Ending the prisons whack-a-mole

The UK government’s decision, earlier this year, to scrap plans to build a new prison at Port Talbot, south Wales, was an important victory in the battle against prison expansion. “Welsh communities are still quite reluctant to build new prisons”, Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, told the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee in January. On future prison builds, he added:

We do not want to repeat the experience of Port Talbot where we decided to go somewhere and suddenly found there was a strong community objection to it.

The local MP, Stephen Kinnock, was “very strongly opposed” to building the prison, Stewart acknowledged. The Assembly Member, David Rees, was among a number of local politicians who likewise opposed the plans. Speaking in a debate in Parliament in September 2017, the Plaid Cymru home affairs spokesperson, Liz Saville Roberts, had said: “Port Talbot has been through some tough times of late, but the answer is unequivocally not to turn Wales’ industrial powerhouse into a penal colony on an industrial scale”.

Having previously supported the plans, the Welsh Government changed its mind. “I do not believe it is in the interests either of the Welsh Government or people in Wales, to see further prison development in Wales”, the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, Alun Davies, announced in April 2018.

The combination of local campaign, and opposition by elected politicians, was probably decisive. Without the local campaign against the prison, the elected politicians in Wales could well have swung the other way. The local campaign would also probably not have succeeded without political support.

Despite this success, the underlying dynamic continues to favour prison growth. Ministers speak vaguely of reducing the prison population, while pursuing policies that in the here-and-now fuel further growth. None of the main political parties question the resort to imprisonment, nor show any serious interest in reversing the growth of recent decades. Indeed, they appear content to see further expansion.

The proposed prison in Port Talbot was but part of bigger plan — announced in the 2016 White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform — to build 10,000 new prison places at an estimated cost of £1.3 billion. A new prison in Yorkshire was announced by the then Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, in March 2017, along with the redevelopment of several other prison sites.

While local activism and electoral politics combined in south Wales to scupper the government’s plans, this will not necessarily be the case elsewhere. Speaking of other potential prison sites, Rory Stewart told the Welsh Affairs Committee that “we are looking for communities that see the point of it, want to engage with us and would welcome our investment”. Those communities badly hit by recession and austerity would make for the obvious recipients of such apparent largesse. The potential for local coalitions of community activists, politicians and business in favour of new prisons should not be discounted.

Until we can change the national policy agenda from prison expansion to prison closure, campaigns against new prisons face being caught up in an endless game of prisons whack-a-mole. As one new prison is stopped — in this case Port Talbot — others pop up: Glen Parva and Wellingborough, for instance. As anyone who has played that game knows, there is only ever one winner: the moles. Winning the game means stopping the game: replacing the incessant movement towards prison growth with an unceasing drive towards prison closure.

While the government plans for prison growth, there are tantalising signs of a potential consensus on the need for the system to shrink. The current Justice Secretary for England and Wales, David Gauke, recently stated that prison “doesn’t work, and indeed, makes us less safe”. Last year, he told The Times that he “would like [the prison population]… to fall”.

Published 22 December 2016

In 2016, the former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, told the BBC that 30 per cent of those currently in prison in England and Wales — some 25,000 people — did not need to be there and should be released. The Conservative chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, Bob Neill, said that “ we should be looking to start reducing the prison population straight away”.

A jointly-authored letter, published in The Times in December 2016, called for the government to pursue policies to reduce the prison population “to the levels it was under Margaret Thatcher. That would mean eventually reducing prison numbers to about 45,000”. The three signatories had previously served in government as deputy prime minister (Nick Clegg), justice secretary and home secretary (Ken Clarke), and home secretary (Jacqui Smith).

These interventions point to the potential for a broad-based consensus on the need to close prisons. But it is a potential consensus only, lacking in the concrete capacity to act; to pursue the changes needed to make the consensus a reality. This political inertia, this stuckness, was well expressed by Rory Stewart last year, during an appearance before the House of Commons Justice Committee.

“We can do one of two things: we either… gamble everything on being able to reduce the prison population; or we can do what I would be tempted to do, which is to say that I do not feel, I am afraid, even though ideally the prison population will go down, that that is very likely to happen, because I am not sure that there is the will among the public or Parliament to take the kind of measures to reduce that population.”

With the desirable policy of shrinking the system seemingly unattainable, ministers and civil servants pursue the attainable, but undesirable, policy of prison growth. Unsurprisingly, this feeds a pessimism about the political process, and the capacity for it to deliver meaningful change.

One response to the apparent incapacity of formal politics to deliver meaningful change has been the development of new activist groups pressing explicitly prison abolitionist demands. These include the Empty Cages Collective, Community Action on Prison Expansion (which emerged out of the Empty Cages Collective), and the Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee. These groups are, to quote from David Scott’s recent book, Against Imprisonment, “generally very small in number and most members are known to each other prior to the formation of the specific abolitionist organisations”.

Leaflet handed out by trans activists at a demonstration at the Ministry of Justice in London, on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019

Eschewing any meaningful engagement with mainstream political debates, they have focused on local activism and direct action. On International Women’s Day earlier this month, for instance, they mounted a protest at the Ministry of Justice, alongside trans activist groups Bent Bars, Sister not Cis-ter, Sisters Uncut, and Women’s Strike Assembly, among others.

The abolition of women’s prisons was only incidental to the main purpose of the protest. Working under the banner of the ‘Trans Liberation Assembly’, their main demand was for trans women prisoners — those male-born prisoners who identify as women — to be held in women’s prisons.

A number of these same groups also played an active role in shutting down a planned conference on prison abolition, because one of the conference organisers was deemed not to hold the ‘correct’ line on the nature of transgender identities.

The obvious irony of supposedly abolitionist organisations shutting down a conference on prison abolitionism is a symptom of a wider problem. If allegiance to a particular, and highly contested, stance in relation to identity politics forms the basis for entry to the prison abolitionist fold, the movement is likely to remain small, insignificant, riven by dogmatism.

Prison abolitionist activism, at least as practised by such groups, therefore faces the opposite problem to that faced by mainstream politics. In the case of mainstream politics, the potential for a broad-based consensus to close prisons is hampered by a political inertia, an inability to act on that potential consensus. In the case of abolitionist activism, the undoubted willingness to act is hampered by the enforcement of group-think far too narrow and intolerant to enable a broad-based abolitionist movement for change to emerge.

If we are to end the prisons whack-a-mole, the potential, broad-based consensus for shrinking, rather than expanding the system, needs to be combined with the capacity to act decisively to deliver on this consensus. This will require stamina and staying power, rather than speed and drama: what the authors of A Presumption Against Imprisonment describe as an “inevitably slow and arduous process of changing public and political thinking about the use of imprisonment”.

Delivering on this potential will require a combination of the parliamentary and the extra-parliamentary: work through the formal political channels, connected with on-the-ground collaborative activity and mobilisation, grounded in inclusive values.