This week, members of the Empty Cages Collective and Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee (IWOC) WISE-RA are touring the North of England to speak about prison expansion and the harm of the prison industrial complex. You can find all the dates, locations and times here. British prison conditions are currently recognised as undergoing one of the most serious deteriorations in living memory, recently exposed as being the most violent ever recorded. England now has the highest prisoner suicide rate in the world. [1] With many prisons operating over 150% beyond capacity,[2] screws are losing their ability to discipline inmates through official channels and are increasingly resorting to more traditionally familiar forms of violence or coercion to re-establish their position on the wings. Only last week thirty prisoners were forcibly removed from HMP Lincoln following a “day-long rampage” [3] after staff cut access to running water.

future prisonIn November 2015, the British government announced plans to build 9 new mega prisons across England and Wales. [4] Now that Lizz Truss has replaced Michael Gove as Justice Secretary, the state of the desired sweeping “prison reforms” are as chaotic as the cabinet. While the details are unclear, the intention is undeniable. In a recent announcement, Truss restated the state’s commitment to build at least 5 new prisons by 2020. [5] Other reforms hang in the balance, but all include maintaining high levels of imprisonment, further privatising the prison service and expanding state infrastructure for power and control.

Why tour the North?

It is clear in research by Community Action on Prison Expansion that the north of England is likely to be a key frontline for these developments. The first new prison plan was announced by Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) earlier this year. The GMCA simultaneously rejected the likelihood of prison closures within the region. [6] The new-build prison has been tied to a programme of regional devolution. [7] However, the collapse or derailment of similar devolution projects through the rest of the north suggests the imposition of other new-build prisons will be unable to follow a similar pattern of development.

Elsewhere the Justice Department continues to push for the closure of its most expensive prisons, largely older Victorian jails in city centres with high land values. This process is already underway in North London with the closure of HMP Holloway. Government claims that these closures are going to generate thousands of inner-city housing units have been quickly discredited [8]. The “regeneration” of the former site of HMP Portsmouth gives a firm example that dismantles any illusions about the affordability of this kind of housing. [9]

In the North, closures at HMP Preston, Lincoln, Manchester and Durham could be on the cards because of their Victorian jail status and cost to run. New prisons are also likely to emerge in regions of high overcrowding. HMP Leeds is currently operating at 167% of capacity, HMP Preston at 158% and HMP Durham at 150%. Northern jails make up half of the top ten overcrowded prisons in the country. [10]

The biggest restructuring of the prison estate since the Victorian times

IMG_20160810_175024_1-762x294In May 2016, the Government announced its plans for ‘reform prisons’. These prisons will “give unprecedented freedoms to prison governors including financial and legal freedoms, such as how the prison budget is spent and whether to opt-out of national contracts; and operational freedoms over education, the prison regime, family visits, and partnerships to provide prison work and rehabilitation services.” [11] The discourse around these reforms rings of ‘rehabilitation’ and beloved Tory character-building. When critically examined, these reforms present dangerous opportunities for capitalist and state exploitation of prisoners and the strengthening of tools of repression. Read the Empty Cages Collective’s full response to these reforms here.

Prison_Abolition_InlineBy the government’s own measure, the proposed reforms constitute the most substantial development within the penal apparatus since the Victorian period. Although this feels foreboding, the political landscape within which they seek to realise these proposals has changed significantly in the ten months since these proposals first surfaced. Brexit, Gove’s inglorious decline and questions around Truss’ political competency leave many from across the political spectrum uncertain about the government’s capacity to deliver these reforms under present conditions. We consider this a much appreciated moment of vulnerability. If they do attempt to push through with these reforms, they’re going to be attempting something extremely ambitious under what are, for them, very trying circumstances.

Within these moments of uncertainty, we cannot forget the constant intention of the state and its unwavering commitment to expanding the prison industrial complex. We hope this tour can be an opportunity to find others who would also seek to make of this situation a window of opportunity.

1. Inside Time, September 2016