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.

Thanks to the guys at AK Press, I am today able to make noise about a title published in 2016 which should be easy to get hold of by everyone. Having just finished Angels with dirty faces by US writer and activist Walidah Imarisha, my immediate thought is Wow! This book is so insightful, creative and powerful that I have fallen in love with Walidah. The bibliography alone reads like my own personal wish list but Walidah has done more than read all of these books, she has truly understood them, sometimes even more than the authors themselves, who range from Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander to Noam Chomsky. She has been able to analyse the concepts found in each of these books, including justice, crime, prisons, politics and racism; then link them all together smoothly in an easy-to-read, gripping collection of true stories. 

Being a prisoner, you can never really know the experience a prison visitor goes through but this is just one aspect Walidah enlightens readers on when she tells her own personal story. The book is broken down into true accounts of three people who are all connected in some ways: Kakamia, a man sentenced to life as the secondary participant in a joint enterprise murder when he was only a teenager, and who has clear mental health problems; Mac, the hitman for a notorious gang turned snitch; and Walidah herself, the life of the book, daughter of a struggling single-parent, mixed-race family grown into an amazing woman with a fascinating intellect who left me with the desire to meet her. 

Even if only to steal future reading ideas from the bibliography, this is a book you have to get. You will be mesmerised and transfixed whilst reading this, and will become a better person with the knowledge it imports. The best book of 2016! 

Kevan Thakrar 

[Kevan Thakrar is an avid reader who was wrongly imprisoned in 2007 for the joint enterprise murder of three men. Kevan has been detained in solitary confinement in the Close Supervision Centre (CSC) system, since 2010 when he attempted to defend himself from attack by racist HMP Frankland prison officers. For more information and to contact Kevan about his conviction and campaign for freedom, or to recommend or discuss books, go to or write or email via to Kevan Thakrar A4907AE, HMP Wakefield, 5 Love Lane, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, WF2 9AG]

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. 

It was alleged that seven pages of the magazine contained instructions on how to make bombs. The first two days of the court case were taken up with the prosecution case, which involved linking these pages to other articles in issues of the same magazine about armed actions carried out by Dev Sol. These included the 1996 execution of three high-up employees of the Sabanci corporation in response to the state murder of 17 Kurdish and Turkish political prisoners, and the 1998 attack on Turan Ünal, a contra-guerilla who had been involved in the torture and murder of four Devrimci Sol fighters. The case of a wounded Devrimci Sol guerrilla who blew herself up killing a senior police officer was also brought up by the prosecution.

On the third day Alaettin gave evidence to the court. He told the jury that he was 50 years old and a socialist.  He had been employed as a teacher in Turkey and in his earlier life was a practising Muslim and not politically active; however after moving to East Anatolia, he got to know people of different nationalities and beliefs (especially Kurdish people and Alevis) and his views slowly changed over the four to five years he lived there. This gradual change came to a head when a group of people, including 18-20 high school students whom he had taught, were massacred with chemical weapons: ‘I started to question my own thoughts and I felt close to the oppressed people. To get to know the oppressed, I started to research and learn. I found out, and I still believe, that socialism is the only system that favours the oppressed.’ When asked what he understands by socialism, Alaettin said that he would define it as ‘food, justice and freedom’.

Asked about armed struggle, he replied that it is not easy to resist fascism and that he respects all those who struggle against it, whether they are armed or unarmed. He went on to explain that, in his view, when we see revolutionaries martyr themselves for the struggle, we should question and try to understand why they felt so strongly that they gave their lives for their beliefs. In the search for answers to such questions, Alaettin explained that he considered it completely legitimate and lawful to read literature which helps us to understand the motivation of such fighters. 

Alaettin had the benefit of a strong, supportive legal team who helped him to explain all this fully to the court. The jury members in turn were convinced and pronounced him ‘Not Guilty’. 

After Alaettin’s acquittal, the police wanted to destroy the Revolutionary Left magazine which had been the focus of the case, but he and his comrades demanded it be returned to them, agreeing that the bomb-related section could be torn out first.

Throughout the four-day hearing, supporters of the Anatolian People’s Cultural Centre packed the public gallery, seeing the case as not simply an attack on one man, but as a judgment on all their right to freely read revolutionary socialist literature. Those who attended were both old and young, some already knowing all about the matters raised by the prosecution and responded to by Alaettin, while others learned about them for the first time. As a press release issued by Yuruyus magazine on 16 December stated: ‘This court case was like a four-day tutorial.’ 

The same press release also recounts a joke made by the barrister in the case as part of his submissions, which made the whole court smile: ‘Alaettin is being prosecuted for a 1997 publication containing pages about bomb construction. We've been looking at this material on bomb making here for four days. So this means that the court clerks, lawyers, 12 members of the jury and all the spectators now know how to build a bomb. So we can all be judged.’ 

The Revolutionary Communist Group congratulates Alaettin and his comrades on this victory for freedom of political expression. A luta continua!



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


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

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

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.