"Prisons are for protecting the rich"

Submitted by Matthew on 19 August, 2010 - 2:33 Author: Daniel Randall

With proposed government privatisation within the British prison service, and with prison officers taking illegal strike action in recent years, issues of what attitude socialists should take to incarceration and capitalist “justice” have come to the fore. Daniel Randall discussed some of these issues with Joe Black of the Campaign Against Prison Slavery, an activist group fighting for prisoners’ rights from an “abolitionist” perspective. This is an edited version of the interview. The full version is at www.workersliberty.org/node/14838.

DR: What are the aims of your campaign? How do you organise?

JB: CAPS was formed in 2002 by ex-prisoners, prisoners’ families and a number of groups involved in prisoner support and solidarity. We campaign against forced labour in prisons generally and the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS) in particular, the system of rewards and punishments, brought in in the aftermath of the Strangeways prisoner rebellion and the Woolf Report inquiry into it, a system designed to ensure control over and the compliance of the prison population.

Our focus then changed to challenging the firms like Aramark that were directly involved in the exploitation of prisoner labour. The high street hardware shop chain Wilkinsons was chosen as a high profile target, with regular pickets and leafleting outside stores.

DR: You see yourself as “abolitionist”... Some people would argue that fighting for reforms around the specific issue of prison slavery cedes ground to the idea that prisons should exist, just operate more humanely/”fairly”. (I don’t agree with this argument myself or think it’s implied by your campaign; I’m playing “devil’s advocate”.) What are your thoughts?

JB: CAPS has always argued its case from an explicitly abolitionist standpoint, its supporters have been largely drawn from anti-prison groups and it has mainly worked with abolitionist organisations like No More Prison and CoRe (Communities of Resistance). We of course have had links with prison reform organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust and the Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards, some no doubt because we challenge their positions and reformist organisations always seek to co-opt that which they find challenging.

DR: It’s clear that there are some anti-capitalist implications to a lot of your arguments; do you think prison abolition is something achievable under capitalism or will it only be possible to eradicate prisons in a post-capitalist society? If the former, what immediate alternative to prisons do you advocate?

JB: Crime is essentially a product of capital and the majority of laws ultimately seek to maintain social inequalities, protecting the wealthy and privileged from those who might try to take away their ill-gotten gains. The vast majority of people in prison have always been from the working class and the rich and powerful rarely enter its gates. Therefore it is logical to assume that the abolition of prison is only possible in a post-capitalist society.

Which brings us to the classic question, “What about murder in a post-capitalist society?” There will always be accidental injuries and deaths caused by individuals, just as there will always be conflicts between individuals and, to a lesser extent, groups but surely in a truly healthy post-capitalist society there will be ways to de-escalate such conflicts and prevent potential unwanted outcomes. And in a world without societal inequalities, a world without need, there will be no need to find illicit ways to acquire capital.

DR: There’s some debate on the radical left and within the workers’ movement about whether prison officers — whose union has been relatively militant recently and has been led by people who identify very explicitly as socialists (its previous general secretary was a member of a revolutionary group!) — are workers or part of the armed machinery of the state in the same way that police and soldiers are. What’s your view on this?

JB: Prisons, as I’ve already stated, are by and large used as a weapon to keep the working class compliant, to protect the rich and help maintain the structural inequalities in our society; to keep a lid on the fermenting unrest within it. And prison officers are an essential part of the machinery that keeps prisons functioning.

That they and most of the rest of the workers’ movement look upon them as being “workers in uniform” is delusional to say the least. They are obviously a “part of the armed machinery of the state”, and in that, effectively an enemy of the working class. The POA certainly want to lock as many people up as possible to maintain and extend their membership.

DR: What do you think are the implications of the government’s current policy on prisons and imprisonment? What demands should activists be fighting for in response?

JB: The prison system is in crisis and has been for decades. Now there’s a need to find 25% “savings” in the £2.2 billion HMPS budget. How they are going to find the savings is anyone’s guess. One thing that is sure, with staff costs amounting to 80% of the whole budget, POA members are going to be directly in the firing line.

Obviously, the idea of not jailing people on shorter sentences could save some money. NAPO, the National Association of Probation Officers, have claimed that the government could save £350 million if they were to end sentences of six months or less but would then need £50-60 million to recruit the necessary probation officers to supervise the replacement community sentences. Yet the ending of sentences of less than 12 months would also be likely to result in a shift towards longer sentences and a negation of the hoped cut in the prison population.

Clearly the big winners in all this will be the outsourcing firms who stand to profit from what is effectively a massive plan to further privatise the criminal justice industry.

This I think is the big threat; the slippery slope towards an ever more American-style Prison Industrial Complex and that people should definitely be campaigning against. Not because I think the state should be the body providing these “services” but because private industry should not be profiting from the misery of prisoners in any form.


Submitted by guenter on Mon, 25/10/2010 - 13:01

but those on the left are continually in danger of alienating themselves from the working classes by taking an overwhelmingly sympathetic and sometimes almost jusitiying attitude towards crime.

sorry, but i think thats nonsense.
the prisons are indeed to protect the capitalist class from all, who could be dangerous for them. the prisons are not mainly there 4 little thieves, but for those from social resistance &4 revolutionarees.

Submitted by Clive on Mon, 25/10/2010 - 15:30

Guenter - whatever the theory about the ultimate purpose of prisons, for sure it is not true that most people in them are 'those from social resistance and revolutionaries'. Whether most of the people in prison deserve to be there is another question again.

But Dan Factor surely has a point that trying to claim to people from working class estates suffering from crime that *all* prisons do is lock up revolutionaries is not going to get you very far.

There was another discussion about this recently on this site here.

Submitted by guenter on Mon, 25/10/2010 - 19:38

i didnt say, most people IN there (yet) are from social resistance, but that the prisons once had been created rather 4 them than for little thiefes.
time will come, when jails will be filled again with lefties.
no more softcorners pls in opinions bout this system.

Submitted by Clive on Mon, 25/10/2010 - 22:23

I am not disputing that prisons can and - if the need arises from the ruling class's point of view - will be used to incarcerate lefties. But there are questions to do with, say, murderers, rapists and so on, and also thieves, actually - if not 'little' ones. There is a great deal to be said about the existing prison system - but saying their sole function is repressive seems to me a) false, and b) sounds absurd to many working class people (because it is false).

I don't know what a 'softcorner' is. If I am one, I have a right to express my opinion. And you should be able to answer it, not rule it out of order.

Submitted by guenter on Mon, 25/10/2010 - 23:56

to deny, that the main function of prisons is repression -never heard a marxist denying this- is ur soft position towards the capitalist system and his repressions.

u think, thieves must be locked up? yeah, than put the capitalists in, cause they daily steal from the poor masses.

and, i said "please"- a request is not "ruling it out of order".

Submitted by Mark on Tue, 26/10/2010 - 19:38

A quick glance at my local paper. The weekly 'In the Dock' column includes the following: a man is awaiting deportation in custody. So far, so straightforward. It seems this man was first arrested, however, for (reading between the lines) sexual harassment.
Or how about the man who killed another man outside a nightclub for spilling his drink? He got life.
Or the three boys who raped a 13-year-old girl. They are being sentenced in November, having been found guilty.
Etc etc.
The point is not to justify prison as it exists, or to justify the particular verdicts or sentences. (No doubt most people in prison shouldn't be there - which is, incidently, different from arguing nothing should be expected from someone who puts a brick through a neighbour's window or steals a car.) But it does show that life's a little more complex than G. seems to think.
So G. what should be done with murderers? and rapists?

Submitted by guenter on Wed, 27/10/2010 - 01:11

mark,pls dont judge me by that short expression.actually i dont have the time 2 post here too in length, and i was stressed. but if u check some postings of mine on other articles here,which interested me more, or my recent article bout germany, or my greeting word to the awl-conference, i hope u can see that i know very well bout the complexity of life.

i know about murderers and rapists, and that we cant immediately "burn the prisons to the ground", as joan baez does sing, although it sounds so beautiful (both, the song &the idea). but still i believe, that prisons in capitalism are rather build 4 repression.
AND the quest is, how much murder and rape have to do with the brute and sexist society we live in? can we hope, that murder and rape may decrease in a true socialist society, or is it a naive believe, to think that humans are born good, and only the capitalist circumstances make them bad? i consider the possibillity that this might be wrong. but if u may -perhaps- find this believe naive, than we all can give up to work 4 socialism and return 2 the believe of the church, sayin´that humans are born bad.

Submitted by Clive on Wed, 27/10/2010 - 20:20

"to deny, that the main function of prisons is repression -never heard a marxist denying this- is ur soft position towards the capitalist system and his repressions".

Depending on what 'main function' means, I might be prepared to accept this formulation, but you're not addressing the issues being raised here. These are real issues - and if all you can say is that to raise them is to be 'soft towards repression', there is a problem even debating.

"AND the quest is, how much murder and rape have to do with the brute and sexist society we live in? can we hope, that murder and rape may decrease in a true socialist society, or is it a naive believe, to think that humans are born good, and only the capitalist circumstances make them bad? i consider the possibillity that this might be wrong. but if u may -perhaps- find this believe naive, than we all can give up to work 4 socialism and return 2 the believe of the church, sayin´that humans are born bad."

Well, we don't how how people will behave when class society is a memory. But I think to pose it as 'we're all born good' or 'we're all born bad' is not helpful - nor is the reference to the church. People are human, capable of many things in different circumstances - extraordinarily wonderful things, and terrible things. Obviously it's in human nature to do the terrible things, or people wouldn't be able to do them.

Personally, I do think it's naive to think a socialist society will see no murder, rape, or other evil acts. And I'm inclined to think that if this is our goal, it's a big 'ask', as they say - and a bit of a hostage to fortune. Certainly, saying, in effect, 'there's no need to worry about any of this, evil actions are entirely the product of class society' is an inadequate answer to the questions. Does that make me soft on the capitalists and their repression? If it does, so be it.

Submitted by guenter on Wed, 27/10/2010 - 23:13

the statement from dan factor is soo highly demagoguel twisting my words around, including the mistakes i make in english, that i refuse to reply that and begin 2 wonder if i sympathise with the right organisation.
he sounds like an old rightwing socialdemocrat who is afraid of thieves, cause he has a lot in his purse. my one is always empty.
he hooks on 2 sentences i somehow had apologised for in my last statement, sayin ´that i wrote 2short and in stress.
also clive did overlook that, as i can tell by his opening lines 1-5. . maybe both of u shall read, what i wrote in my greeting adress bout the importance of the personal behaviour.
1 thing is most interesting: i have comments on at least 2 dozens of threads, sometimes only kind little qests, and no replies. the only 2 threads where i get many replies and unfriendly ones, are those, where i reqested, if some here are 2 soft on this system. did i hit the nail on the head? i refuse to discuss in the style of dan factor. goodbye!

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 27/10/2010 - 23:49

Not everyone who comments on our website is a member of our organisation.

Submitted by Clive on Wed, 27/10/2010 - 23:54

Guenter - I don't understand your last comment: "clive did overlook that, as i can tell by his opening lines 1-5. . maybe both of u shall read, what i wrote in my greeting adress bout the importance of the personal behaviour." (I mean simply I don't understand it). I don't mean at all to be unfriendly. I'm trying to have a discussion.

Submitted by guenter on Thu, 28/10/2010 - 01:34

the quest of clive shows exactly the insensitivity. i have discussed with people who did only know a few words in german, but i understood what they meant/tried to say.
i wrote in my statement "hey come on" that i realised that what i wrote was not well elaborated. instead of accepting this, u start with quotating a sentence i almost apologised for, instead of leaving this behind now. so i said, it seemed u overlooked what i wrote b4- and u ask what i mean. my goodness! my english isnt perfect, but i dont speak chinese, but there isnt any feeling how i may mean it if iam not 100% correct.

and a similar thing:u say, "good or bad is not helpful". damn! in my own language i know more differenciating words than "good" or bad". in english i just didnt had them at hand, and instead of catching the sense what i tried to explain, u come down on me for simplyfying things into good and bad.
also i didnt say naively that there will be no rape and murder in socialism. i only waged the quest, if it might be less. i meant 2 ask, if its part of human nature or a result of this society. u say, terrible things -nothing else i meant with "bad"- are part of human nature. are they? (THAT IS what the conservatives &the church does say. they say, because terrible things -"being bad"- is part of human nature, socialism cant work.) cud it be, that u dont wanna explore anymore, how much of this terrible nature cud be result of class society? thats i meant with, if u are soft on the system. it wasnt meant as abuse either.

anyway, i dont have the time 2 afterwards write an explaination to any sentence. if people are not sensitive enough to catch the sense or spirit of what some1 tries 2 express, than i better dont take part.

Submitted by Clive on Thu, 28/10/2010 - 05:47


I know the frustrations of trying to debate in a foreign language, and sympathise.

With respect, though, that works both ways - and you could be hearing rudeness or insensitivity where none is intended. I didn't understand what you meant (I hadn't registered the 'oh come on', and I still don't really understand what it refers to). That might make me stupid, but if I don't understand something, I don't understand it.

If I knew you, it might be easier to tell what you intend - the 'sense or spirit' of what you're saying. As it is, I can't go on much more than what you write. You're accusing me of being soft on capitalism, on repression, etc; and of being a 'softcorner', which doesn't sound very polite. I haven't accused you of anything.

You want me to be able to work out that you have a more complex understanding of things than 'good' or 'bad', for instance. But then you're wondering if I have ever considered that people's terrible behaviour is because of class society. I have been a Marxist for nearly thirty five years; of course I have thought about it, and nowadays don't find it entirely convincing (though of course I agree it's part, perhaps a big part, of the explanation). You don't know me, so how could you know that?

And btw I am not a member of the AWL, although I have been in the past and consider myself a sympathiser. So what I say doesn't have any bearing on the AWL's behaviour on this site.

Submitted by guenter on Sat, 30/10/2010 - 02:45

dan stated some more nonsense, which i didnt say so.

cliff, its ok. i might have made the mistake, to expect from new people, that immediately they may understand me as well as old friends.
for example, iam not accusing u. i know that u are subjective honest 4 socialism- but even people from "left" reformist organisations are subjective convinced, to work honesty for socialism, and so is even the basis of stalinist parties. there is an subjective want an an objective result. if i say, im afraid, that the consequence of what u say may end in being soft on capitalism, is no personal abuse or intended 2 be unkind. can we leave that here?
i think, u rushed over the main point: if we say, that acting terrible is a part of human nature which may not vanish in socialism (cause its a part of human nature), shall that not lead to give up on the fight 4 socialism? if we cant change or cancel terrible behaviour, then how can socialism work? then what are we fighting for? wasnt the last aim of socialism "a new type of man" ? this was what i always wanted 2 fight for -in the end- , not just for a few coins more.

Submitted by guenter on Sat, 30/10/2010 - 03:01

Prison Trilogy

(Words and Music by Joan Baez)

Billy Rose was a low rider, Billy Rose was a night fighter
Billy Rose knew trouble like the sound of his own name
Busted on a drunken charge
Driving someone else's car
The local midnight sheriff's claim to fame

In an Arizona jail there are some who tell the tale how
Billy fought the sergeant for some milk that he demanded
Knowing they'd remain the boss
Knowing he would pay the cost
They saw he was severely reprimanded

In the blackest cell on "A" Block
He hanged himself at dawn
With a note stuck to the bunk head
Don't mess with me, just take me home

Come and lay, help us lay
young Billy down

Luna was a Mexican the law called an alien
For coming across the border with a baby and a wife
Though the clothes upon his back were wet
Still he thought that he could get
Some money and things to start a life

It hadn't been too very long when it seemed like everything went wrong
They didn't even have the time to find themselves a home
This foreigner, a brown-skin male
Thrown into a Texas jail
It left the wife and baby quite alone

He eased the pain inside him
With a needle in his arm
But the dope just crucified him
He died to no one's great alarm

Come and lay, help us lay
Young Luna down
And we're gonna raze, raze the prisons
To the ground

Kilowatt was an aging con of 65 who stood a chance to stay alive
And leave the joint and walk the streets again
As the time he was to leave drew near
He suffered all the joy and fear
Of leaving 35 years in the pen

And on the day of his release he was approached by the police
Who took him to the warden walking slowly by his side
The warden said "You won't remain here
But it seems a state retainer
Claims another 10 years of your life."

He stepped out in the Texas sunlight
The cops all stood around
Old Kilowatt ran 50 yards
Then threw himself down on the ground

They might as well just have laid
The old man down
And we're gonna raze, raze the prisons
To the ground
Help us raze, raze the prisons
To the ground

© 1971, 1972 Chandos Music (ASCAP)

Submitted by guenter on Wed, 03/11/2010 - 12:58

i think, u rushed over the main point: if we say, that acting terrible is a part of human nature which may not vanish in socialism (cause its a part of human nature), shall that not lead to give up on the fight 4 socialism? if we cant change or cancel terrible behaviour, then how can socialism work? then what are we fighting for? wasnt the last aim of socialism "a new type of man" ? this was what i always wanted 2 fight for -in the end- , not just for a few coins more.

strange, it seems that a discussion often does stop, when i brought it "to the point", as above. any1 afraid of the consequences of his own thoughts?
clive, i wudnt had mind 2 hear u opinion bout this sentences above.

Submitted by guenter on Fri, 05/11/2010 - 00:03

actually the last statement is adding the quest, if working class (or poor) people are more nice and helpful and of better character than richer people.
i think this can also not be said in general and i also dont think, that its only conditioning. otherwise, anything can be blamed on ur parents and teachers only (or whoever brought u up).
thats why i had already said above: ok, lets think that being terrible is just part of human nature, as clive said, which will not really or fully change in socialism. so i brought this thought to the point: then why we dont give up on socialism and fiht for it, if human nature cant be changed? didnt we fight at least for a new type of mankind, and not only 4 some coins more?

Submitted by Clive on Fri, 05/11/2010 - 10:15

It seems to me the question is - what is human nature? I don't think socialism should be about trying to 'rebuild' human beings in some way - I don't think human beings under socialism could or will be completely different from human beings now. Rather, socialism must be compatible with human nature as it already is. Socialism is about giving full power to that part of human nature which is to do with social solidarity, and so on.

It's a matter of trying to work out which aspects of human behaviour are about our *nature*, and which are simply the result of existing class conditions. I think quite often it's hard to say, since we don't have some sort of 'socialist control group' to compare ourselves with.

But it doesn't seem to me right to imagine that socialism will result in the complete eradication of all those things people do which we don't like; and it doesn't seem to me to follow that if you think you *can't* eliminate all the bad things about human behaviour, socialism is therefore impossible. It seems right, and reasonable, to have a slightly lower ambition, if you like, for what is possible, even under socialism. (And I don't think that just means 'a few coins more' - we can be more ambitious than that!)

Submitted by guenter on Fri, 05/11/2010 - 13:25

if socialism must be compatible with human nature as it is now (clive), then i really wonder how it shall work.
btw, whenever i discussed with ex-sed-members from ex-GDR, they also used as excuse 4 the badness of their stalinist "socialism", that they cud only work with the type of people they had.

clive, if i understand u right, we shud do it 4 less than the "new type of man", trotzki spoke about. i dont think so. but sometimes iam afraid, this yet-to-come new type of men should already be in existense, to guarantee that socialism functions.
cause on 1 hand, the majority of people does change only very slowly. on the other , it took only 5 years for the party of the 1st socialist revolution, to degenerate.
so, if it may need generations or hundreds of years, to complete the new type of men, who shall govern all the time, till all people are able 2 live without state and police? (the end-aim of communism.) if its 1 rev party, govering so long, it will degenerate again. if it are changing parties or coalition parties, capitalism may be restored again, socialism never reached.
lets say, there was a revolution and the rev. party is leading. majority will not change within 5 years, but its possible, as we saw, that a rev. party can degenerate so quickly. lets say, after 50 years, the basis of the leading party will inform their leadership, that anywhere in the country the people are able now, 2 govern themselve and the state &his apparatus no more needed. will those, who made rev. with 30, and are 80 now, 50 years in power, freely give up on it? i dont think so.
if its not possible, as clive says, to burn out the most type of bad and egoistic behaviour, then socialism may never work, or its not that what i consider as /communism: a equal, classless society without state and police and people who can govern themselves without all that, cause they are good. if they are not all good, and maybe they never will, than this what marx originally dreamed of, will not work.
also, he thought about disbanding the existence of money. how shall that work in a highly complex society? I cant buy my bread and clothes and shoes in giving articles and poems to the baker instead, or by producing bread and clothes and shoes by myself.

Submitted by Clive on Fri, 05/11/2010 - 19:40

Lots of interesting stuff to discuss there, guenter - so forgive me if I only make one point at the moment.

What I meant was that socialism must be compatible with something essential about human beings, or it is impossible - it can't be true that socialism depends on having to invent an entirely new kind of human being first.

I think there are essential things about human beings as a species which mean that a co-operative, democratically planned, fair, just, equal etc society (I guess *exactly* what we mean by socialism is part of this discussion, but I'll leave my definition at that for the moment) is possible.

There are some ugly, violent, awful things about human behaviour which probably are the result of specific class societies. But I think it's pretty likely that there are some things which to some degree we will always have to reckon with. If what we mean by socialism requires its citizens to never be jealous, never be cruel, never be selfish, never be violent at all (in anger, at least), never be overambitious and want to do someone else down , never (any of them) want to break the laws or social codes of society, and so on - I think that kind of 'perfect utopia' is probably not possible. And it's not necessary to postulate this kind of 'super-human' in order to think that a society which is a vast improvement on capitalism is entirely possible - and therefore to fight for it.

Submitted by guenter on Fri, 05/11/2010 - 23:49

-sorry all, we just got into an interesting discussion, but right now i decided to stop writing on this website till i got an convincing explaination, why 1 statement of mine at "the survivors of atlantis" was cancelled. (i had put 4 discussion an article of another group against the yugoslawian war.)

Submitted by guenter on Sat, 06/11/2010 - 11:42

simply stupid- who has the stalinist method now, 4 all 2 see?
Submitted by guenter on 6 November, 2010 - 11:37.
instead of replying to my remarks above -some1 seems 2 have difficulties with that-. i got censored (1 article cancelled) and the protest against the censorship also got censored- thats not only a stalinist method, its plain stupid, knowing that i have the possibillity to publish and inform about that in many a place. this method opened my eyes 2 understand, that the AWL is not better or more serious or more democratic than others, and that i was 2 quicly 2 enthusiastic about it (an old mistake of my personal temper). i will therefore break up my relationship with AWL and request the censor 2 go on and also cancel my greetingword 2 the AWL-conference and the article i wrote about germany (now sitemapped). i think, i hold the copyright 4 them and dont want them 2 be here anymore.
my personal prognose -and in the past, i was always right with that-, is: a group who act like this, will not be able 2 win a significant number of new people in the future, and in 20 years still sit with the same number of people than in the last 20 years. in revolutions 2 come, they will play no role.
now rush quickly 2 cancel the haretic,ur urself claiming, being so unorthodox, haha

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