Skip to content or view screen version

Return to Resistance

John Bowden | 13.10.2008 11:18 | Analysis | Repression | Social Struggles

What has become of prison revolts in the British prison system? Where now are the open expressions of collective anger and solidarity that fueled the uprisings and jail riots of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and created the iconic images of Hull 1976 and Strangeways 1990? What happened to the spirit of revolt that used to periodically shake the British long-term prison system and engender a philosophy of prisoner empowerment and solidarity, a philosophy that situated the struggle of prisoners at the very forefront of the universal struggle for human rights and even social revolution?

Has the British prison system now become so responsive to and accommodating of the rights of prisoners that revolt and protest has been rendered unnecessary and redundant? I think not. In fact British jails are now more chronically overcrowded than ever before and inmates virtually warehoused in conditions and under regimes probably worst than they were twenty years ago. The despair and misery created by such conditions is reflected in rates of self-harm and suicide that are inexorably growing, along with the length of sentences now dished out. And like never before the treatment of prisoners is increasingly influenced by a political climate and manipulated public mood supportive of even greater repression and revenge. Yet nowhere, apparently, is there the spirit of solidarity and organised resistance amongst prisoners that was so evident twenty years ago, no-where the readiness to fight back and literally raise the roof in protest. Instead of defiance there seems now only passive acquiescence and an acceptance of conditions and forms of treatment that previously would have mobilized disobedience and revolt.

Silence in the face of intolerable oppression is a disturbing phenomenon; in conditions of extreme cruelty the will to resist is inherently human and wholly characteristic of a healthy and intact human spirit possessing an integrity unique to our species.

Why then has the militancy that seemed to characterize the behavior of long-term prisoners, especially, towards the prison system been replaced by conformity and submission?

Organizationally, the prison system in terms of methods of control, prison architecture and design, etc, has developed significantly since the last major prison uprising at Strangeways in 1990. Before the Strangeways revolt the physical space of most large prisons was more or less controlled by the prisoners themselves and scrutiny and close supervision of that space by the jailers was difficult and haphazard. Apart from punishment/segregation units, most prisoners were housed in large wings where they were allowed to circulate freely and create a certain degree of autonomy of physical space; complete oversight and surveillance was impossible and control often tenuous, and where incidents of protest were sparked off they tended to spread without containment, developing a momentum that reached into most areas of the prison. Large group solidarity was a common feature of life in the long-term prisons and was reflected in the balance of institutional power which dictated that the co-operation and good will of prisoners was a vital and necessary prerequisite of relative control.

Changing the physical architecture of prisons was to become a key component in the state's strategy of eradicating large scale protest and seizing back control of physical space. The new-generation of prison architecture and the extensive re-design of prison space started in the early 1990s purpose-built small group control into wing lay-outs and won back completely the control of space from prisoners.

In Scotland where bloody revolts had convulsed the prison system during the 1970s and 1980s a massive building programme transformed the old open-plan halls and galleries into new “super wings”, enormous structures where space is divided and sub-divided into small self-contained units holding under 50 prisoners, all closely monitored and observed in small manageable groups. This separation and concentration of prisoners into small groups under almost microscopic surveillance effectively prevents and undermines the potential for large-scale disturbances by quickly identifying and weeding out “ringleaders” and containing and isolating conflict when it occurs. By transforming the physical space and design of jails institutional power has shifted back in favour of guards and removed the spectre of mass prison uprisings.

In and of itself building methods of control into the physical fabric of prisons does not eradicate completely the possibility and existence off rebellion, and when trying to understand the reasons for such a radical downturn in the prison struggle the wider social and cultural context is equally relevant.

The term “millennium prisoner” is now often used as a derogatory label by prisoners themselves for the current generation of prisoners who seem on the whole to have reconciled themselves with the institutional interests of the prison system and possess absolutely no memory of a time when prisoner culture was imbued with a spirit and attitude of resistance. This is not just a generational phenomenon but a social and political one also and reflects a fundamental change in the nature of the wider working class community from which most prisoners are drawn. On the whole the prisoners who revolted and fought the system during the most turbulent decades of prison protest, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, were products of close knit industrial working class communities with strong traditions of trade union organization and militancy; solidarity and mutual support were the lifeblood of these communities and informed the instincts of even those on the wrong side of the law. The generation of prisoners who riot and fought at Pankhurst in 1969, Hull in 1976 and Strangeways in 1990 were from communities still nourished by class consciousness and a “them and us” attitude, as well as an understanding that sticking together and showing solidarity was the most effective way of securing collective benefits and rights.

During the 1980s and 1990s the Thatcherite onslaught tore the heart and soul out of working class communities and transformed them into wastelands of depression, hopelessness and defeat, and bred a generation of young people saturated with cynicism, alienation and absolutely no memory of a time when principles like solidarity, community and mutual support defined working class identity. Even the more proletariat forms of property-related crime, which in a way represented a sort of elemental form of class warfare, gave way to a more viciously entrepreneurial drug crime based on crude capitalist principles and a contempt for poor communities and those who inhabit them. Drug dealing is a uniquely capitalist from of crime involving massive profit for the few and immense misery for the many, and is informed by a rejection of the sort of values or codes of the old criminal fraternity – never grass, resist authority and never hurt “one's own”. Modern drug dealers in attitude and mentality are the absolute antithesis of what were working class villains and their way or strategy of doing prison time is also radically different; collusion and co-operation with prison regimes has replaced defiance and resistance, and the fighting spirit that sometimes gave rise to a noble vision of positive change and reform; from the flames of revolts like Strangeways came manifestos of radical reform and an understanding and imperative that prisoners are as deserving of full human rights as any other human being. Today those sort of noble aspirations seem to have given way to a mood of defeat and conformity.

As microcosms of society prisons, in an often brutally exaggerated way, reflect the social condition and reality of life of the poor generally, and also the level of political activity and struggle of that group. When the poor are subdued and disorganized and kept under the heel so are those in prison; the reproduction of a junkie culture amongst prisoners accurately reflects what has taken hold in most poor and working class communities and districts on the outside.

What then are the chances of defiance and militancy re-emerging amongst large groups of prisoners and re-defining their current relationship with prison authority? The inexorable drive towards greater incarceration and the construction of virtual penal cities in the form of massive “Titan jails”, will eventually result in whole chunks of the poor and disadvantaged population being walled into factories of repression; sooner or later that repression, no matter how sophisticated and well-organised, will meet with resistance. There has always been a cyclical quality about protest, revolt and resistance, both in prison or outside in the wider world, and periods of quiescence and absolute social control are always fragile and essentially dependent on people co-operating in their own subjugation as opposed to control being imposed by force and coercion alone. As the South African Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko once said, “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of the oppressed themselves”. Those who administer the prison system equate a good prison with a well-controlled prison; the prime function of prison is to imprison efficiently and maintain absolute control over the imprisoned. Issues of human rights and respecting the inherent human dignity of the prisoner do not register in the mentality of the penal operator and ground has never been conceded on these issues unless prisoners themselves have forced them onto the agenda. There is a direct relationship between the limited liberalization of prison regimes in the British long-term jails during the 1970s and 1980s and the protests and demonstrations of that period that forced the system to concede ground. No significant reform of the prison system has ever been achieved by anyone other than prisoners themselves, usually as a result of collective direct action, and the progressive erosion of those reforms over the last 20 years is as a direct result and consequence of the change in prisoner culture and the diminution of collective struggle amongst prisoners. Unless the spirit of struggle is re-discovered, therefore, nothing will prevent a nightmarish vision of the prison world coming to pass; the mass imprisonment of social problem and poor people in huge privately-controlled jails where human rights are abandoned completely in the interests of profit and the total and absolute control over the imprisoned. It's maybe in all our interests ultimately that we see the return of a militant and unmanageable prison population.

John Bowden
HM Prison Glenochil
King O'Muir Road
FK10 3AD

John Bowden