Where is penal activism? Contesting the neoliberal prison

Professor Joe Sim of Liverpool John Moores University calls for a renewed penal activism guided by abolitionist ‘basics’.

Activism has once again become a central political issue since the Occupy Movement’s powerful interventions into the consensual tranquillity of conventional politics in 2011.  This movement, alongside UK Uncut, the interventions by the Intruders and their disruptive activism around the cosy dinners enjoyed by the tax-avoiding rich and powerful and the rejuvenated women’s movement’s activism around lap-dancing clubs and male violence, has illustrated the range and scope of the political interventions that are taking place.  This has had two important implications.  First, these movements have added significantly to the crisis of legitimacy confronting the ruling political elite as they struggle to maintain economic, political and ideological order in a period of sustained organic crisis for their rule.  Second, this activism has graphically highlighted the antediluvian nature of the political strategies favoured by the organised trade union movement with respect to confronting the brutal reality of neo liberal capitalism. In this contested world, where is penal activism?

August 2012 saw the fortieth anniversary of the first national strike by British prisoners, an event which barely registered, if at all, on the popular and political imagination or indeed with the penal reform lobby.  Since 1972, despite the lurch from one desperate crisis to another, the penal system has consolidated and expanded to the point that would have been unthinkable and unimaginable to those involved in the debates around prisons in the early 1970s, as well as those inside confronting state power in those few days four decades ago.  Of course, during these four decades, other groups have emerged, most notably Women in Prison (WIP) and INQUEST, who have built on, and developed, the issues articulated by groups such as the National Prisoners’ Movement (PROP) and Radical Alternatives to Prison, who were centrally involved in the events of the time.  WIP and INQUEST have added their own critical perspective to the appalling treatment of women and girls in prison, and the desperate, often depraved circumstances, surrounding deaths in custody as well as the equally desperate experiences of the families of the deceased within the criminal justice system.  Their activism has impacted not only on the popular and political debates in these areas but has also dragged liberal reform groups onto a more radical and critical terrain.  Therefore, a key starting point might be to learn from those involved in WIP and INQUEST about how they perceive their strategic strengths and activist impact so that, to paraphrase a well-worn neoliberal cliché, good, political practice is shared between interventionist organisations.

Confronting contemporary neoliberal penal policies, and the draconian attacks on social welfare, as well as the nefarious infiltration of social democratic state institutions by private and third sector interests, appears to be a more difficult task compared with four decades ago.  The blurring of the demarcation between different state institutions, and the increasing mystification in how and why power is exercised, especially with respect to the different risk-based psychological programmes that are being introduced inside has reinforced these developments.  These programmes are generating an individualised response to penal power, and fragmenting, consciously or unconsciously, prisoners as a collective body, as the debates in the excellent prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time clearly indicate.  However, the blurring and mystification that is happening does not mean that the principles and activism that have formed the backbone of radical campaigning groups over the last four decades should be abandoned:  social justice, democratic accountability, brutalising and alienating environments, prison officer authoritarianism, exploitative labour working conditions, deaths in custody.  To paraphrase William Blake, ‘the road of [penal excess] can still lead to the palace of [abolitionist] wisdom’, as is evident from the various states in America that are now closing prisons.  These closures are happening not simply because individual states are impecunious but also because of the failure of individual states to protect the human rights of prisoners.  In May 2011, the US Supreme Court, by a majority of 5-4, ordered California to cut its jail population.  The quote below from the New York Times is worth considering:

The majority opinion included photographs of inmates crowded into open gymnasium-style rooms and what Justice Kennedy described as “telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets” used to house suicidal inmates. Suicide rates in the state’s prisons, Justice Kennedy wrote, have been 80 percent higher than the average for inmates nationwide. A lower court in the case said it was “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

In contrast, the dire penal situation in the UK has seen little movement towards progressive radical change, indeed penal regression seems a more apt phrase.  The latest round of party conferences, dominated by the usual excruciating platitudes, and often philistine rhetoric, has illustrated that being hard line (at least towards the poor and not towards the law-breaking rich) remains the dominant discourse in the collective mentality of the coalition government as exemplified by the metamorphosis of the hard line Work and Pensions Secretary into the new hard-line Justice Secretary.

However, the demands made by striking prisoners four decades ago (and indeed in the manifesto produced by prisoners at Attica in 1971) are as relevant as ever.  The key issue for radical activism remains linking the demands of those inside with radical movements on the outside.  In Thomas Mathiesen’s view, such activism  needs to avoid either being defined in by the state so that its activist interventions are not compromised or defined out as idealistic and irrelevant.  Retaining political clarity, and avoiding the toxic combination of compromise and irrelevance, is extraordinarily difficult, as Mathiesen also recognised when he talked about the politics of the unfinished in relation to changing prisons.

For the UK, a renewed sense of activism might begin with going back to abolitionist basics.  As Mike Fitzgerald noted in his account of PROP, and its involvement in the events of 1972, ‘the struggle for penal change is an ideological and political one’.  Therefore the first step might be to consider exposing and critiquing the ideological justifications for the existence of prisons   So, for example,  Thomas Mathiesen’s book Prison on Trial, critiques the various liberal defences of the prison: deterrence, incapacitation, crime prevention,  rehabilitation and so on.  This could be a good starting point, challenging the ideological defences that underpin the expansion of the prisons perhaps through a well-researched, factually supported, pamphlet/publication that could then be used as a basis to focus on specific penal issues. It is also worth challenging, at every step, and in every publication, the offensive and mendacious government and indeed opposition line, that caricatures those who are involved in debates about prison reform and indeed abolition, as somehow sympathetic to crime and by extension as unsympathetic to victims.   It will be important not to repeat the work of other groups such as INQUEST and Women in Prison but with careful thought that could be avoided as there  are a range of other areas that could be held up for public and political scrutiny, for example, the training that prison staff receive compared with other countries, the role of private companies in the penal/welfare complex and beyond this linking the ideological with the political through for example utilizing the courts to attempt to challenge the decisions made by ministers thereby developing legal challenges  to some of the policies and practices of the prison system.   Allied to this, Angela Davis’ penetrating concept of ‘abolitionist alternatives’ also remains a key discourse for activist interventions.

Strategically, these are difficult issues to work through but if a programme of action can be developed, and if that programme is linked not only with prisoners but also with activist groups outside the prison walls, and those activist groups, in turn, begin to consider actions such as picketing prisons, as Pauline Campbell did around women’s deaths in custody, then this could generate a renewed sense of optimistic activism.  Making the invisible visible, creating an alternative set of discourses, around prisons as well and making demands rather than asking for concessions would be central to this optimistic activism.  The state for all of its power is also weak, fragmented and contradictory.  Recognising this, and building on these contradictions, can turn penal and welfare common sense into good sense and eventually break the destructive capacity that lies at the heart of modern penality.

Joe Sim, Liverpool John Moores University.

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