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.