The witch hunt against ex-prisoners from abroad shows that xenophobia is now more than ever official policy
It was in a desperate attempt to erase from the voters’ consciousness the idea that his party would ever be indulgent towards law breakers that Tony Blair and his opinion sculptors chiselled out the pledge that a New Labour government would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. That smooth phrase covered just about everything as far as crime went and it opened the way to a succession of Acts of Parliament which brought in new laws, regulations, surveillance and intrusions. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders had the effect of making many offences imprisonable when they had not been before. Procedural restraints on courts were relaxed to encourage offenders to plead guilty when they were innocent. New prisons have been opened in an attempt – unsuccessful as it happens – to gobble up those who fell foul of Labour’s new penal policies. If all this had any real effect on the crime figures it has not been persuasively obvious but in any case the idea behind it all was to convince the voters – who are so often the sufferers from crime – that, whatever the truth of the matter, New Labour was doing something about it; given time they would eliminate it altogether.
But a serious problem with snappy, headline-grabbing slogans – Homes Fit for Heroes, You Never Had It So Good, The Pound in Your Pocket – is that capitalist society has a nastily remorseless habit of undermining them. When that happens the slogan ceases to be voter-seductive and becomes instead a repellent embarrassment. This has been the case over the government’s record on deporting offenders who are foreign nationals on their release from prison. It did not sit easily with Blair’s promise to be tough on crime, that such people should be free; the implicit fear was that they would use this freedom to commit other, perhaps even more serious, offences. As the media frantically dug for evidence, Home Secretary Charles Clarke admitted that at least five of the released foreign prisoners had committed further drugs-related and violent offences; two others had been accused of rape, although in one case the charge had been dropped through lack of evidence.
Most damaging of all was the case of Mustaf Jama, who came here as an asylum seeker from Somalia and for that reason was not sent back to that country when he had served a three-year jail sentence for robbery. Jama is one of the prime suspects for the murder of the police officer Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford. He cannot at present be charged with this murder because he seems to have fled to Somalia, although the fear that he would have been killed if he had been sent back there was enough to keep him in this country. Predictably, this fuelled the tabloid hysteria and encouraged the fantasy that the country was infested with foreigners who were using their early release from prison to rack up even more offences. The uproar became so loud and insistent that it cost Charles Clarke his job; in spite of Blair’s ritualistic assurances of boundless and never-dying confidence in him, Clarke was re-shuffled out of the Home Office and onto the back benches.
Another ritual was the official response to the pending storm of publicity. Last summer the Home Office admitted that there were some 400 released prisoners who under government policy might have been deported. But recently, in response to the determined chiselling away of the governmental wall of denial by the media and MPs, this figure was raised to 1023 – some of them convicted of murder, rape or child abuse. For a short time Clarke said that about 90 of these had been convicted of the “most serious” offences but one of the first actions of his successor John Reid was to raise this estimate to 150 and to elaborate by saying that to include those sentenced for robbery would put the total into “hundreds”. Almost by the day, the situation looked worse for the government. It is as well to bear in mind that this mess – partly a cumbersome, doomed attempt to distort the facts and partly a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth – was the work of the Home Office, which is so prominent in composing and enforcing the laws which are designed to instruct the rest of us in how to behave as the underclass in this society. The exposure of the concealment and the deception must have contributed to the Labour Party losing so many council seats in the recent local elections and perhaps, through the stimulation of a whole clutch of dangerous prejudices, to the relative success of the BNP.
When he was Home Secretary in the 1960s the late Roy Jenkins said that it would be unacceptable for the prison population to reach 42,000. Now it is fast approaching 78,000 which, although there are many more places available than there were in Jenkins’ day, is the officially defined maximum. The Prison Reform Trust has stated that of the 741 prisons 142 are occupied above the limits of health and safety. An ex-governor of Brixton, which is a typically hectic, stressful London prison, has said that too many people are being given custodial sentences; these were the words of a man whose reputation was as an unusually perceptive and humane holder of his office. However, during his time at Brixton a few prisoners managed to fiddle their way into an evening’s freedom; the matter came to light when they were apprehended trying to wangle their way back inside in time to avoid detection. It was the end of Brixton’s unofficial evenings at liberty and, when the outraged laughter had died down, of that governor’s regime there.
Attempts to explain the increase in the prison population are soon confronted with the fact that the property rights of capitalism make for a huge cobweb of repression and denial of access to human resources. Within that, as symptoms of class society, there is the fact that the incidence of crime can go up or down in response to a number of influences. One of them is that working lives and survival are as stressful, if not more so, than they have been for a long time. Another is that New Labour rhetoric about getting tough on offenders has resulted in stricter conditions on Community Orders and the courts, responding to the urgings from Downing Street, using prison sentences more often than in the past. Then there is the fact that female crime has increased, so that more women are going to prison. And there is the rise in custodial sentences on foreign nationals who come before the courts. Over the past five years this figure has increased by 75 per cent, while that for British nationals has gone up by 11 per cent.
The foreign nationals in British prisons originate in over 160 countries, among them Jamaica, Somalia, Afghanistan, Algeria. These are countries notable for violence and social instability. In some cases – for example Somalia and Sierra Leone – there are problems in deporting released prisoners because it is too dangerous to fly there. Jamaica is described by Amnesty International (and other organisations) as a place where “Violence and crime are rife (and where) Police officers are allowed to kill with impunity”. United States Embassy staff in Jamaica are officially advised to avoid the inner city area of Kingston and of other towns and not to use public buses. Unsurprisingly, some of the people who come here from these strife-torn places bring their own strategies of survival, which might entail breaking the law here. Drug offences – mainly trafficking – account for about 60 per cent of the prison sentences and for 80 per cent of women prisoners, many of whom have harrowing stories to tell, of the poverty and fear in their home country which persuaded them to accept the hazardous role of smuggling in the drugs. It is a sad, tragic picture which is not relieved by vengeful punishment.
New Labour’s response to this situation is to take powers to deport released prisoners wherever possible – they plan to make this an automatic procedure in future – which may relieve some very short term problems as it enables the government to pose as taking drastic measures which will reduce crime at a stroke and so boost their chances of being returned at the next election. But it takes no account of the fact that other countries can return British nationals (there are some 800 in EU jails at present). It will not affect the level of crime here by British nationals, which has proved impervious to government policies, because crime, like private property, poverty, repression, is endemic to capitalism. The policy of trying to export foreign criminals is presented as something considered, effective and durable when in fact, apart from stimulating some of the nastier delusions such as racism and xenophobia, it is another panicky episode of exhausted futility.