Part Three – The Colour of Violence – Women of Colour & the Prison Industrial Complex in the UK
Women of colour are the fastest growing prison population worldwide. You can find the post here that shares more detail about women in prison, their backgrounds and the violence they experience before and during incarceration. These statistics are oppressively ‘race neutral’. What we do know about prisons is that they are the building blocks of a modern white supremacist society. In this article we aim to explore very briefly the gendered racism inherent in the ‘justice system’ and its relationship to borders, historical and contemporary colonialism and slavery and neoliberal capitalism.
Statistics may illuminate some realities, but ultimately, prisoners are not numbers. They are human beings with complex histories, dreams and desires. The tragic story of Sarah Reed  shines a light on how all these systemic forms of state violent intersect – from her racist violent assault by a police officer that made headlines in 2012, to the prison cell where she took her own life only weeks ago.
In England and Wales, 26% of the prison population are from a minority ethnic group. This compares to around one in ten in the general population. Black Britons make up around 2.8% of the general population, yet are over 10% of the prison population. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there is now greater dis-proportionality in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than in the United States. British Asians alone make up 6% of the prison population.
The prison system is just one of the destinations of the white-supremacist criminal justice system, after people of colour have experienced racist profiling, policing and sentencing. Patterns of criminalisation are the drivers of who, how many, and why people are in prison.
The ‘War on Terror’ and its consequences for Muslim communities is a large driver of the growing prison industrial complex across the world. The number of Muslim prisoners has more than doubled over the past 12 years. In 2002 there were 5,502 Muslims in prison, by 2015 this had risen to 12,328. David Cameron recently announced a desire to build a separate high security prison for ‘Islamic Extremists’.
The prison industrial complex has a co-dependant relationship with borders, both in terms of locking up refugees and economic migrants in detention centres, but also in its criminalisation of foreign nationals and the global nature of neoliberal capitalism.
1,254 people were imprisoned under Immigration Act powers in Immigration Removal Centres in 2015. These prisons have been branded in a way to keep us thinking they are different and separate to prisons. For sure there are some cosmetic differences, but basically the caging and denial of freedom is the same. Yarl’s Wood is a notorious detention centre near Bedford that locks up around 400 women and families awaiting asylum decisions. Every detention centre in England is run for profit by a private company. Investigations by Corporate Watch exposed the millions that companies make by capitalising on detainee labour to run the detention centres. Movement for Justice and other groups have done incredibly work amplifying the voices of those held in Yarl’s Wood and fighting for its closure.
The prison system, which harms people of colour, can be strengthened by the narrative of innocence and guilt, the deserving (criminal) and undeserving (asylum seeker). Without maintaining and growing critical perspectives that link oppressions and draw attention to the white supremacist system that maintains the P.I.C, we risk feeding the monster that we are trying to slay.
‘Foreign national prisoners’ (FNP) are a category of prisoner that make up 12% of the prison population. While you can be white and a FNP, you’re more likely to be a person of colour. FNPs may have come to the UK as children with parents, or be second generation immigrants themselves. They may be asylum seekers, European nationals, or those working, visiting or studying in the UK that have got somehow entangled in the criminal justice net. FNPs come from over 154 countries yet more than half are from ten alone – Poland, Ireland, Romania, Jamaica, Lithuania, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Albania and Somalia. More than 23,000 of these human beings have been ‘removed’ from the UK since 2010.
Currently 13% of women in prison are foreign nationals. Many have been coerced and trafficked into offending. One in ten of these women is serving a sentence relating to fraud or forgery of false documents and nearly one in three are there as a result of drugs offenses. These drugs offenses are explicitly linked to the global ‘War on Drugs’ that has been the accelerant for an explosive growth in prisons around the world. Whilst most documented in the US, cities in the UK have been no strangers to the racially-targeted introduction of hard drugs, such as crack-cocaine.
Importation leads to some of the heaviest sentences (and longer sentences are what keep the P.I.C profitable). The only girlfriend I had in my prison sentence was from St Lucia, and had consciously chosen to import heroin as a means to escape from an abusive relationship and the poverty her family was experiencing. Alas, she was stitched up and used as a scapegoat and ended up serving 8 years in British Jails before being deported. At every stage her body was dominated and exploited by men – by her abusive partner, by the hierarchy of the drugs trade, by the privatised prison, and by the immigration removal centre that was run for profit.
My girl’s story is an one of millions in a story of neoliberal capitalism. Scholar Julia Sudbury writes how new regimes of accumulation and discipline build on older systems of racist and patriarchal exploitation [such as slavery and colonialism] to ensure the super-exploitation of black women within the global prison industrial complex. The advance of neoliberal capitalism through the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and International Free Trade Agreements, have meant a decimation of services for women. Any semblance of welfare states are now reduced to shambolic affairs, while mostly white men profit from the accumulation of wealth that this neocolonialist operation generates.
Facilitating the global movement of prisoners are Prisoner Transfer Agreements. These mean that governments can forcibly deport people. In October last year, David Cameron announced his plans to give ‘aid money’ to build a new mega prison in Jamaica, so that prisoner transfers from England can no longer be resisted under human rights grounds due to the dire the conditions of jails in Jamaica. It means anyone that comes into contact with the criminal justice system in the UK with Jamaican heritage could be forcibly deported. The prison is part of a broader ‘aid’ package opening up capitalist exploitation of the Caribbean by British and Western companies. Whilst many in Jamaica had hoped Cameron would finally talk about reparations from slavery, he instead offered a neoliberal version of the slave trade, with the same black bodies being traded to accumulate wealth.
While resistance to detention centres grows, and ‘refugees welcome’ voices become louder, what we can expect in response is even greater criminalisation of people of colour. Because criminals ‘deserve’ to be in prison and ‘deserve’ to be deported. Therefore it is more important that ever to widen our critique and confront the whole of the prison industrial complex, and the state and capitalist system it is born from.
Survival means confronting the P.I.C. Fighting racism means fighting the P.I.C. Decolonisation means dismantling the P.I.C. To be part of this growing movement, please make it to the National Gathering as part of the Women and Trans* week of action against the Prison Industrial Complex. Find out more here.
3. Table 1.4, Ministry of Justice (2015) Offender management statistics quarterly bulletin October to December 2014, London: Ministry of Justice
4. Table A1.7, Ministry of Justice (2014) Offender management statistics Prison Population 2014, London: Ministry of Justice
5. Equality and Human Rights Commission (2010) How fair is Britain? London: Equality and Human Rights Commission
6. Table A1.8, Ministry of Justice (2014) Offender management statistics prison population 2014, London: Ministry of Justice and Table 1.5, Ministry of Justice (2015) Offender management statistics
8. Table 1.7, Ministry of Justice (2015) Offender management statistics quarterly bulletin October to December 2014, London: Ministry of Justice
10. Table 1.8, Ministry of Justice (2015) Offender management statistics quarterly bulletin October to December 2014, London: Ministry of Justice
11. Table A1.9, Ministry of Justice (2014) Offender management statistics annual tables 2013, London: Ministry of Justice
12. Sudbury, Julia. “Celling Black Bodies: Black Women In The Global Prison Industrial Complex”. Fem Rev 80.1 (2005): 162-179. Web.