The following comes from a hastily prepared newsletter myself and fellow comrades handed out at a Prison Abolition Seminar yesterday. As per usual, we generally get news of such meetings a day beforehand, which means I end up sitting at the pc for hours trying to put a leaflet/newsletter/pamphlet together aimed at that meeting's audience. Fellow barricadist, The Ingrate will well recall the two of us frantically racing to put together a multi-language 16 page pamphlet (figure corrected in comments below)in the wee small hours and in time for the European Social Forum being held in London, and how, on another occasion, bleary-eyed, we burnt the midnight oil putting together a newsletter for an anti-war march and sitting until about 7am printing off and folding tens of thousands of copies of the said leaflet, before heading off to that demo for an eight hour stint handing them out.
The philosophy of "detention" for offenders is one which is, at best, tenuous. It's not just the incredible idea that incarcerating for long periods men and women who fall foul of the law, in a cramped and dehumanizing environment, will result in them emerging as model citizens. No, there is something else which is even more incongruous about prisons. The paradox is, of course, that prisons house people, at great expense, against their will, while other "law-abiding" citizens are homeless. Those who behave themselves, follow the rules, and don't attract the attention of the police, have no guarantee of a home; if you do get one, it'll cost you an arm and a leg. But towards those who break the law, the state suddenly becomes very benevolent, and will give you not only a roof over your head but board too, for months or even years.
Prisons were first conceived as places of "reform" and rehabilitation (in the US they are often still referred to as "correctional" facilities) but for political and economic reasons the ethos rapidly changed to one of punishment and segregation. They are a relatively new idea, dating from the late eighteenth century, about the same time that capitalism first reared its ugly head. That is not to say that there were no sanctions employed against the dispossessed before that time; on the contrary, death and transportation were the sentences of choice, but juries were becoming reluctant to convict in capital cases and the ships bound for Australia were overflowing. With the concentration of workers in new towns and cities subordinate to the sanctity of private property, a more practical method of dealing with convicts was required. Thus, the prison was conceived.
Politicians are fond of insisting that ‘prison works’. This evaluation of course depends on what it sets out to achieve. If the intention is simply to punish the dispossessed for trying to gain a few more material goods, and act as a deterrent to potential offenders, then it could be said to be serving a purpose. However, the deterrent effect is questionable, because common-sense suggests that most criminals don't imagine they will be caught, or they wouldn't commit crimes in the first place. The likelihood of detection would surely be a greater deterrent. If, on the other hand, prisons are intended to rehabilitate offenders and reduce the incidence of crime, evidence shows they clearly do not work. Firstly, statistics reveal that once sent to prison, a person is far more likely to re-offend; and secondly, despite more people being imprisoned than ever before, the crime problem shows no signs of diminishing. The reason that politicians like Home Secretary Charles Clark continue to favour incarceration is that they are at a loss for solutions to the problem of crime, and there are always a few votes in "getting tough".
What getting tough on crime has meant in the last decade or so is a huge increase in the prison population. As of 27th January 2006, the UK Prison population stands at 75,661 (National Offender Management Service) – the highest prison population in Western Europe. The Guardian (27th January 2006) reported “there has been a 250% increase in the numbers recalled to prison for breaching their license conditions in the last five years.” Prison Service research shows that 10 of the 20 establishments with the highest incidence of suicide are also in the top 20 for turnover of population (http://www.politics.co.uk/issues/prison-overcrowding-$2111782.htm). As prisons are presently overcrowded, the building of several new ones will of course be necessary, financed entirely by central government. You'll notice that there is no restriction on prison construction, unlike public housing. And when did you last hear of a prison being closed because it was no longer "economically viable"? Hospitals, of course, do not enjoy the same security. There is now even a prison ship, hastily imported because existing prisons are filling up quicker than new ones can be built. When prison ships begin weighing anchor and hauling their "cargo" off to the Antipodes, things will have gone full circle.
If the idea of going to prison for something as trivial as failing to pay a fine seems unimaginable, then you may be surprised to discover that it is not an uncommon practice in Britain; thousands are sent to prison each year for this most heinous of crimes. Here is another paradox, to add to the pile which accumulates around this subject. People who, for example, can't afford a TV licence, are then fined more than the value of the licence which they couldn't afford in the first place. When they fail to pay the fine, they end up in jail. And here's the "double whammy" which would perplex even the Mad Hatter: the cost of imprisoning, say, a single mother for not buying a TV licence (yes, you with the blinkers on, they do put mothers of young children in prison) is likely to be forty times the cost of the licence. And they reckon that prison works?
What, then, does the convict learn from the experience of imprisonment? As illustrated above, for many the harsh lesson is that society is prepared to pay thousands of pounds to punish you, but not even a small fraction of that amount is forthcoming to prevent you turning to crime in the first place; in other words, punishing the poor and the homeless (one-fifth of the British prison population were homeless prior to being imprisoned) for nothing more than their shortage of money. It is unlikely that many prisoners emerge from the experience with a more positive attitude to the iniquitous socio-economic system which first condemns them to a life of poverty, and then, when temptation gets the better of them, condemns them again to be punished. It's no wonder that prison does little to discourage crime.
If all other things were equal, perhaps a case could be made for punishing transgressors, but as everyone knows, equality is not something that can be associated with capitalism. It's bad enough that so many are trapped in a life of poverty, yet the arrogant pitiless free market has to constantly rub their noses in it. Conspicuous inequality is what leads the poor to try to obtain a little more by any means available. If politicians wanted to reduce crime within capitalism, they would establish a system to counsel, aid and attempt to rehabilitate offenders--alas, not politically popular and not many votes in it. On the other hand, if they were serious about eradicating crime, they would identify and attempt to remove the causes of crime. This, however, would raise questions about why we need private property, money, privilege, etc.--not likely to be tackled by most politicians, as the one thing they agree on is the continuance and support of a social system in which a minority owns most of the wealth and exploits the rest of us to maintain it.
The Labour government, for all its claims to be "tough" on the causes of crime, is proving to be just as ready to cage people up in a way considered inhumane in zoos. Whichever side of the law you're on, whether you're in or out of jail; if you're poor there is one sound-bite that will always ring true: Tough on you.