The Prison Riots

In a world full of desperately eager advertising men, the prisons are notable for their desire to avoid publicity. In the limelight, they are positively uncomfortable; the recent demonstrations by the prisoners, attracting all the news media, have caused them a lot of embarrassment.

Responsibility for the demonstrations was claimed by an organisation going under the ambitious name of Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP). The first protests came in the form of sit-downs by men on remand. The Home Office advised the prisons to play this one cool; the demonstrations never got out of hand and it was deemed safe enough to allow some minor improvements in the remand men’s conditions. The next stage was the demonstrations by convicted prisoners. It seemed the same cool policy might have been applied, except that the prison officers reacted against the official “soft” line. They too got their publicity and Home Secretary Carr could hardly refuse to back them. Anyone who now breaks prison rules (in other words anyone who takes part in a demonstration inside) will be punished. PROP huffed and puffed and threatened to step up their campaign but the punishments went ahead with some men losing as much as a year’s remission, which amounts to being sentenced to another year in gaol. As PROP contemplates its next move and tries to deal with its own internal revolt, the prisons are very likely praying that for a while they will be out of the headlines.


The demonstrations were a stage in the long-standing state of crisis in British prisons. To begin with they are desperately overcrowded, in spite of all the official attempts to reduce their population. Overcrowding can mean three men locked up in a room designed for only one, for twenty-three hours a day. The tensions built up among prisoners in an overcrowded prison are also felt by the warders — and under tension they are unlikely to handle a demonstration with much delicacy or sympathy.

In 1969 the government announced a big programme of building new prisons and renovating the old ones. Holloway, for example, is now slowly being replaced by a new prison which is being built on its existing site. The plans for this new prison impressed, not to say excited, many penal reformers but disappointed many others who think that most of the tragic women who get sent to prison should really be in hospital. In many ways the building plans have been overtaken by the rise in prison population and by the increased emphasis on security—on stopping the prisoners escaping—which came after the Mountbatten Report of 1968.

Mountbatten, one of the blue-blooded war heroes and dirty-work performers of British capitalism, was put to investigating prison security after George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs. This was only the latest in a series of escapes by men like train-robber Charles Wilson and gunman John McVicar, who had earned himself a number of dramatic titles like the Most Wanted Crook in England. As a result of Mountbatten great cliffs of wire were erected within the outer brick walls, backed up with more sophisticated devices like closed circuit TV and geophonic zones.

The report recommended that prisoners should be graded according to the necessity of preventing their escape and that those in the top Category A—men like Blake, Wilson, McVicar—should be concentrated in a single, fortress-like prison on the Isle of Wight. Such a prison would have been a place of tremendous tensions, which was the main reason for the government rejecting the idea in favour of dispersing some of the Category A men among those of a lower category.


Dispersal has produced tensions of its own, with the warders complaining that some of the “hard nuts” have terrorised other prisoners into supporting their empires of prison rackets. In fact this has nothing to do with the dispersal policy; the prisons have always had their underworld and the barons are well-established figures who operate although their identity is well known to the prison authorities. It is very often only by such compromises and “blind-eye” tactics that prisons are able to be run.

As the demonstrations spread and grew, with men sitting it out on the roof at Parkhurst and other places, and as the warders’ anger mounted, the government were heard to regret that the prisoners were fomenting an emergency which was delaying the “rehabilitation” which is the prisons’ proper work. Leaving aside for the moment what they mean by “rehabilitation”, it should be said that the official picture of a prison, where work to rehabilitate the prisoners is busily going on all the time, is one which would not be recognised by anyone who had spent any time inside the places. In prison people who are sick—physically, mentally, socially—are left to while away long stretches of their life until early one morning they are pushed out of the gate (it is officially known as “release”) into the unwelcoming world outside.

PROP burst onto the tense, overcrowded prison scene a few months ago, with a Charter of Prisoners’ Rights running to several sheets of foolscap. At first the organisation declared itself to be exclusively in the hands of ex-prisoners (anyone who has not been inside can be at best an associate member) but after recent events it would be no surprise to see PROP subjected to the familiar process of being infiltrated, then taken over, by elements whose interest in prisoners’ rights is at best passing.

Most of the “rights” demanded by PROP would need too large an adjustment in the assumptions of the prison institution to have much of a chance of being realised. This is illustrated by the example of one of the demands which has in fact in some cases been granted — the “right” to have a prisoners’ representative on the managing board of the prison. In quite a few places this has happened but with little effect apart from allowing the authorities to claim that the inmates have a say in running the prison.


The important fact which PROP is trying to ignore is that capitalism is a system which gives few rights even to its “free” people, so that prisoners have even fewer. Those they do have often exist more in theory than in reality; the Prison Rules exist to define and protect certain rights but the particular nature of the prison institution can ensure that they are not applied. One rule says that food should be varied, well cooked, nutritious and so on, as if the prison were a swell hotel. People who have been inside know the truth about that.

Prison is a complete, restrictive institution, with all that implies. When a person is gaoled he can be said to lose his self-awareness; he is stripped of most of the identity symbols which even life as a worker under capitalism allows him and he is degraded to the level of a surname and a number. His life is entirely organised to meet the demands of the institution and he is under great pressure not to disrupt the institution by resisting those demands. Ironically, some of the most hardened prisoners surrender most completely; they are “model prisoners” who serve their time without causing any trouble. One of the warders at Albany prison was reported as describing a Kray as one of these prisoners—”a proper toff” he called him and from such lips there can be no higher praise.

But prisons exist for punishment (indeed the official line is that the confinement is itself punishment enough and that once through the gates there should be no more) which means that there must be continual conflict between the punished and the punishers. The punished—the prisoners—react defensively to the demands of the institution. Notably, they fashion their own code of conduct, what is sometimes called their own culture, by which they can unite to ease the problems of their confinement. Many of them see themselves as being outcasts and the unity of their code helps them to cling to some self-esteem by rejecting their rejecters. Together they can regard the rest with an aggressive cynicism.


Since the overwhelming majority of what are called offences are committed against property, it follows that most of the people in prison are there because in some way or another they have broken the property laws of capitalism by stealing something. Prisons developed almost by accident, as places where convicts were held before being transported, but then the theory was that they could be places where behaviour and attitudes might be changed, where people could be “rehabilitated” to lives in keeping with the inequalities of capitalism.

Pentonville, which was opened in 1842, was one of the first to be run on this theory. The prisoners were confined to their cells for their entire sentence; association with other prisoners was kept to the irreducible minimum and talking absolutely forbidden. In the solicitude of their cells, it was presumed, the inmates would reflect upon their past life and emerge determined to change. It is hardly necessary to add that this experiment was religiously inspired, on the theory enforced meditation would bring the prisoner to religion. What it frequently did was to drive them mad.

Nevertheless, in spite of all its setbacks, mainly due to all current theories being overwhelmed by facts, the idea of reform and rehabilitation has hung on, sprouting anew in a variety of forms. Coldingley prison is one of the latest examples, the pride of the Home Office. This is a prison run like a modern factory, with the overriding object of teaching the prisoners the disciplines and repressions of getting up and going to work, which are accepted and absorbed by most of the workers on the other side of the walls. Prison Rule No. 1 says that “the purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life” and it is a fact that few of the prisoners would ask for more than that. They too want to conform to the ambitions of the prison system, to be drawn in at one end as a criminal and spat out at the other as a docile, conforming, wage-earning, mortgage-paying, member of the working class. That is what is really meant by “rehabilitation”.


The people who are supposed to be actively engaged in this process are the prison officers, whose protests have been in the news. Here again, theory does not match with reality. The warders are not able to immunise themselves against the effects of the institution and many of them bear as many of its marks as do the prisoners. It is not so long ago that a new prison officer, on asking for instructions in his job, was likely to be told with a snarl “Do as I did, mister—find out for yourself”. Many of them take the job after a long time in the Forces, which as institutions bear many similarities to prisons; it is not overstating the case to say that they are often lost without the comfort  of  an  institution,  with  its  rigidity, its rules, its security. If “rehabilitation” were a possibility inside prison, men as committed to the institution as the warders are most unlikely to be able to do it.

In reality prisons, like so many of capitalism’s prized organisations, fail because they are based upon an ignorance of facts. Many prisoners are in gaol as simply another episode in a lifetime of social and personal crisis. They are victims of slumdom, of grinding poverty, of a human inability to cope with inhuman social pressures. People are interdependent to a great extent—they need each other for support, for security, for self-esteem, for simple existence. But capitalism’s demands at best distort human contact, at worst deny it altogether. In a social system based upon property rights, we do not relate to one another as human beings but as other cogs in the machinery of profit production, as fellow rats in the mindless, destructive race.

Most workers cope with these demands by dint of absorbing a lot of punishment and adapting to some crippling personality damage. After a lifetime of repressed misery they go unfulfilled to their graves. A minority deal with the pressures by reacting; however unconsciously, they protest—take drugs, commit crimes, go mad. Somewhere along this line the discipline machinery of capitalism is liable to pick them up and give them “treatment”, which as like as not will be a spell in prison.

The basic point is that capitalism cannot deal with its problem of crime any more than it can with bad housing, mental sickness, war, destitution. These are all part of one great problem, which can be solved only by a conscious action to end the society which imprisons us all.

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