Right now over 90,000 people across the UK are locked inside cages that are socially and intellectually justified, rationalised – even celebrated – as fundamental to the smooth running of a liberal democracy. Many more people are in detention centres, young offenders institutions and psychiatric units. It’s called the prison system. Its role and reach has moved far beyond a simple statist disciplinary framework to one that is emphatically embracing the ethos of neoliberal policy in the pursuit of profitable revenue streams. This interlocking and reciprocal relationship between the state and private industry under capitalist relations now makes up what is known as the prison-industrial complex (PIC).
Surveillance, policing and imprisonment are sold as solutions to economic, social and political problems caused by capitalism and repressive social structures such as the state and patriarchy. It is not just the grey walls and fences of prisons; it is the courts, the police, probation services, and the companies profiting from transporting, warehousing and exploiting human beings. Increasingly and intentionally, the criminalisation of communities boosts capital accumulation in an age of austerity. This is no accident.
The UK opened the first privately-operated prison in Europe, welcoming with open arms correctional corporations, including G4S, itself historically birthed from the Wackenhunt Corrections Corporation, once the second largest for-profit prison operator in the United States. Under the government’s private finance initiative, 14 private prisons have been opened in the UK since 1992. Private companies have been cashing in on incarcerated workers: powerless, non-unionised and desperate for wages for phone credit and tobacco and an alternative to the system’s modus operandi of 22-hour bang-up.
Something changes when a human being is placed in a cage. One of the most brutal forms of dehumanisation, it doesn’t matter if they “have a Playstation” or opportunities for education, or any other myths perpetuated in the press about pampered prisoners. Prisons harm us. They harm the people inside – many of whom resort to drugs, fighting, self-harm and suicide. They harm the families, partners and loved ones of those incarcerated. They harm our communities as they steal energy, creativity and contribution. Houses, jobs, relationships are lost. Prisons disappear people. They try to disappear social problems but instead they multiply them.
The PIC is rationalised and normalised as the way to keep society’s law-abiding majority safe. We are told that safety of all kinds can be guaranteed by watching, controlling and caging groups of people. Who these groups are is not incidental. Working class people, people of colour, queer communities, individuals experiencing mental health struggles, political organisers – all are targeted by the state. Prisons serve several functions in deterring resistance, maintaining class hierarchies and perpetuating poverty. Rooted in the values of the 18th and 19th centuries, prisons emerged ideologically from the values of the church and capitalism – an individualist logic that confinement, solitude and punishment can lead to individual development and moral improvement: putting the penitence into penitentiary! Such moral justifications for the existence of prisons may be gradually disappearing from mainstream discourse, as is most rhetoric of “rehabilitation”, but this is not to deny the role prisons continue to play in the formation and disciplining of subjectivities (both inside and outside the penitentiary) and gender roles – prisons have become the ultimate patriarchal punishment from the paternalistic state.
Like all capitalist industries, the prison-industrial complex needs its ‘raw materials’ to not only sustain profits, but increase them. This cannot be left to chance. The private prison industry, international building firms and security specialists all finance intensive lobbying efforts to keep the prison population growing. Under the Labour government alone, more than 3,600 new criminal offences were created – meaning that people who would previously have not been criminalised are now swept into the criminal justice net. Specific changes to post-industrial economies and societies in the last forty years has also seen a huge growth in the number of women being incarcerated as the logic of the prison-industrial complex sought more bodies to extract value from. Abolitionist Angela Davis has shown that by 2010 in the US there were more women in prison than there were prisoners of both sexes in 1970. Did women suddenly become exponentially more criminal?
The prison population has doubled not because rates of violent or imprisonable crimes have gone up (they haven’t) but through changes to sentencing laws and the introduction of repressive sentences such as IPPs (Imprisonment for Public Protection), whereby you have a minimum tariff and then can’t get parole until you prove you are ‘safe’ – so people are serving 4 years for burglary and doing several years more than their original sentences. Davis argues that “punishment has to be conceptually severed from its seemingly indissoluble link with crime”. This is the pernicious logic undergirding the prison-industrial complex, one which must be destroyed in order to defeat it. Rising prison populations do not correlate with rising crime. The only thing rising is the policing, surveillance and criminalisation of certain sections of the population, which feed the conveyor belt of a highly profitable industry.
The growth in the prison population is not just a result of national policy. Julia Sudbury writes of how the growth in the prison-industrial complex links to patterns of control internationally. She draws attention to the fundamental shift in the role of the state that has occurred as a result of neoliberal globalisation, as organisations such as the International Monetary Fund pressure governments to “reform” their welfare systems. Combined with the emergence of the US-led “War on Drugs”, increasing numbers of women of colour have been violently integrated into this booming growth industry.
The phenomenal development of mass incarceration in the United States correlates most singularly to the abolition of slavery and the criminalisation of people of colour as a contemporary tool for racist repression. Similarly in the UK in 2011, over 25% of the prison population was from a ‘black and minority ethnic’ background despite that categorisation representing only around 12% of the overall population. Across Europe (and the world), undocumented migrants now also face prison cells (rebranded as ‘detention centres’). Multitudes of commodified bodies fuel capitalist growth while the ideological view that says prisons are natural, normal and necessary remains almost entirely unchallenged. To fight for prison abolition is not just practically organising to stop prison expansion, it means challenging, on a daily basis, the very premise that the caging of human beings has a place in the world we want to create. Our solidarity must be centred on those behind bars, those experiencing harm (state and interpersonal) and those who don’t want to spend another day in a prison visitors’ waiting room.
The PIC has seen little resistance in the UK. Groups organising have lacked popular support. It is clear that the time for reforms has past. Now is the time to fight with all we have. Our bodies are not for sale, our lives are not for stealing.
Until every cell and cage is empty.
By an ex-prisoner and member of the Empty Cages Collective – and one of thousands harmed by the PIC.