Prisons, suicide and profit

Britain imprisons more people per head of population than any other European country— 97 per 100,000. Even Turkey, with a repressive government and penal laws based on the criminal code of Mussolini’s Italy, and with thousands of political prisoners, cannot match Britain. And racist South Africa imprisons only 33 people per 100,000.
Neither does it look as if Britain’s prison population will decrease. A Home Office “forecast based on the assumption that crime will rise” (Guardian, 25 July 1991) suggests there will be over 54,000 prisoners in England and Wales in 1998.
For the vast majority of British inmates, theirs is a sordid world of overcrowding in decrepit prisons, slopping out, irregular visits, locked up for 23 hours a day, with frustrated and indifferent guards to contend with. Is it any wonder, then, that a significant number of prisoners, even though accustomed to a life of deprivation, inequality and humiliation on the outside, cannot cope with all that prison entails—the shock of arrest and detention, separation from loved ones, shame, anxiety and uncertainty—and decide to end their lives?
Between 1986 and 1990, 179 inmates committed suicide. In 1991 a further 42 took their own lives. Two thirds of these prisoners were on remand and were yet to be sentenced. What makes the case for remand victims so poignant is that 59 percent are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence when their cases are heard—some 27,000 out of 65,905 in 1989 (the last year for which statistics are available). An average of eight inmates a day attempt suicide or mutilate themselves—there were 3,000 reported cases last year. “We are talking about attempted hangings, slashing of the wrists, people cutting pieces of themselves” (Frances Crook, Director of Howard League, Independent, 17 April).
Judge Stephen Tumin’s 123 recommendations following his investigation into prison suicides and the 600-page Woolf Report four months later did little to better the lot of inmates or to alleviate the mental burden of the suicidal, in spite of both reports being damning indictments of British prisons, where priority was often “to process as quickly as possible a large number of prisoners with the minimum of disturbance” (Judge Tumin, Guardian, 20 December 1990).
Judge Tumin’s recommendations included redesigning cells to prevent suicide, better screening, improved codes of practice to reduce anxiety levels, and better standards regarding toilets, basins and privacy. The Woolf Report recommended that prison accommodation should match the number of prisoners by the end of 1992 and that jails should only allow overcrowding by three percent for seven days, after that on parliamentary approval. In spite of all that has been reported suicides in prisons continue apace and. although two-thirds of prisons have given more time for visits. chamber pots and overcrowding are still the normal way of life in many prisons.
In April, the government decided that the prison service in England and Wales would be taken away from ministerial control within a year to give managers increased operational independence. Kenneth Baker, the then Home Secretary, remarked how agency status would provide “the most positive environment for staff to work in and, above all, ensuring the delivery of an improved service both to the public and to those held in custody” (Guardian, 12 March). He did not mention that this would shield the government from the backlash following prison scandals and riots, and save a few quid into the bargain.
The scene now looks set for a privatised prison service with all that “privatisation” entails. In April. The Wolds prison in Hull was opened after Group 4 Remand Services beat off eight other competitors with a £4 million tender to run the £35.6 million prison, built to house 320 non-category A inmates.
The Howard League for Penal Reform, who carried out the first independent research into the management of privatised detention centres in Britain, discovered “obsessive secrecy, racist stereotyping and no tangible commitment to justice”. The Howard League believes profiteering from prisons pushes up numbers and asserted that “The Wolds prison would be a showcase (for Group 4) so that other more lucrative pickings can be canvassed from other world regimes” (Guardian, 2 April).
The 50 percent cut to prison education in April contradicted the government White Paper of September 1991 put out in response to the Woolf Report: “many prisoners have inadequate educational and social skills . . . without such skills the prospects for prisoners to live fulfilling and law abiding lives on release will be greatly diminished” (Guardian, 18 April).
Prisons, all said, are made necessary by the capitalist system as they are built to house those whose “deviancy” and “anti-social behaviour” is determined by the social system they are conditioned to live in. The problem of the crimes they commit

should be approached not only as a product of the unequal distribution of wealth and chaotic labour market, but also an important aspect of the demoralising social relations and individualistic ideology that characterises the capitalist mode of production in its highest phase. (T. Platt, Crime and Social Justice, 1978).

In removing the “unproductive elements” of capitalist society. prisons strengthen “the prevalent ideology that it is individuals not institutions that are to blame for social problems and for social failures . . . [prison] therefore serves to legitimize the basic institutions of capitalist society”. By keeping the “unproductive” out of sight, the prison provides an ideological veil to obscure the brutal consequences of our productive process” (M. Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt, 1977).
Imprisoning those who “stray” solves nothing, for the present system of inequality, alienation and powerlessness that countless millions toil under will always churn out those willing to risk their freedom to better their lot and even things up a little bit. Only the dismantling of the capitalist system will bring with it an end to the need for prisons.
John Bissett

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