Sunday, 21 August 2011
The Politicisation of Criminalisation
"Police seek 30,000 Rioters" according to the Metropolitan police. Even allowing for Press hyperbole, that's an incredible jump in potential prisoners at the going rate of current sentences being handed down to the rioters who have already been identified and processed through the courts.
Given that our pre-existing prison population is 90,000, were all these 30,000, or even half of that, caught and sentenced,well you do the maths. Given a prison infrastructure that is already barely able to cope with the pre-riot inundations on its scanty resources.
So that becomes one pinch point, in the deterioration of the conditions of housing prisoners due to overcrowding.
Pinch point two, is consider the effect of some 15% of the prison population all arriving at broadly the same time into the system and all for the same sort of offences. It would seriously tilt the balance and make-up of the prisoner population.
So what? you may ask. They're all criminals of whatever stripe aren't they? Well I'd ask you to consider the potential for a politicisation of this new intake. Many arrive into the system probably already nursing the grievances that may have partly informed their actions during the riots. At the very least many are possessed of the economic and social arguments of their circumstances, even if they don't actually credit them as motives for their behaviour. Now add the overcrowding and lack of any real resources to manage a proper rehabilitation process within the prisons and their political grievances are enhanced further.
While they may also influence some of those other inmates already within the system and to politicise them about the injustices and conditions in which they find themselves within the swollen inmate numbers. Of course their arguments may also be discounted by the current inmate population. In the same way that they regard sex criminals as beyond the pale, they may reject these new prisoners and shun any unity with them. But I think they are rather more likely to find common unity of purpose. Uniting against the prison system they find themselves housed in.
Does this crucible remind you of any other eras? We don't have the prompt of Civil Rights, Race and Ethnicity, the opposition to the Vietnam War and student protest, to anything like the same degree that the US did in the 1960s. And Marxism and Maoism and the Black Panthers are not broadly percolating throughout our prison system as they were back in the 1960s US. But I think similar, less ideological preconditions exist all the same. It will focus around the reasons for disaffection and take the form of protest, violence and possibly even riot, over untenable prison conditions as it did in America. Attica, San Quentin, Soledad, Oklahoma and Idaho to name but five.
But it may well go further. The two books I offer at the head of this post, both trace the forging of an anti-authoritarian stance and more significantly an anti-authoritarian language. This was brought about by the abuse of the prison authorities and a resistance to that by the prisoners. They refused to back down in the face of whatever abuse was being heaped on them. (Jimmy Boyle's autobiography paints the same journey, only his was undertaken in complete isolation in the Scottish prison system of the late 60's and 70s, not as part of some wider political movement). The US prisoners instinctively bucked at the violence and degradation being heaped on them and became politiicsed in their analysis of the power structures underlying it all (aided by their readings in Marx et al).
What happened was that complete unwillingness to kowtow to authority found its way back on to the streets in the US and permeated the criminal classes since some of those ex-inmates were career criminals. It's the attitude that informs US gangs. It's the language of not being disrespected, of the same demonstration of status and escalation of revenge and violence as pervaded their prison life.
We are already at that point with many of the rioters, who show no fear of the authorities, as demonstrated in their actions a fortnight ago. (hardly surprising since Britain has imported many aspects of US gang culture, see my post here). I hate to think what protracted sentences, plus politicisation at whatever informal level, will wreak on their thinking here and now in the 21st century. They will eventually be released and they may just be even more unreachable than they are now. Their baleful influence may be even more widespread when they are back in the general population.
And there will be prison protests and riots over the next couple of years. That may just be the least of our problems.