'Outsourcing Repression And Control In Prison' by John Bowden (UK)

Here is the latest letter from John Bowden, via a comrade of the ABC Brighton.

As modern monuments to naked and undisguised state power prisons, it would be reasonable to assume, are institutions where those confined are so completely disempowered and stripped of social distinctions that a kind of elemental human
solidarity must surely prevail amongst them. Surely power in such places would be concentrated solely in the hands of the guards or those who employ them, while the prisoners exist as a powerless uniform mass, voiceless and compliant and denied even bodily integrity and self-autonomy? “Ghosts of the civil dead” is probably the most apt description of the imprisoned.

In fact, as in any society or human group, power within prisons is a very dynamic phenomenon that shifts and changes and sometimes alters the balance and nature of control. It also manifests itself in crude hierarchies of power amongst
prisoners themselves, class systems almost that create another layer of oppression in prison.

The means by which an ever-increasing population of prisoners are controlled or “managed” are various and many. Straightforward physical containment (walls and bars) and a penal architecture increasingly purpose-built for small-group control is the most obvious and visible way of controlling and subduing prisoners. But within the walls themselves there are other more subtle and informed ways of keeping prisoners controlled and insuring the reasonably smooth day to day running of the penal machine. Manipulating prisoner hierarchies as a means of manipulating and strengthening the more official structure or power and authority in prisons has always been a very traditional and effective strategy employed by prison staff, in spite of the consequences to the safety and sometimes even lives of prisoners.

During the 1970s and 80s in some U.S. Maximum Security prisons staff “sub-contracted” out methods of violent repression to prisoners who occupied the most powerful positions in prison hierarchies. Such prisoners would dutifully
police and keep other prisoners in line for the guards in exchange for turning of a blind eye to their various nefarious activities.

Allowing sometimes the most violent and dangerous prisoners to unofficially run cell blocks on behalf of the guards and deal with “troublemakers” or those who rocked the boat inevitably resulted in a reign of terror being allowed to prevail with predictable consequences. During the late 1980s, during a trial of a prisoner accused of murdering another prisoner it was revealed that guards at the prison had “sub-contracted” certain dominant and powerful prisoners to keep order and had colluded with them in targeting prisoners considered a “problem” to authority. The public shock caused by the revelation that particularly violent prisoners had been virtually licensed by guards to police their fellow inmates would not have raised a ripple of surprise amongst prisoners themselves in any long term, maximum-security prison system.

In reality, guards manipulating prisoner gangs as a means of imposing even greater control over prisoners has always been an established fact of prison life, and from prison management’s point of view, although somewhat distasteful, it’s certainly a more assured and cost-effective way of keeping order than, say, regular deployment of riot-squads when ground is conceded to “unmanageable elements”.

Prisoner hierarchies are themselves an interesting if disturbing phenomenon in as much that they reveal that even amongst a group viewed and treated as the “lowest of the low” there is reproduced amongst them a sort of vicious pecking-order or brutal form of class system and structure of oppression. One’s place in that pecking order is usually determined by the type and nature of the prisoner’s offence, so the professional or “career criminal” whose offences are purely financially motivated usually occupies an influential position in the prisoner hierarchy, whilst sex offenders are consigned to the absolute bottom and are usually segregated for their own protection. In the cast system of prison society they are the untouchables. Within the vulnerable prisoner units where prisoners are segregated for their own protection there often exists an even more vicious pecking order enforced by bullying and violence, as if even those at the very bottom of the pile desperately need someone even lower than them to kick. It might be imagined that amongst a group so marginalised and oppressed as prisoners some realisation of common interest would prevail, some collective awareness of the virtue of solidarity, but instead the very class-divided society that most prisoners are a victim of is reproduced amongst them in an often brutal and de-humanising way.

The role often played by prison staff in influencing the chemistry and dynamics of prisoner groups in order to maintain greater overall institutional control is sometimes a determining one and reflective of a belief that power is all about domination and control, especially in the treatment of prisoners.

Co-opting the most dominant prisoners and out sourcing the control function of the prison to them is an almost standard unofficial practice in some jails and in some prison systems around the world, particularly in some of the prison systems operating in South America, and the existence of prisoner hierarchies and their manipulation by those more formally operating prisons is the most effective way of preventing collective prisoner unrest, or at least the open expression of it.

The creation of a class system amongst prisoners, both formally by the “Incentives and Earned Privileges” scheme where prisoners are graded and divided into different “privilege levels”, and informally by the encouragement of dominant prisoner groups or gangs favourable to the interests of prison staff, is how control is maintained within prisons on a day to day basis. The use of more formal and overtly repressive methods are always targeted against a very small minority of prisoners, whose clinical isolation away from the mainstream prisoner population in segregation-units and “Close Supervision Centres” renders their “disruptive” influence minimal.

It is within the youth custody institutions that some of the most violent prisoner hierarchies exist, as well as an environment characterised by the more official violence of the guards, justified of course in the interests of “control and restraint”. Teenagers imprisoned in such places are brutalised very quickly by the lesson that violence equals power.

Britain would seem to possess a particular taste for brutalising it’s “young offenders” and the antecedents for it extend back decades. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s “borstal training” was the standard way of dealing with delinquent working class youth needing to be instilled with firm discipline and the work ethic. Within military glass-house type environments control was maintained by a rigid, often brutalising “discipline”, and what was popularly known as the “Daddy” system, the empowerment of a small group of inmates by guards to keep another layer of more vicious control imposed over young prisoners. One’s place in the borstal pecking order was usually determined by an ability and readiness to use violence, so those who qualified as “Daddys” were those identified with a propensity for bullying and instilling fear on other inmates; a “talent” employed by their jailers to keep overall order and control. “Borstal training” achieved nothing more than preparing “young offenders” for life in the adult prison system, where a slightly more refined and less obviously system-influenced prisoner hierarchy exists.

Within British long term maximum security jails during the 1970s and 80s, those who occupied the positions of greater influence in the prisoner hierarchies were the “chaps” or “faces”, usually professional armed-robbers who apart from their illegitimate means of acquiring wealth possessed on the whole a real desire to achieve legitimate middle class status. Ideologically they were well suited therefore to maintaining order and stability in prison while they chased parole. In jails like Parkhurst prior to, say, 1996, there existed a clear identification of interest between the “chaps” and guards that order must and will prevail by any means necessary. However, the 1970s and 1980s were decades when a radically different form and expression of power would manifest itself in long term prisons occasionally, one more collectively distributed and expressed as a force for radical and positive change in various protests, strikes and uprisings. For a while in many long-term jails the power shifted significantly to the prisoners and regimes were greatly liberalised because of the willingness and ability of prisoners to collectively organise and fight back. The counter-revolution pursued by Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard in the mid to late 90s effectively destroyed all of the gains achieved by prisoners in preceding decades and any concept of power in jails that wasn’t strictly hierarchical in structure and designed to divide and control prisoners.

In jail the management and negotiation of power over prisoners is what defines it’s purpose and function, and in Britain and the U.S. Especially, the purpose of prison is straight forwardly brutal: to totally disempower and punish the incarcerated. In some other prison systems around the world, especially the Scandinavian ones, the concept and practice of power in prisons is more intelligent and creative. Prisoner representative counsels have a real legitimacy in such prison systems and the positive empowerment of prisoners is seen as an important component of the rehabilitation process. To deny one their freedom is an intrinsically repressive and disempowering act, but liberation of a kind is possible when solidarity and mutual support and positive use of power for the collective good defines the relationship of prisoners and the regimes under which they live. But that requires a balance of power between prisoners and those locking them up, and if prisons are microcosms of the wider society in which they are located then the current balance of power between the poor and the wealthy in British society does not bode well for those of the imprisoned poor.

John Bowden

HMP Shotts
August 2013

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 at 12:41 am and is filed under Prison Struggle.