On 8 July more than 30,000 prisoners refused meals across California state prisons. Twenty days later, 1,000 were still on hunger strike. As of mid-August, at least 200 remained who had fasted since the beginning. One of their main demands is to end long-term solitary confinement, a practice that fundamentally dehumanises people and is proven to irreparably harm an individual’s ability to socialise. Other demands include access to adequate and nutritious food and an end to the use of ‘gang member status’ to control and abuse prisoners.
With worldwide media attention, the strike has brought the prison system – by default invisible – to the forefront of people’s awareness. As one prisoner put it, ‘Rot can’t grow where there’s a bright light shining.’
However, rot does grow and shadows still stalk a growing prison complex in the UK. On 21 August a BBC news story brought to light the story of a woman who has been in solitary confinement for more than six years at the prison HMP Bronzefield, where I served my three-and-a-half-year sentence from 2009.
‘Her prolonged location in the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,’ said Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, ‘and we use these words advisedly.’
The UK prison system
There are currently 85,690 people in prison in the UK, not including people detained under the Mental Health Act, in secure children’s homes or in immigration detention. The statistics provide a whirlwind introduction to the system. Twenty-seven per cent of the adult prison population has been in care, and almost 40 per cent of prisoners under 21 were in care as children. The great majority suffer from two or more mental health disorders (72 per cent of males and 70 per cent of females). People from minority-ethnic backgrounds are imprisoned at high rates, representing more than a quarter of the prison population nationwide.
The gender breakdown is also striking. The women’s prison population has risen by 33 per cent in the past decade, with two thirds incarcerated for non-violent offences. More than half have suffered domestic violence, and one in three has experienced sexual abuse. Sixty-six per cent have dependent children under 18, leaving an estimated 17,700 children separated from their mothers. Self-harmers in prison are 11 times more likely to be women.
The government’s Safety in Custody Statistics report for January–March 2012 records 211 deaths, 5,611 self-harm incidents and 3,725 assaults in the previous year.
As an ex-prisoner, I’m fully aware that the harm of the prison system isn’t just inside the grey buildings and huge walls. Its web of violent interrelationships entangles prisoners, their families, lovers, friends and communities the world over. It is a sprawling complex of social control, described by organisers in the US as the ‘prison industrial complex’.
The prison industrial complex
The ‘prison industrial complex’ is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industries that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.
In the US there are more than two million people trapped in one of the most ‘advanced’ prison industrial complexes on the planet. It is a system based on racism, repression, capitalism and a model of endless growth. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Yvonne Davis wrote: ‘The prison has become a black hole in which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.’
Fighting capitalism’s most obvious effect on the system – privatisation – is rife with challenges: how can we avoid lending legitimacy to public prisons? Yet ‘market’ incentives to cage human beings can be a final reducer of social justice.
The UK’s prison system is already the most privatised in Europe, with private institutions holding 11.6 per cent of all inmates – almost 10,000 people. Research has shown that the overall cost of placing someone in a private prison is higher. Private institutions have also been criticised for cutting corners, failing to retain staff and weakening standards of safety.
Profit is the priority. Multinational companies find a multitude of opportunities to reap financial rewards, from selling electronic tags to actually running prisons. Thousands of prisoners are also employed producing goods for private sector companies through mainly menial labour such as packing headphones and boxes. Investment in rehabilitation, however, runs contrary to business goals.
Immigration law is another major factor. When a population is highly regulated and controlled through special laws, companies face no shortage of inmates. Women from foreign countries are among the fastest growing groups of prisoners, now representing one in seven women incarcerated in England and Wales.
Illustration: hey monkey riot
Organising for abolition
Resistance to the prison system includes diverse approaches. Some focus on harm intervention, extending education, training and counselling to inmates. Through supporting individuals we can help de-carcerate our communities.
However, without recognising the social and economic drivers of the prison system, our impact will be limited. A number of groups work for reforms, while others articulate demands for abolition.
As an ex-prisoner and an anarchist working to eradicate all forms of domination, I do not want to see prisons reformed. I don’t care for bigger cages for my friends inside. Pushes for reforms have throughout history only maintained these centres of oppression for longer. The historical campaigns for the end of capital punishment changed prisons from holding places before punishment to sites of ongoing punishment. Reforms for differential treatment of women in prison have led to women-only institutions, a new market for the prison industrial complex and the fastest growing prison population in the world.
So I ask that we stop begging for reform and starting fighting for abolition. A barrier we face is that prisons are so ingrained in our psyches that we can’t imagine a world without them. I challenge this poverty of vision and call for us all to explore our own relationship to imprisonment.
Last October I wrote an article, ‘What will it take to heal?’, discussing abolition and permaculture – a movement that uses design to create sustainable human habitats and meet our needs for shelter, energy and culture as ethically as possible. I identified areas of intervention, where active community organising can counter the poverty-to-prison pipeline and build a prison-free society. In this society, we can all have our needs met, and our social and economic systems won’t function to make the rich richer.
Critical Resistance, an organisation dedicated to building a prison abolition movement in the US, recognises that: ‘As a set of political beliefs, prison industrial complex abolition is based in a feeling of what is possible. So, instead of thinking about what we want to destroy, it may be more helpful to think about what we must build to abolish the PIC. Our vision needs to include everyone affected by the PIC, not only the first-time drug offender or the wrongly convicted, but everyone.
‘We need to be able to create environments for ourselves that provide the basic necessities we need to live, such as safe and steady housing; sufficient food; access to medical care; access to information and tools with which to process that information; resources to participate in an economy; a way to express opinions, interests or concerns; freedom from physical and psychological harm (both from individuals and the state). We need to start building those kinds of environments for ourselves as we work to abolish anything. We need healthy environments that don’t depend on punishment and harm to protect the interests of the state and the rich or powerful.’
In the UK we may not yet have an explicit prison abolition movement. However, we do have thousands working for community needs in different ways, and together we can be allies in making the prison system redundant.
While we continue the long-term work of re-designing society, we must still struggle and ally with those inside, to improve their conditions and lives. We can support them to overcome the state-enforced alienation that aims to break them.
The individuals in California who have been refusing food are resisting with the only means they have left. Their bravery moves me to tears, as they now face force-feeding, healthcare abuse and increased punishment.
Friends of mine who have tried to take their own lives in prison have done so through the reality that the ability to live or die is the only agency they have left. When prison systematically dehumanises you, sometimes the only way to remember you are human is to feel the pain of the cut or the ligature around your neck. No doubt the individuals aching from hunger know what defiance lives in their cells and what it really means to be alive.
Nicole Vosper is an anarchist community organiser and permaculture practitioner based in Somerset. She was imprisoned in 2009 for a campaign against an animal testing company. She worked as a Samaritan in prison listening to suicidal women for several hours a week for the duration of her sentence and now continues to support close friends to stay alive in the prison system. She blogs at www.wildheartpermaculture.co.uk