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.

Clarke focuses his main criticism of Swaleside on the level and seriousness of the violence that prevails there, including the high level of staff force on prisoners and the total inadequacy of documentation associated with its use and justification. However, he provides no context or explanation as to why the level of violence has dramatically increased at Swaleside over the last few years or who or what is ultimately responsible for it. Hints are maybe available in his criticisms of a prison infrastructure falling to bits and its replacement with a semi-lockdown regime, but nowhere in either of his two highly critical reports on Swaleside does he attribute any blame or responsibility to government (obviously very keen to keep his job) and he tries to suggest that the current governor of Swaleside (the fifth in five years) with his ‘visible and energetic leadership’ will turn the prison around. The reality is that Swaleside is a microcosm of what now prevails throughout the entire prison system in England and Wales: huge overcrowding in institutions that more and more resemble in conditions and regimes their US and third world counterparts.

Unfortunately, the rage, frustration and despair experienced by prisoners suffering such increasingly inhuman conditions and regimes is so far largely manifesting itself in US-like prison gang culture and the venting of that despair and rage on themselves; such division both sustains and reinforces their repression and the existing conditions of their existence. There must now be a common struggle, both inside and outside prisons, among the poorest and most dispossessed, against a system that tries increasingly to destroy them.

British prisons – ‘tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable’

Responsibility for the prisons of England and Wales now lies with Theresa May’s newly appointed Justice Minister and Attorney General, Liz Truss. Despite having written in 2011 that prisons should be ‘tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable’, Truss has insisted that she will continue the widely publicised ‘prison reform’ programme commenced by her predecessor Michael Gove. Nicki Jameson reports.

While Gove was busy with Brexit and power-grabbing, his ‘reform’ plans, announced in the Queen’s Speech on 18 May, were put on the back burner. The promised Prison Reform Bill does not yet exist, although the first six ‘reform prisons’ have been named and are beginning to operate.

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Free Tony Taylor!

Teresa Villiers picket

The continued imprisonment of Derry Republican Tony Taylor demonstrates once more the undemocratic nature of British rule in the north of Ireland.

Tony Taylor is a former Republican prisoner, who was released on licence by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers in August 2014, after three years in prison. He had previously served six years in the 1990s and been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Since his release in 2014 Tony has been involved in legal political work for the Republican Network for Unity (RNU), including community initiatives and mediation aimed at keeping young people in Derry out of trouble. RNU representatives say that Tony Taylor has ‘spearheaded the revival of RNU in Derry’ and that is why he has been singled out by the British state.

The chair of the Free Tony Taylor Campaign in Derry spoke to FRFI to give us some background: ‘On 10 March 2016 Tony was on a shopping trip with his partner, his disabled son and his two teenage daughters. Armed police surrounded the family car and Tony was arrested and taken straight to Maghaberry prison. Tony’s solicitor has been told that he was returned to gaol on the basis of intelligence reports that he cannot see or challenge.’

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Inside News - FRFI 251 Jun/Jul 2016

Whitemoor protest

For several weeks in summer 2015 long-term prisoners on one wing at HMP Whitemoor complained about lack of basic toiletries, including toilet roll and washing-up liquid, lack of access to new clothes and a range of other complaints about their living conditions. Things came to a head at the end of September when the prison closed the wing kitchen, meaning prisoners were unable to cook their own food.

After failing to get staff to address their complaints and having repeatedly requested to see a senior manager to no avail, prisoners staged a peaceful protest by refusing to return to their cells. A manager did then arrive and negotiate, offering the prisoner wing reps a meeting with a governor the following day. The prisoners then returned to their cells.

The day after the meeting, and two days after the protest, 19 prisoners were placed on report for failing to obey the ‘lawful order’ to return to their cells. A disciplinary hearing then found them guilty on this charge, ignoring their solicitor’s submissions that procedural flaws and breaches of Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights rendered the charges unlawful. Prison Service headquarters has recently reviewed the charges and, presumably fearful of the case ending up in court, overturned the guilty findings (inexplicably all except one which is now being further appealed).

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