I felt compelled to write about this. No thanks to the BBC whose website seems silent on this one (correct me if I’m wrong), but I’ve learned that, since November, the UK government’s (In)Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has stopped prisoners from receiving any parcels that are not urgently needed. Consequently, prisoners are no longer allowed to receive things like new clothes, underwear or books. I want to focus here on books – on education, knowledge, and power. I just want to say that this decision commits an act of true violence on our incarcerated fellow citizens – people who already disproportionately represent the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed sections of our society.
Let’s first take a look at exactly who is languishing in our prisons. I’ve taken all these statistics from the House of Commons Library Prison Population Statistics from July 2013. It’s free to read here. What I found there shocked me. It may not shock the more knowledgeable and cynical amongst you.
The Report’s authors, Gavin Berman and Aliyah Dar, find that England and Wales have the second highest incarceration rate in Western Europe behind Spain. Our prison population has been growing for over a century, but has taken off since 1993, growing at an average of 3.6% since then.
This chart doesn’t show the sharp increase in 2011, caused partially by the arrest of over 900 (primarily young) people on offences related to that summer’s inner-city riots.
80% of the 88,000-strong prison population are adult men. 40% are under 30 years old. Almost a quarter are under 25. The prison population is disproportionately made up of ethnic minorities.
As you can clearly see, although black people make up just 2.8% of our population, they comprise 13% of our prison population!
The number of Muslim prisoners has been growing rapidly over recent years too.
Already shocking stuff, but here comes the really, desperately sad and shocking reality of who is living in our prisons. Check these stats out…
- 24% of prisoners had lived with foster parents or in an institution or were taken into care at some stage when a child.
- 29% have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. For women, this figure is 53%!
- 41% have observed violence at home as a child.
- 59% regularly played truant. 63% were temporarily excluded from school. 42% were permanently excluded.
- Just a third of prisoners were in a job before arrest. 13% never had a job.
- 47% had no academic qualifications. In 2003, this was 15%!
- 35% of our prison population are registered disabled!
So, what can we conclude? It’s pretty straight-forward. We are sending to prison those who have come into this world with the least opportunities, those who have suffered most during their tender, formative years – in short, our prison population is made up in large part of those with physical or mental disabilities; abused and vulnerable children and the adults that these abused and vulnerable children become. There’s no starker example of this I can think of than the incredibly powerful film ‘Stuart – a life backwards’ about the life of an amazing, intelligent, articulate man who suffered so very much. You can watch it here.
Such desperate childhoods create destabilising behaviours and other barriers to learning that deprive sufferers of an education and decent prospects. In the current long depression, with youth unemployment rates at around 20% and vicious cuts being wielded to social services, the prospects of current prisoners are even gloomier.
The cuts are, of course, affecting life within prisons too: overcrowding is rife; resources are cut; programmes designed to educate, retrain, counsel are scaled back or removed. Despite European legal judgments against it, the UK government also remains determined to take away prisoners’ right to vote. And now this…
The decision to ban prisoners from receiving books is an act of violence and fear. It is an act of violence because it sends out a clear message that we should dispense of any lingering hope or belief that prison is meant to rehabilitate. The recent rise in punitive laws and government policies, and the crackdown on those involved in the 2011 riots, reflects the timeless need by the ruling class to maintain order through coercion during times of capitalist crisis. The growing prison population reflects a longer-term trend of deindustrialisation, disinvestment, the demonisation and criminalisation of the poor, and democratic decline. Prof Danny Dorling sums this up when he describes how the UK government’s only investment in social housing seems to be the building of ever more prison cells.
The decision is also an expression of fear. Throughout the five millennia of human civilisation, maintaining control over access to learning and knowledge has been a crucial element in the designs of those in positions of political and economic power. Very often, since political and economic power has been mediated by, and often centred around, religion, religious institutions and the figure of the priest has been central here. We see examples of this throughout human history as far back as the first recorded post-Agricultural Revolution civilisation in ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia). We see this in Hindu India (Brahmans), ancient Israel (Cohanim), and in the Catholic Church. Though far more meritocratic, we see it in the Confucian bureaucratic system of China. Be it justified by religious or political ideology, we see in every society expressions of the natural, innate inferiority of the unwashed masses articulated by ruling elites. Today in the UK we see it in the Etonian-Oxonians who dominate the heights of government of our country and capital city.
The fact that prisons have libraries is important, yet also incidental. The significance of the ban is far more symbolic than practical. It tells us more fortunate ones what young disadvantaged people have known for years – those that rule over us couldn’t care less about us. All they care about is that we produce for the businesses they own and manage, and if, for whatever reason, we can’t do that, they will lock us up, suppress, and, yes, even kill us.
Every post I write will finish on a positive note, a note designed to try to inspire, resist and create. To anyone out there reading this in a prison or excluded for whatever reasons from school or university, it’s not game over. If you can get access to books or to the internet, you can get an education. And I’m not talking about getting a ‘schooling’. I’m talking about learning about our shared history, about things going on in the world today they don’t report, about learning how to think critically and act ethically – about history, politics, economics, and philosophy. Now that’s a real education – an education that can truly liberate our minds. How did Mandela and so many others in the ANC survive decades in jail? How has Mumia Abu Jamal survived and stayed mentally healthy and free? Education, knowledge, and understanding of self, history, and society – the only way to our individual and collective freedom. We have to resist and come together to educate ourselves and each other. Let’s get educated! I can’t say it better than Akala so just listen to this, but before (or while) you do, just sign this…