2017: Empty Cages Collective end of year review
This post aims to share with the world what we have learned and achieved in our third year as a small collective struggling against the prison system. You can read our review of 2016 here.
2017 was a challenging year for the Empty Cages Collective and the broader network, Community Action on Prison Expansion, as we attempted to support the establishment of groups across the country in a joint opposition to the proposed mega prisons. Despite difficulties, we grew the network, fostering the growth of local groups in South Wales, Yorkshire, Leicester, Manchester and Wigan. The redevelopment of two prisons – HMP Hindley and HMP Rochester – is on hold, and the planning application for Port Talbot is yet to be submitted. Unfortunately, Full Sutton in East Yorkshire, Leicester and Wellingborough all have planning permission with construction to start in 2018. ( NB – shall we take this sentence out – Many of the mega prisons are on hold now, which gives us a bit more time to build an abolitionist current for when the state does inevitably come back with renewed strength. )
What’s been challenging?
- 2017 has been another emotionally difficult year, with many members attempting to juggle burnout, family crises, and support for their loved ones and comrades inside. Maintaining this kind of support can be incredibly hard, and it’s therefore been important for more people to take up the task – but that also requires a bit of education and guidance from those who have done it before – more labour on top of what they’re already doing!
- In a few of the areas we attempted to organise resistance to new prisons, we’ve struggled to maintain the groups or foster any wider social opposition to the prisons. In places like Rochester, established prisons are a key part of the local economy, making principled challenges extremely difficult. Whilst we’ve worked to hone our arguments about how prisons undermine wages and cause other negative impacts, being able to communicate this effectively, when faced with the huge tidal wave of pro-prison media, has been a real challenge.
- Nearly all of our websites going down over the Christmas period for reasons outside our control has been intensely frustrating!
- We continue to struggle with capacity. Whilst the support for prison abolition is growing, the number of people who have capacity to offer in order to grow the movement is not dramatically higher. This isn’t an unusual problem for organisers, although it is particularly the case for formerly incarcerated people, who will struggle not only with the trauma of prison itself, but the multiple difficulties of employment, housing and social exclusion that come with being formerly incarcerated.
- Maintaining regular communication across the country hasn’t always been easy, especially when local groups have been so embedded in their particular struggle. Those discussions are incredibly valuable when they do happen, however, and it’s therefore vital that we continue to try and make them accessible.
- Money is going like water! Affording all the work above is a constant challenge and we are having to invest a lot of time fundraising on top of everything else.
What’s been going well?
- We’ve built an incredibly strong network of solidarity and compassion as a foundation for organising. In 2017 it really felt, for a lot of members, that ECC was the place where they would be supported and understood. The political importance of this can’t be understated, especially when up against such an un-compassionate state!
- We began producing the No More Prisons podcast, entirely from scratch. It took a hiatus near the end of the year as our capacity dwindled, but we hope to restart it in 2018, looking to use it as an organising tool.
- There are some amazing autonomous local groups now organising to fight against prison expansion, such as Yorkshire Campaign Against Prisons, Pies not Prisons in Wigan, Leicester Prison Resistance (sadly on hiatus right now) and Stop Neath Port Talbot Prison (an incredible local group have been blowing us away with their work) and No Prisons De Cymru.
- We held the No More Prisons conference in Manchester in March, with over 60 attendees, and a really powerful and energising weekend of discussion.
- We supported Smash IPP to organise an inspiring year of action. Actions were organised continuously throughout the year with several demonstrations outside prisons, probation offices and government offices across the country. There were also many prisoner-support campaigns established for IPP prisoners, such as letter writing campaigns when they were in segregation, or pressuring the parole board before hearings. These continue to have a great impact and both the Smash IPP network and awareness of this brutal sentence are growing.
- We coordinated with Action for Trans Health to hold noise demonstrations outside HMP Doncaster and HMP Leeds in protest at the deaths in custody of trans people.
- Increased our international solidarity work, speaking abroad about anti-prison struggles in the UK at the ABC Festival in Austria and organising a day of action against Youth Prisons in solidarity with aboriginal struggles in Australia.
- We organised a speaking tour in September called ‘End Toxic Prisons’, which drew the links between mass incarceration and ecological harm. An organiser from the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, spoke passionately about the work they are doing in the US and greatly inspired folks to build more of these connections in the UK. These links were also pulled together at a workshop at the Earth First Summer Gathering, where we also did a prisoner support table all week.
- We organised an Abolition Skillshare in Manchester which was great and gave us confidence to organise more in the coming months ahead.
- Our distro of materials is steadily building and we will soon be launching an online shop. It has been great to share the new book ‘Bang Up and Smash’ by Asbo which looks at women’s prisons in detail in the UK.
- The Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee (IWOC) in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland is finally gaining momentum with a big day of action this year and a growing number of prisoner members.
After its closure in June 2016, Reclaim Holloway has been fighting to keep the Holloway site from being developed into luxury apartments, and instead demands affordable social housing, community space and a women’s building, as well as protesting the sale of the site to generate funding to build more prisons. In May 2017, North London Sisters Uncut reclaimed the visitors centre at Holloway for a week and held a community festival, which was really well received by local Holloway residents and gained national press awareness, at which ECC held a prison abolition workshop. A couple other community events have been organised at the Holloway site and in the local area by Islington Axe the Housing Act and NL Sisters Uncut to raise awareness, all of which have been fairly well-attended and supported. ECC and NL Sisters have spoken at several public events raising awareness of the RH campaign.
The council released their draft supplementary planning document (SPD) earlier in the year and the organisations forming RH all pushed the local community to feed into it to show support for their demands. The council have now confirmed their support of this document, with guidance for potential developers which includes 50% social housing and a women’s centre/building. The MOJ have continued on with their plans to sell the site, and has had all the major developers come for viewings, with bidding on the site ending back in November. The SPD is not binding, and it still means the money from the sale of this site will be used to fund further expansion of the expansion of the prison industrial complex. RH is co-ordinating a team to continue campaigning and consultation on what should be done with the site and how to ensure that the construction and eventual running of the women’s building is best suited to the community’s needs.
We still need more support to build the Reclaim Holloway campaign – any capacity people can offer is great! We need people to help run the campaign, attend community events and share our content on social media – RH doesn’t get that much FB or Twitter action!
We thought we’d close up with one of our favourite Angela Davis quotes:
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world.
And you have to do it all the time.”
Until All Are Free,
Empty Cages Collective