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Editorial: Humanity's machine

In November, two events re-ignited the debate on the numbers and conditions of those imprisoned in British jails and detention centres. Both - in their different ways - revealed the level of desperation and despair at impractical and immoral criminal justice and immigration policies.

Unrest at Harmondsworth detention centre on 28 November - reportedly sparked after detainees were denied access to a TV news item on a damning new report on the centre - saw desperate detainees shivering in the open yard after writing the word “help” with bed linen. Shortly afterwards, airspace above the facility was closed and series of “specially trained” riot police were sent in to quell the disturbance. Many inmates were subsequently removed to other facilities around the country. In what has become a familiar pattern of people exercising what limited power they have whilst in detention, days later families at Yarl's Wood detention centre went on hunger strike.

Security, control and punishment

The Harmondsworth report was published by the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers. In it she stated that conditions at Harmondsworth are “inimical to the proper care and treatment of detainees”, adding that the report was the poorest she had ever issued on an immigration removal centre.

Commenting on the report, Refugee Council Chief Executive Anna Reisenberger said, “Anne Owers states that there is too much emphasis on security, control and punishment in Harmondsworth ... To all intents and purposes, these detention centres are prisons. Whatever is done to improve these places doesn't alter that fact. We should question whether there is any need to lock up people who've committed no crime and who cause no harm to the wider community.”

The following day, former prison chief Lord Ramsbotham broke his silence in a front-page article in the Independent in which he made a swingeing attack on the government's “dysfunctional” approach.

With the UK prison population standing at 80,000 - in 1993 it was 45,000 - and a re-offending rate which has increased by 12% over the past five years to 67% for adult men, Ramsbotham's basic assertion that “If you produce legislation that results in longer prison sentences, more people will be in prison” seems reasonable. It does however ignore the fact that there are now a greater number of criminal offences in existence than five years ago, and thus it is not merely longer sentences, but the quantity of newly criminalised citizens which is also swelling prison numbers.

Prison-industrial complex

Britain has the dubious honour of having a larger prison population per capita than anywhere else in Europe. Along with domestic prisoners, we also lock up thousands of people who arrive in Britain requesting refugee status.

The long list of cases where asylum-seeking detainees have eventually been returned to their originating countries only to face further torture or disappearance is well-documented (see, for example, some of the stories contained in this PN's “safe haven” supplement).

There are around 2,600 people held in UK detention centres, many of which - as with 11 domestic prisons - are run by private prison profiteers. Companies such as Sodhexo - who run Harmondsworth via subsidiary Kalyx - Serco and Group 4 are operating globally to profit from locking people up. Incarceration is big business and the profiteers have a vested interest in re-offending rates and racist immigration policies.

Inherent violence

As a punishment, prison in Britain - due to conditions and regime - goes much further than simply denying the inmate their liberty. And, as a policy, the detention of adults and children seeking asylum punishes those who are most vulnerable and who have committed no crime.

The inherent authoritarian violence in the prison-industrial complex and the policies behind the practice are instinctively realised by many people in the peace movement. We are involved in supporting refugees and asylum seekers and in campaigning against racist immigration policies, and for better conditions within domestic prisons and detention centres.

Prison has always been used as a political tool to repress individual activist communities and social movements, current policy is merely an extension of this principle writ large. However, the considerable challenge is to put the system into its global context of free trade and unfree movement of people, and the criminalisation of large numbers of the domestic population via the flawed “rights and responsibilities” agenda, and to determine which of the hydra's heads is most vulnerable to concerted chopping. In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde calls prison “humanity's machine”. We should strive to find hope rather than despair in our humanity and trust that Huey Newton was on the money when he stated that “There will be no prison which can hold our movement down.”

Topics: Prison