When the Home Office recently (27 July) released its projections for the UK prison population, the Howard League for Penal Reform commented: “The prison population is currently at a record high of 78,500. This is 75% higher than 15 years ago when the population was 45,000. Last Friday there were 4,492 women in prison and 11,490 young men and boys aged under 21.”
More than nine million people around the world are in prison. The country that imprisons the most is the USA. According to the World Prison Population List, published each year by the International Centre for Prison Studies, in February 2005 in the USA 686 people in every 100,000 were in prison. The countries with the next highest prison populations were Belarus, Bermuda and Russia (532 in every 100,000).
Until the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the UK had one of the highest rates in the EU. In 2005 the rate in England and Wales was 142 per 100,000, Scotland 132 and Northern Ireland 72. The rate in France in 2005 was 91 per 100,000.
Below we print translated extracts of an interview published recently by France’s Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire with Gabriel Mouesca, a campaigner for prison reform in France.
A militant of the military-political Basque organisation Iparretarrak, Gabriel Mouesca was imprisoned from the age of 22, and released shortly before his 40th birthday. During those 17 years he experienced isolation, hunger strikes, repeated transfers, escapes, as well as different kinds of prison protest. On his release, in 2001, he was put in charge of the prisons programme of the French Red Cross, then, in 2004, he was elected president of the French section of the International Prisons Observatory (OIP). He relates this amazing journey in a book of interviews, La Nuque Raide [The Stiff Neck] (Philippe Rey).
In The Stiff Neck you don’t only tell us about your prison experiences…
GM: That’s true, the book starts with my early life and, along the way, I recall my first cultural activities during my adolescence, then my (legal) political and trade union militancy. Next I talk about my activity at the heart of a clandestine political-military structure, Iparretarrak (in Basque: “those from the North”).
I first of all wanted to explain what drove me to engage in the fight for the liberation of the Basque people, before explaining my resistance to the destructiveness of prisons, and ending with the fight that we are leading today in the International Prisons Observatory.
You claim that in your trade union activity you experienced the best moments of your life…
GM: At the age of 19, in the run-up to the 1981 presidential election, I took part in the occupation of the factory where I worked. So I know that state of grace of the worker in struggle who experiences the solidarity of resistance and defies the boss on his own territory. Unfortunately, after four months of combat, we were all sacked, even though the boss was locked up for 14 months for some embezzlements that we had exposed. A far from perfect outcome but the experience marked me forever. At that time, I wore my overalls with the same pride that others feel when they pick up their Legion d’honneur.
Seventeen years of prison, then your mission for the Red Cross and your activity with the OIP gave you a solid knowledge of prison life. How do you feel about prison today?
GM: I experienced imprisonment, then I organised a sort of humanitarian intervention into the sphere of prison by the Red Cross. Henceforth I am at the head of the organisation which is a countervailing power to the Ministry of Justice on the subject of prisons policy. These are three distinct experiences, three different takes on prison, but they complement each other! The more I know about the world of prison, the more convinced I am that prison is a tool that is not worthy of our level of civilisation, only serving the interests of those who maintain the unjust functioning of our society and organise the inequalities in it.
On the other side, the people who want a more just world and for all sections of exploited humanity to fight back can only reject the prison system. Prison has always been the punishment of the poor. Moreover, the majority of prisoners come from the third and fourth world. If we were determined to solve inequalities and injustices, we would have no more need of prisons. We need schools, hospital places, cultural centres… And not new prisons!
The OIP organises an estates general of the prison condition. What is that about?
GM: … this amazing project …aims to bring about a profound reform of the prison system and, more generally, to make French society think about the role of prison. The estates general consists of an inquiry conducted among everyone involved in the justice and prison system: the 8,500 magistrates, the 45,000 lawyers, the 23,000 prison administration employees, the 25,000 prison visitors as well as the 60,000 prisoners themselves and their families (one questionnaire for each family). The people consulted will all answer the same questionnaire.
It is the first time in the history of French prisons that such an operation has been organised and that the detainees, who usually “have no voice”, will be able to give their opinions which will have the same weight as those of magistrates or supervisors. In itself, this constitutes a veritable cultural revolution!…
Concretely, what function will these estates general of the prison system fulfil?
GM: … big regional debates will be organised during the course of autumn 2006. Finally, we will present, in the form of a list of grievances, the fruit of this vast consultation to the presidential election candidates in spring 2007. This time, it is not a question of drawing up another alarmist report, we will be addressing them with a real injunction to do something!
So the prison question will become an issue in the candidates’ campaigns?
GM: Yes, next year the prison question will be at the heart of the electoral debate. Several declared candidates have already included some proposals related to prison policy in their programme, and equally to penal policy. The forces of progress must sign up to a dynamic that is resolutely anti-prison: we must persuade our contemporaries against the idea that prison is a necessary evil! Society cannot pride itself on its justice until the day when it has closed all its prisons.
Questions by Dominique Bacquier
Translation and introduction by Vicki Morris