On punishment and prison

On punishment and prison

The government’s prison reform programme has been gathering pace since Parliament returned in autumn 2015. In speeches to the Conservative party conference in October 2015, both David Cameron and Michael Gove called for a shift in thinking and policy to address the pressures building up in criminal justice and the prison system. In a number of further speeches over recent months, Mr Gove has spoken about education, redemption and rehabilitation. In setting out his priorities for the Spending Review, the chancellor, George Osborne, also identified the country’s prisons “as an example of one public service badly in need of reform”. He called for a focus on rehabilitation and training and announced a prison building programme:

“But there’s something else we need to do: modernise the prison estate. So many are relics from Victorian times, soulless, bleak places which can actually encourage a life of crime. Squalid areas where bullying is rife; overcrowded areas where people sit in idleness, nothing expected of them.” And he might have added to top it all off, many of them are on prime real estate in our inner cities.

“So today I can announce that prison reform will be a key part of the Spending Review. We will start to close some of our old outdated prisons in city centres, and sell the sites for housing. In their place, we will build nine new prisons – all of which are modern, suitable and rehabilitative.”

A pattern has been established over the last 15 years of a minister making a speech about how things must be improved in the prison system for the good of everyone and then leading figures from the prison reform movement eulogising the crumbs that fall from the table in order to win further reforms to either prevent the system growing or to improve conditions for the incarcerated.

The problem being that the criminal justice system system itself has grown in leaps and bounds in the last generation in both size and scope and since 2008 conditions have become palpably worse. As numbers rise and cells are crammed to the brim the number of suicides, self harm and incidents of violence creep ever upwards.

Self-evidently, the strategy of prison reform is not working. The source of this rapid expansion (prison numbers have doubled in a generation) can be sourced in the politics of Blairism – a politics that the Corbyn leadership need to decisively break from if they are going to deal with the state organised misery and brutality that is the criminal justice system.

Much of the debate on crime and disorder was contaminated while John Major was Conservative Prime Minister by the death of two-year-old James Bulger at the hands of two children. Despite the infrequency of child murder, this event, the fateful first steps of which were captured on CCTV was to set the mood music for much of the law and order debate in the run-up to the 1997 General Election.

The problem for the Conservatives was that the death had happened on their watch, and those ascribed with culpability were born under the star of Thatcherism. Despite calling on society to `to condemn a little more and understand a little less’, John Major lost the sound bite war to then Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, who described the event as being `like hammer blows against the sleeping conscience of the country’, and within this context popularized the third-way formula of being `tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’, a theme he had introduced only weeks before James Bulger’s death.

Many in the criminal justice reform movement were mesmerised by Blair – pointing to the second half the couplet of being “tough on the causes of crime’ – as evidence of a return to Labour’s 1960s more welfarist policies – but it was phrase so algebraic that it could mean all things to all people. What it did mean was a crack down on behaviours in working class areas where the signs of social distress produced by Thatcher’s deindustrialisation and decanting of mental health hospitals strategy had led to an increase in problematic behaviours across the country.

Labour, advised by those around President Clinton, had decided that a law and order crack-down was required to secure a voting base against the Conservatives and its home affairs policy papers reflected that view with titles such as `No more excuses’ and `A quiet life’. Thus the anti-social behaviour strategy was born and the growth in the size and scope of criminal justice solutions and operations was engineered. It was, in the argot of time, a win-win.

Cameron is after a win-win of his own. Behind the seemingly benevolent rhetoric, the proposed reforms are about the privatisation and expansion of criminal justice. This is evident in three themes and contextualised by the social crisis that is the long recession and ruling class attacks on what remains of the post-war settlement that we are currently experiencing.

The first is the sell-off of state assets and public land. In November 2015, the Ministry of Justice announced that old Victorian prisons were to be closed, allowing for “over 3000 new homes to be built, boosting house building in urban areas and helping thousands of working people achieve their dream of owning a home.” The sell-off of the land is part of the asset bubble that now passes for London’s housing market and will bring bijou apartments and gentrification.

The second theme is that of deregulation. Prisons are very rule bound, it comes with the territory. Cameron’s rhetorical flourish about the regulations that govern the number of underpants prisoner is allowed to have is of course a clever distraction from what is likely to be a bonfire of red tape and regulation required to enable the assets in the prison estate to be realized in full and profitability to be created. Similarly, the rhetoric of decentralisation with the proposal for local management begins to break the state system into smaller units that can be sold or contracted out separately.

Beyond the construction and management of nine new prisons, the community punishment market is another arena ripe for expansion. Cameron committed to a national roll out of satellite tracking by the end of the parliament. Offered as a progressive ‘alternative’ to custody, in the past community sentences have at best slowed the growth of imprisonment rates, and at worst served to expand the criminal justice system. There are also ongoing concerns about the role of the private sector in the delivery of electronic monitoring, for example, the recent Serious Fraud Office investigations into overcharging by G4S and Serco.

These themes are priming the system for an expansion of prisons and the wider criminal justice system in the context of the long economic recession that started back in 2008.The violence of austerity has led to a growth in social harms experienced by growing numbers of the population. Following the financial crash of 2008, rates of homicide, suicide and also violence against women are all following an upward trend. In other words there is going to be greater demand for services that mop up the results of growing inequality and social harm – a reboot of the expansion that took place after Thatcherism.

There is an additional twist to the present strategy. During the prolonged period of welfare retraction between 1976 and 2016, criminal justice has become the only truly universal social service of last resort. Prisons are harmful places; they are sites of concentrated poverty and trauma and have become holding pens for some of the most vulnerable members of society, who are also the people who are the most vulnerable to capture.

If you believe that there is any relationship between the level of harm there is in society and the type of and numbers of people in criminal justice then you need to think again. It is no accident that criminal justice, and prisons in particular, are almost the sole preserve of the working class.

Jeffrey Reiman in his book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (2007) describes criminal justice as offering a ‘carnival mirror’ image of reality:

First we are led to believe that the criminal justice system is protecting us against the gravest threats to our well-being when, in fact, the system is protecting us against only some threats and not necessarily the gravest ones…The second deception is … if people believe the carnival mirror is a true mirror… they come to believe that whatever is the target of the criminal justice system must be the greatest threat to their well-being. (Reiman, 2007)

The privatisation of the system, combined with an increase of social distress and the retraction of welfare signals further expansion. Do not be surprised it the numbers in prison breach the 100,000 barrier by 2023 – the 30 year anniversary of Blair’s speech when prison numbers were around 43,000 – there is social distress to be managed and profit to be made.

The gatekeepers of the criminal justice are the police, which is why Corbyn and McDonnell’s defence of police numbers in the Autumn might have made for good tactics but was a strategic error. Put simply, the more police you have on the streets the more working class people will be locked up win the prison system. Police numbers are still at an historic high at 130,000. At the same time is widely acknowledged – even by the police themselves – that at east 70 per cent of the work they do is not related to law breaking – in other words they are doing other people’s jobs, whether it be looking for missing people, dealing with those with mental health problems, others with health problems such as substance misuse, or even marshalling events and other similar functions. In other words, the police force could be cut by 90,000 without there being any impact at all.

The Labour leadership need to break with the Blair agenda on criminal justice and reconfigure the states response to the social harm that people experience. Of course, the whole system should be brought back into public ownership – but why would socialists support the punishment and further brutalisation of those who who only come into the system because, for the most part they are the easiest for the boys in blue to round up? Why would we punish our own class?

This will inevitably mean a wholesale reduction in the criminal justice system and the numbers employed in it, Many fewer police, prison officers, probation workers, court staff and ancillary staff. But as part of socialist society it would also mean many more people trained and employed to deal with the social problems that those in prison have – it would lead to an expansion of employment in the caring services that would more than compensate for the loss of jobs in a system that is there to contain and punish because prison is an incredibly cheap way of dealing with complex social problems. As for dealing with corporate law breaking? Well there would n’t be any corporations to break the law would there?

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