The human cost of prisons for profit

A Proletarian reader recounts his best friend’s descent into despair and eventual suicide while imprisoned on an indeterminate sentence. This article has been previously published in the Morning Star.

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HMP Wolds, the first private prison in Britain

Proletarian writers

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A few weeks ago, my good comrade Carl Jacques stood on a chair in his pad in HMP Liverpool, wrapped a prison bedsheet round the window frame, then around his neck, and kicked the chair away. His body was found the following morning. Although he was only 38, he had spent 19 years of his life inside. Carl had obviously decided that suicide was better than spending another minute behind bars.

I first met Carl in HMP Doncaster. I was doing eight years, Carl was doing a sentence that was always mentioned in a whisper and followed by a wince – the dreaded ‘IPP’.

IPP sentences (Imprisonment for Public Protection) were supposed to protect the public from criminals whose crimes were not serious enough to deserve a life sentence but who were regarded as too dangerous to be released. When an IPP prisoner had served the tariff proportionate to the gravity of their crime, they remained in prison for an indeterminate period until they were granted parole. Although IPP sentences were abolished in 2012, there are over 6,000 prisoners still serving IPP sentences in British prisons. Over two-thirds have exceeded their tariff expiry dates.

Carl was a major head on the wing, a known face. Although he was vertically challenged, he always stood his ground. He gave no trouble to anybody and didn’t take any shit himself. Everyone liked Carl, even the screws. He was a likeable fella, a working-class intellectual and an outlaw. Carl was at war with the system, with a society that never included him and didn’t care. He was one of the strongest-minded people I’ve ever known. He was also my best friend.

We talked philosophy, metaphysics, religion and left-wing politics – not your everyday prison fare of footy, tits, flash cars and fighting malarkey. I remember him reading Angela Davis, George Jackson, Gore Vidal, John Berger, Douglas Coupland, Primo Levi, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Marcuse and Dostoevsky. He read The Communist Manifesto. He started Capital, but realised that he only had one life sentence in which to finish it, and moved on to Lenin, Trotsky and Che Guevara. He wrote occasional articles for the Morning Star about the criminal justice system.

After I got out, we stayed in contact. I wrote when I could, sent money when I could and spoke regularly to him on the phone. Then, around a year ago, he got parole to a rehab on the Wirral. Result. He was buzzing. Everything was on the up.

I was working and settled down with my beautiful partner. We went to see him in rehab. Carl was one step away from release. The place looked amazing. I couldn’t fault it. He was working on a book and I knew the next step would be getting it published.

Then, just after Christmas, I received a phone call from Carl. He was in HMP Liverpool. He had been recalled for smoking part of a joint at Christmas. I couldn’t believe it. He was back to square one.

At the end of April, his latest application for parole was turned down. He knew that he would have to wait another two years before his case would be looked at again. Three weeks later, he killed himself.

Of course, Carl’s death wasn’t on the TV news. Last year, there were 82 prison suicides in England and Wales. Television, the tabloids and ‘true crime’ fiction all seem to think that there is something sexy or glamorous about prison. But there is nothing glamorous about prison. Carl knew this better than anyone.

According to the recent report of the chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales, Nick Hardwick, every two weeks last year there were between eight and nine deaths in custody, three of which were suicides; 1,000 incidents of self-harm; 600 assaults and 140 assaults on prison staff.

Governments talk a lot about the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. But the British prison system has nothing to do with rehabilitation. How can it, when 77 out of 119 prisons in England and Wales are officially overcrowded? As Hardwick argues: “overcrowding is not simply a matter of two prisoners sharing a cell designed for one with an unscreened toilet … It means that a prison will not have the activity places, the support mechanisms or the rehabilitation programmes it needs.”

Forty-six percent of adult prisoners go back to prison within 12 months of their release. This is not an accident. The British prison system does not operate in the best interest of the public, prisoners or prison staff. These days, it operates to a large extent on behalf of the private corporations who profit from it.

Think about it. The figures for recorded crime fall year on year. And yet the prison population keeps growing. In 1993, the prison population of Britain and Northern Ireland was 42,000. Today it is 86,000. That’s more than double. And now Michael Gove – drawing on proposals from the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange – is planning to spend £4bn building 12 huge new super-prisons, each capable of holding up to 3,000 prisoners.

This is what Angela Davis has called the private prison-industrial complex. The US locks up more of its citizens than any other country in the world. In the last 30 years, the US prison population has increased by 500 percent. Today there are over 2 million US citizens behind bars. That is one in every 100 people. And, of course, most of these people are black, or poor, or black and poor.

In 1984, the first private prison contract in the US was awarded to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Today, there are 133,000 state and federal prisoners housed in privately-owned prisons in the US. In the past two decades, the profits of CCA have increased by more than 500 percent. In 2011, the US privatised prison industry was worth over $5bn. Who says that crime doesn’t pay?

CCA is a member of the Washington-based American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which lobbies in favour of privatised prisons, ‘tough on crime’ legislation and ‘three strikes’ laws. In 2012, CCA offered to buy prisons in 48 states in exchange for a guarantee that the prisons would be at 90 percent occupancy for 20 years.

In Britain, the government started a massive expansion of the prison system at the same time it was ripping up the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries. The first private prison in Britain was opened in 1992. Now there are 16 private prisons, holding 11 percent of the prison population. More privatisations are planned.

Most prisoners spend five days a week in the prison workshops, making anything and everything from chairs to light fittings. The national minimum wage is £6.70 an hour. Inside, you earn around 25p an hour. In prison, there are no minimum wage laws, no trade unions and no votes. Prisoners are never late for work and they can’t go on strike. It is a kind of slavery.

The only problem is that the system needs an endless supply of prisoners to fill all those prison cells. The last thing the system wants is an empty prison cell. Every prisoner who doesn’t go back to prison is a drain on their profits. A prisoner is like a tin of beans in a supermarket. The shelves must always be full.

And where does the prison population come from? The inner cities of the advanced capitalist world, Dickensian neighbourhoods with terrible concentrations of unemployment and poverty – the world of zero-hour contracts, sweatshop labour, benefits, crime and drugs.

Anyone not born into this background cannot appreciate how impossible it is to lift yourself up and out of the exploitation and oppression that reinforce each other every day. Poverty is caused by capitalism, just as surely as lung cancer is caused by smoking. Shit runs downhill. By definition, you can’t have a society of haves and have-mores without the have-nots and the have-nothings.

Which brings me back to Carl. He was born into a life without chances or choices; without most of the things that most readers of Proletarian will take for granted. When the cards were dealt, Carl drew a hand consisting of reform schools, drugs, petty crime and prison. In 2008, he was given an IPP sentence for committing two petty and ill-thought-out robberies – one involving minor violence, both as a consequence of a long-standing drug habit.

Of course, we should not forget Carl’s victims. He certainly never did. But I believe they would be shocked if they knew the severity of his punishment, which was effectively a life sentence. After serving eight years in prison, Carl was still no nearer knowing when – or if – he would ever be released.

These days, a petty offence is likely to earn you the kind of sentence that 30 years ago was reserved for top-drawer criminals. Carl wasn’t a serial killer, a murderer, a terrorist or a gangster; he was a petty criminal with a drug problem that should have been treated as an illness.

After eight years in prison, he believed that he had paid his dues. Carl was just one victim among so many of capitalist society. As Marx said, poverty, wretchedness and violence flow from the nature of a capitalist society. We have to remove the cause as well as trying to deal with its symptoms.