There is nothing new about the mass imprisonment of the working class in America and the UK.
An article published in Chamber’s Journal of 1871, condescendingly entitled ‘Our Jail-Birds’, tells of the recurring theme of institutionalisation of the petty criminal: “Are those some of your clients just come in?”. “Yes,” was the reply; “and the worst of it is they have all been here before. It doesn’t say very much for our reformatory discipline, does it?”. The article stated reoffendment ‘is the universal experience of our jail governors … the same faces are seen again and again, and imprisonment seems to have no deterrent effect whatever, but rather the reverse … for one prisoner reformed, many are corrupted; and it is to be feared that, in the great majority of cases, imprisonment gives an impetus in the downward course of the convict’.
From the same article: ‘A woman was committed to Liverpool jail on six consecutive Mondays’ (probably for prostitution) … prisons incarcerated ‘vagrants and drunkards’ … prisons were ‘not places to be envied’, prisoners were subjected to ‘a seclusion and a strict discipline’, and those that refused the diet of hard labour were ‘consigned to the dark cell’, and, if not broken, were then trussed up and lashed. Other punishments included the treadwheel. A prison chaplain reported that the highest percentage of reoffenders were those who received the harshest punishments – the spirit of the habitual offender was hard to break, and the prison regime mainly served the Ruling Class as a threat to the potential criminal, who subsisted a degree above the poverty line – those in purgatory were threatened with hell.
Prisoners were ‘condemned to useless and degrading labour’, but if they were ‘taught and employed in useful trades, we might have a reasonable hope that they would employ themselves honestly when set at liberty again … Experience both in the United States and in other countries fully verifies the statement. From a Report by the governor of the Maine State Prison, where each convict is taught a trade, we learn that of two hundred convicts discharged during five years, only seven have been reconvicted; ninety per cent. of the convicts were ignorant of any trade when they entered the prison’.
The ‘confessions’ of John Horsleydown (1869) expose the guiding philosophy of the Ruling Class, that prisons, like the workhouse, were places to be feared, and that fear was best instilled in the young. ‘My first prison experience was at the age of eight years and three months, when I was committed to jail, with another little boy, for pulling some beets at the top of a field. With me were three others, one of eleven, for beating another boy, and taking from him his gingerbread cake; another for stealing a pair of rabbits’. The moral is clear: better to starve than steal.
And so to more recent times. The increasing bargaining power of corporations has seen the halving of their taxes as a share of American federal tax revenues, from 23% in 1960 to 10% in 1995; as against 50% in 1958. The conventional wisdom is that countries play a beggar-thy-neighbour game of offering low tax rates to attract jobs, the truth being that corporations dictate their tax rates, and the wages they pay, forcing governments they own to subsidise the low payed.
The exploitative power of corporations spawned the theory of the Prison-Industrial-Complex – the working class are incarcerated to create a cheap pool of workers for corporations, and to provide the government with a means of social and political control. Peoples’ fears are fed by ‘tough on crime’ politicians, whose call for prison expansion programs are supported by corporations, which may be involved in building or running prisons, and on whose payroll are their political mouthpieces.
Speeches on crime by neocon politicians seek to create the ‘demonised other’, against which the ‘rightious’ must unite. This is a distraction tactic, by which the Ruling Class claim crime to be a matter of individual choice, not a result of socio-economic deprivation. This theme is echoed in the corporate-owned media.
Rehabilitation has given away to retribution, sentencing discretion, which took into account social and economic circumstance, has given way to mandatory sentences – governments dictating to the judiciary. In 1991, America had an incarceration rate nearly double that of the Soviet Union. America more than tripled its prison population between 1980 and 2000, even though crime rates were flat or declining. Between 1985 and 1995 there was a 500% increase in the number of private prisons, some areas offering free golf club membership to executives who would site a prison on their patch.
The economic prosperity of many American economic wastelands depends on constant and high levels of incarceration. Private prisons offer profit to local owners, and poorly paid work as guards and ancillary staff to those of the working class who are not incarcerated.
Prisoners are also fed upon by other inhabitants of the prison food chain. Large pension funds invest in companies involved in this market. The list of household name corporations involved in exploiting captive labour is extensive.
Factory prisons provide an extensive range of work, from manufacturing to taking flight bookings and telemarketing. They also contribute to the war industry. Sara Flounders, in an article for ‘Global Research’ (2013), reported that American prisoners make components for Boeing fighter aircraft, the Cobra helicopter … night-vision goggles, body armor, camouflage uniforms, radio and communication devices … and land mine sweepers’. Labour in federal prisons is contracted out by UNICOR, the trade name of Federal Prison Industries, a wholly owned government corporation formed in 1934, which has 110 ‘factories with a fence’ at 79 federal prisons.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest operator of ‘dollar dungeons’, and they are linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which campaigns for stricter sentencing for non-violent (often petty) crimes, mirroring New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s zero-tolerance campaign aimed at civil disorders and petty offenders. CCA supported the three-strikes law and other mandatory sentences, creating more prisoners than can be accomodated.
Monkey-see-monkey-does. As in the case of its workfare program, the American tribute band masquarading as the UK government apes American neocon practice. The UK has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Western Europe. The chief inspector of prisons spoke in 2014 of “deplorable conditions” in prisons where the number of prison officers has fallen by 30% since 2011. Suicide rates have risen by 40% in the last year. Prisons are struggling with overcrowding.
People are often incarcerated for minor offences, such as stealing an ice cream cone from a looted shop, stealing from the bins behind a supermarket, stealing a bicycle, stealing a wireless broadband connection, soliciting, etc.
The number of women in UK prison has risen sharply over the past decade, 80% being convicted of non-violent offences. Many have been the victims domestic violence and sexual abuse. Many are mentally ill, have a drug addiction, and have a history of self- harm, which prison makes worse. A study in 2012 found that women represented 5% of those incarcerated, yet accounted for 31% of self-harm incidents in prison. UK war veterans are vastly over-represented in the prison population. The cost of incarceration is estimated to be £40,000 per anum per prisoner.
A mouthpiece for the UK Ministry of (in)Justice piously announced: “Prisoners who learn the habit of real work inside prison are less likely to commit further crime when they are released”. This is a nonesense when judged against historical precedent. To repeat the conclusion of the Chamber’s report of 1871: Prisoners were ‘condemned to useless and degrading labour’- which did not prepare them for work on release.
The UK neocon government’s imitation of the American CCA, One3one Solutions, states it has 190 companies which pay prisoners to package products, and assemble such as windows and doors. As in America, prisoners work in call centres. One call centre company busses in inmates from a low category prison 21 miles away and pays them £3 a shift. As little as a half-day training course may have been provided. The plan is to make a 5-day working week the norm in UK prisons. Prisons become workhouses in everything but name.
The UK neocon government argues that it is the ‘routine of work’ that is important, reflecting the views of Martin Luther, who argued that work was a calling from God. Luther’s infection of mind had him spending hours confessing even the slightest sin, which he believed were offensive to God, and would not be forgiven. Likewise, the magistrate who incarcerated a starving, little boy for stealing beetroot from a field believed he was doing God’s will, punishing a slight sin, for what greater sin might follow the forgiveness of a smaller one?
According to Luther, the individual is responsible for being unemployed or incarcerated, not society. This is the root of the neocon infection of today.
What is the chicken and the egg in this? Is there a Prison-Industrial-Complex in which the working class are deliberately incarcerated to create a cheap pool of workers? I suggest not. The initial determinant of who is deemed criminal rests in the perverse psychology of the ruling class, that part which eats on their minds as a maggot in a apple – the cult of individual responsibility. From workfare to prisonfare is a short mental step.
The threat of incarceration is dangled over the head of the ‘should-I-be’ criminal – those in purgatory are daily reminded of hell. The shadow of the prison looms large in daily life, and is represented by police cars, surveillance cameras, prosecution warnings in shops, and by film and tv. output. The American and UK prison systems repress, control, and exploit, but exploitation is not the coal that first feeds the furnace. Yet, neither is there any incentive to provide alternatives to prisons, which serve many vested interests involved in exploitation.
A danger awaits. The Ruling Class have historically used laws against sedition – overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order: if the statement is in writing or some other permanent form, such as an ‘alternative news’ site, it will be viewed as seditious libel.
Such laws will be resurrected, and those who call for the downfall of those most criminal of classes, the war-on-any-pretext politician and their corporate masters, will be sent to the prison factory, where they will receive salvation through work – or worse: by the end of 1940 there were 240,916 political prisoners in fascist Spain, 7,762 of them on death row.
lenin nightingale 2014