new prison places – half of the 10,000 promised by the government in its White Paper last year.

Another 2,000 places will be created at recently opened HMP Berwyn in Wrexham, north Wales, with further expansion due at two sites which were named in an earlier announcement in 2016. Glen Parva young offenders institute in Leicestershire is to close and be redeveloped as a Category C men’s prison, while Wellingborough prison, which has been empty since 2012, will also be rebuilt. The Wellingborough development has already been granted planning permission by the local council, while the Glen Parva one is due to be considered after the current prison closes in June.

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New control units to open for ‘extremist’ prisoners

KT protest

On 19 April the Prison Rules were amended to include a new Rule 46A, which allows for prisoners to be sent to a so-called Separation Centre (SC). These new units are the latest in a long line of small units which the British state has used to control and manipulate prisoners. Kevan Thakrar, who has been held in the Close Supervision Centre (CSC) system since 2010, writes:

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Court victory for the Anatolian People’s Cultural Centre

Hands off the Anatolian

On 19 May comrades from the north London Anatolian People’s Cultural Centre (APCC) and their magazine Yuruyus (‘March’) won another victory for the freedom to express political views and organise around them, when Ayfer Yildiz was acquitted in the second of two trials to arise from a raid on the Centre on 6 April 2016.

The raid was clearly politically motivated and took place just weeks after Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davatoglu had met then British PM David Cameron in the course of talks around Turkey-EU refugees and trade agreements. It was justified on the basis of allegations that the APCC was fundraising for the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi – DHKP-C), an illegal organisation in Turkey, which is also banned in Britain under the Terrorism Act 2000. The order to close the APCC was issued under the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 – the first time such an order has been used in this way to close premises which are alleged to have links to a banned organisation.

The APCC was not intimidated and set up a temporary centre in a tent opposite the locked building, which remained there for 105 days, continuing the centre’s work and demanding the return of all the property confiscated in the raid.

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Detainees victimised for speaking out

On 11 March Nottingham RCG attended a demonstration outside Morton Hall immigration detention centre in Lincolnshire. After the demo, two detainees Nariman Jalal Karim and Raffael Ebison, who spoke out on the day against their treatment, were seized by the guards and moved nearly 200 miles away.

When we arrived, the prison authorities put on loud music and gave the men cola and ice cream and told them that any noise they might hear outside was because of a football team. The men were not fooled. Raffael turned off the music and Nariman, who is from Iranian Kurdistan and is being threatened with deportation to Iraq, climbed the interior fence to speak to us. He shouted to us about how he would continue to fight for freedom and thanked us for not forgetting about the people in Morton Hall.

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One of a long line of barbarians

Sir Kenneth Newman
15 August 1926–4 February 2017

A few national newspapers carried bland, uncritical obituaries for Kenneth Newman, former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and former Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, making out that, despite a few ‘issues’, on the whole, here was an honest cop interested in management and reform of Britain’s police ‘service’ and opposed to freemasonry. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Newman was instrumental in the transformation of British policing – from ‘policing by consent’ to paramilitary policing. He was one of a cohort of leading figures in the British state – in political circles, the Army and the police – who form an unbroken line of experts and promoters of brutality, torture and coercion in the interests of British imperialism.

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Strangeways protester sentenced

strangeways

On 9 March Stuart Horner was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment as a punishment for the rooftop protest he staged in 2015 in protest at conditions in Strangeways prison, Manchester. Stuart is already serving a life sentence to which the new sentence will run concurrently, but the length of the term was clearly intended to send out a signal to any other prisoners who decide to take action to highlight degrading prison conditions.

The prison system which Stuart described to the jury in his trial is in some ways very different to the one in place at the time of the more famous Strangeways protest, but in others is almost identical. The prevalence of synthetic drugs and the violence surrounding them did not exist in 1990, but the description read to the court of physical conditions in Strangeways could have been taken verbatim from accounts written back then: ‘We are just fed up with the way we are treated, isolated in our cells sometimes 24 hours a day. It’s escalating into a major situation… You’re sat in a cell, two people in a one man cell, with a bucket… because the toilets are all broken, having to eat in that cell...you can’t live like that, it’s disgusting.’

Swaleside – collective misery will become common purpose

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.

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Violently attacked by Wakefield search team

Kevan Thakrar prison

During my 13 days at HMP Wakefield in March 2010, I was severely mistreated. Every attempt has been made to cover this up since then, however it remains part of ongoing litigation. Prior to my return here in 2015, my solicitor raised serious concerns about plans to locate me back here, especially whilst the matter remains ongoing, but was assured that the constant use of a video camera during all interactions with prison staff and the additional protections of a double-door cell, with instructions that no officers enter whilst I am in it, would keep me safe from further harm. From the beginning, these assurances have proven meaningless, with my treatment worsening as time passes but even I was shocked by the stupidity of the latest attack upon me.

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Whitemoor escape trial stopped

'In one form or another all long-term and high-security prisoners in both Whitemoor and other gaols will be made to suffer in revenge for the escape and it will be exploited by Michael Howard and friends to win sympathy for repressive policies already in the pipeline.' FRFI 121 October/November 1994.

'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.' FRFI 123 Feb/ March 1995.

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Books behind bars: Angels with dirty faces – Walidah Imarisha

As I tend to only read books which have been recommended to me by others, I find I have a similar taste to, most are old with some so old it is almost impossible to get hold of a copy especially through the underfunded prison libraries in this country. This is made worse by the obscurity and niche category of what I have found to be the greatest titles, resulting in some remaining on my to-do list until I am lucky enough to come across them years later. When I then recommend these same books to others, I know it is unlikely they will hunt them out with the same level of dedication I have, but some books are just too good to keep quiet about.

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Activist acquitted on terrorism charges – a victory for the freedom to organise politically

Between 13 and 16 December 2016 the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey was treated to a lesson in revolutionary politics, socialism and armed struggle, as revolutionary activist Alaettin Kalender went on trial, charged with possession of articles likely to be of use to terrorists. 

The prosecution followed police raids on 6 April on the Anatolian People’s Cultural Centre in north London and the homes of two of the Centre’s activists. Items seized from Alaettin’s home included a copy of a 67-page magazine produced by the Turkish revolutionary organisation Devrimci Sol (Revolutionary Left) in 1997. 

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Crisis and reform – prisons under the spotlight

prisons under the spotlight

On 3 November, against a backdrop of increasingly dramatic headlines about a prison system in crisis, the Ministry of Justice published its White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, which sets out the Conservative government’s plans for reshaping the prison system. The White Paper, the precursor to the Prison Reform Bill promised by former Justice Minister Michael Gove and now being managed by his successor Liz Truss, had been in the pipeline since the Queen’s Speech on 18 May but was delayed by Brexit and the resulting Cabinet reshuffle. Its publication therefore took place at a moment just weeks after a particularly violent incident in Pentonville prison in which three prisoners were stabbed, one fatally, and days before a ‘riot’ at Bedford prison. Nicki Jameson reports.

A further week later Pentonville was on the front pages again as two prisoners made a daring escape over the wall. Then, on 16 November, members of the Prison Officers Association (POA), who are legally banned from striking, staged an unofficial walk-out in protest against staff shortages and fear of violence against its members. Although prison officer numbers have genuinely been cut in the recent period, the POA is simply repeating the same refrain it has uttered since its inception. Its suggested solution to the ‘crisis’ is not that prisoners should have access to more education, rehabilitation etc to divert them from violence against one another or themselves, but that they should be locked up for even longer each day and allowed even fewer opportunities to leave their cells and associate with one another.

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Black prisoners in British jails - Interview with Shujaa Moshesh

Shujaa

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No. 83 – January 1989

Shujaa Moshesh (previously Wesley Dick) was released from prison in August 1988 after serving thirteen years. He was arrested, with two others, in the Spaghetti House siege of 1975. Before his arrest he was a political activist in the black community and it was the political character of the Spaghetti House siege that led to heavy sentences against those involved. Inside prison Shujaa was a well-known fighter for the rights of prisoners and played a leading role in numerous strikes and protests. For this he was victimised and lost most of his remission. Terry O'Halloran and Maxine Williams interviewed him shortly after his release.

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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.

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State Repression

 

In some ways the British police haven't changed a bit. In a review of the findings of the Policy Studies Institute report, Police and People in London, in November 1983, The Economist wrote: `Under his peculiar Victorian Helmet, your ordinary London bobby is racist, sexist, bored, aimless and quite often drunk.' Fourteen years later, the police force still pretends to be concerned about the racism and sexism which, it openly admits, festers in its ranks: it just fails to do anything about it. What has changed are the powers which these bigots possess in law. For, since 1981, the British state has systematically transformed the police in one respect they are now organised and equipped both legally and in paramilitary terms to deal with political dissent by overwhelming force. On the receiving end of this transformation has been a generation of workers, black people and political activists — in 1984-5 it was the striking miners and the Broadwater Farm Estate, today it is road and environmental protesters. The British state is tooling up and honing its powers for future confrontations with the working class and its allies. CAROL BRICKLEY reports.

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Protest against the brutal CSC system!

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The Close Supervision Centre (CSC) system is essentially an English version of US Supermax prison conditions, indefinite solitary confinement within the most oppressive and brutal environment found in this country. As only around 50 prisoners fall victim to the CSC at any one time its existence is largely unknown even amongst the general prison population.

With a decreasing level of funding for the prison system whilst prisoner numbers continue to rise it is inevitable that more and more failings and inadequacies will be identified. When the entire prison system can be seen to be declining in the level of treatment it provides, it is obvious that those already at the harsh end will suffer the most.

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Books behind bars - Marshall Law

Marshall Law

I often find myself discussing books, with people regularly asking me for recommendations, due to the amount of time I dedicate to reading. Having recently finished Marshall Law: the life and times of a Baltimore Black Panther by Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway and Dominique Stevenson, I thought I would let everyone know that this is a book you really should not miss. In 1970 Eddie Conway was framed for the murder of a Baltimore City police officer, due to his political activities, as part of the attempts to annihilate all movements for equality under the infamous US government Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). This is his autobiography after 40 years’ wrongfully imprisonment and a lifetime of oppression due to his skin colour and economic standing.

The story alone is fascinating; the language and writing style keeping you totally gripped throughout, and the message Eddie delivers is one we all need to hear. A lot can be learned from this book, especially considering the drive to emulate the US justice model in Britain, and very few are better placed to educate than a man who has devoted himself to being on the right side of humanity, even when his enemies put him on the wrong side of the law.

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US prisoners demand an end to prison slavery

On 9 September, prisoners across the US marked the 45th anniversary of the historic Attica prison uprising in 1971 by commencing a series of strikes and actions which is continuing as we go to press. Nicki Jameson reports.

This wave of protest is the most widespread expression of discontent and resistance to hit the US prison system since the 1970s; however the mainstream press has been largely silent about it. Alternative news website The Intercept, one of the few news sources to report on the strike, described the prisoners’ demands as follows:

‘...inmates are protesting a wide range of issues: from harsh parole systems and three-strike laws to the lack of educational services, medical neglect, and overcrowding. But the issue that has unified protesters is that of prison labor – a $2 billion a year industry that employs nearly 900,000 prisoners while paying them a few cents an hour in some states, and nothing at all in others. In addition to work for private companies, prisoners also cook, clean, and work on maintenance and construction in the prisons themselves.’

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Justice for the Craigavon Two! - End brutality in Maghaberry prison!

On 24 September supporters of the framed Craigavon Two demonstrated in Dublin, London and in more than 30 locations worldwide. FRFI supporters joined the protest in London. One of the Craigavon Two, John Paul Wooton, made a phone call from Maghaberry prison to the Dublin protest, which was outside the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ. John Paul condemned the ‘conspiracy of silence’ by RTÉ and other corporate media outlets, accusing them of ‘consenting to the miscarriage of justice’ and ‘actively colluding’ in the wrongful imprisonment of the Craigavon Two.

Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooton were convicted of the killing of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll in March 2009. Following the killing there was a huge state and media outcry and, under pressure to make arrests, the PSNI manufactured and manipulated evidence. The result is that the Craigavon Two are likely to spend the rest of their lives in prison. They need our support.

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Books behind bars: I Phoolan Devi – Bandit Queen

Books behind barsOf all the true stories I have read, one stands out as the most painful and inspirational of them all. I, Phoolan Devi: the autobiography of India’s bandit queen by Phoolan Devi is perhaps the greatest and most harrowing account ever produced in print. Nobody who reads this can fail to be moved by the experiences of one of the most unfortunate, yet courageous females to have lived. Kevan Thakrar writes from HMP Wakefield.

Phoolan Devi was born into a poor lower caste family in India where she was heavily disadvantaged from the start. Growing up with almost nothing was not easy, and being female did not help. Unable to conform and submit to local custom, her outspoken resistance led to mild childish bullying building up to the most severely brutal treatment imaginable. When she sought help, those with the ability to intervene instead chose to contribute to her torture.

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Swaleside prison - rage, frustration and despair

Swaleside Prison

Prisons Inspector Peter Clarke’s 2016 report regarding Swaleside Category B long-term prison in Kent described it as a ‘dangerous prison’ and one that had deteriorated significantly since his last highly critical report into Swaleside in 2014. In fact, the ghettoisation of Swaleside prison simply reflects the reality of existence in virtually all prisons in England, as mass overcrowding and neo-economic financial cutbacks to every dimension of public spending reduces prisons to little more than penal slums for the most brutalised and marginalised. JOHN BOWDEN, a long-term prisoner, now at Swaleside, reports.

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