Fyoder Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist and sometimes political dissident, once wisely observed that a good barometer of the level and quality of a society’s civilisation is the way it treats it’s prisoners, the
most dis-empowered of all social groups.
There has of course always existed a sort of socially organic and dynamic
relationship between prison society and the wider ordinary society beyond it’s walls, and the treatment of prisoners is usually an accurate reflection of the relationship of power that prevails between the state and ordinary working class people in the broader society. It is how political power is shaped and negotiated between the state and the poorer social groups on the outside that essentially determines the treatment of prisoners on the inside.
Prisons are concentrated microcosms of the wider society, reflecting it’s
social and political climate and the balance of social forces that characterise it’s political culture. The more authoritarian and politically oppressive the society, the more brutal it’s treatment of prisoners is. The treatment and sometimes the very lives of prisoners is therefore critically dependent on the balance and alignment of power in society generally. For example, changes in state penal policy always tends to reflect shifts and changes in that relationship of power between the poor and powerless and the elites who constitute a ruling class, and it is always the more marginalised and demonised groups such as prisoners who feel and experience the repression more nakedly when society begins to shift even further to the right.
During the 1960s, 1970s and part of the early 1980s structures of
established power in society were seriously challenged and the atmosphere and movement of radical social change became manifested
within the prison system itself in prisoner protests, strikes and uprisings, and an organised movement of prisoner resistance that was recognised and supported on the outside by political activists, radical criminologists and prison abolitionists. The struggle of long-term prisoners was recognised by such groups as a legitimate political struggle against an institution originally and purposely created to punish the rebellious poor and as an integral part of an entire state apparatus of repressive social control, along with the police and judiciary. Just as the heightened social struggle of groups like the organised working class in the broader society caused a shift and change in the balance of power, within the long-term
prison system itself prisoners used the weapon of solidarity and self-organised to collectively empower themselves as a group. This climate of increased struggle and freedom that permeated society generally at that time found expression within long-term prisons and even found limited reflection in the thinking of those administering them with the adoption on policy of the one relatively liberal recommendation of the 1968 Mountbatten report concerning prison security: whilst Maximum-Security jails should make physical security as impregnable as possible the regimes operating in such institutions should also be made as relaxed as possible.
But just as changes in the balance of power can be to the advantage of
progressive forces in society so it can shift the other way, and that is what happened in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s with the defeat of the organised working class movement and the apparently finale triumph of Neo-Liberal Capitalism (deregulation, free trade, unfettered profits and minimal state benefits – in short, capitalism at it’s most savage) and a Thatcherite ideology of greed is good and “there is no such thing as society”. This found expression in the treatment of prisoners with the seizing back of the long-term prison regimes and their re-moulding into instruments of “Dynamic Security” and naked repression. The control and absolute disempowerment of long-term prisoners was conflated with the
necessity of physical security now. And of course the economic principles of Neo-Liberal Capitalism also found expression in the prison system with “Market Reforms” and the flogging off of increasingly greater parts of it to multi-national private prison entrepreneurs. Prisoners would now be bought and sold as commodities and also as a source of forced cheap labour. They would also be taught and conditioned to know their true place in a massively unequal society, and prisons would revert to their original purpose of re-moulding working class “offenders” into obedient slaves of capital and those who own it. Towards this end the huge proliferation and empowerment of behavioural psychologists in the prison system over the last decade is a symptom; the breaking and re-creating of
prisoners psychologically in the image of a defeated and compliant working class on the outside has become once again the purpose and
function of prisons. Rebellion and defiance in prisoners is now labelled “psychopathic” and “social risk-factors”, which depending on how they are “addressed” will determine the length of time one spends behind bars, especially for the growing number of “recidivist offenders” serving indeterminate sentences for “public protection”.
As what were once tight-knit working class communities on the outside
fractured and were destroyed following the last high point of organised working class struggle during the 1984 miners strike, so the solidarity and unity of long-term prisoners was broken and withered away. The flooding of heroin and crack cocaine into now marginalised and poor communities created an almost alternative economy and was reflected in the changing nature of the prison population. What had been a generation of prisoners from strong working class communities imbued with a culture of solidarity, mutual support and a readiness to confront and challenge official authority, was increasingly replaced by prisoners with no memory of a time before the victory of Thatcherism and the dog eat dog culture it bred and encouraged. The increasing prevalence of drug-orientated crime
found expression in the “Millennium convict”, lacking in principle and with an acquiescent, submissive attitude towards their captors and a focused determination to do whatever it takes to achieve an early release from prison.
The uprising at Strangeways prison in 1990 was the last significant expression of collective defiance and protest in a British jail and is unlikely ever to be repeated in such a form.
The current Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, with his Tory “Attack Dog” reputation and contempt for the human rights of prisoners, blended of course with his determination to sell-off virtually the whole of the criminal justice system to multi-national capitalism, is a perfect representation of the social and political climate outside prison. Deep economic crisis generates social fear and insecurity, and the scapegoating of marginalised and demonised groups who are used as a focus for public anger. Folk devils and moral panics are stock in trade for the tabloids, Tory politicians and far right groups when social climate is at its most receptive for easy, powerless targets. Grayling is pandering to what he imagines is the masses appetite for revenge, as long as its not focused on those actually responsible for the economic and social destruction of
If, as Dostoevsky believed, the treatment of prisoners is an indicator of
a society’s level of civilisation then we seem to be entering another Dark Age, and of course history provides us with some chilling examples of what can happen when an apparently modern and developed society enters such a phase.
Bowden, March 2013