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Kropotkin and the Prison System


At the time of writing (12th August 2014), Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has come to the conclusion that much of the country had come to months ago- that Tory policy on prisons is dehumanising, that being imprisoned makes you ‘uniquely vulnerable’, and that our current public discourse in regards to prisons is myth-laden and exasperatingly underdeveloped. Mr. Hardwick has a decent attitude toward the purpose of the prison system: ‘you’re sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment’, but he’s also hardly an anarchist. Nevertheless, I believe that any reform of the prison system ought to consider what Peter Kropotkin had to say on the matter, in his work ‘Prisons: Universities of Crime‘, originally read to the British Medical Association in 1913.

This article is not written with anything resembling the belief that Chris Grayling, the sadistic dullard afforded the title of Justice Secretary for now, would even consider what Kropotkin had to say about the prison system, or indeed that he would reform it in any way other than via a cloying privatization that merely pushes the problems outside of the democratic domain. This article is written is an affirmation that the anarchist position on prisons is the most humane, understanding and just.

Kropotkin began proceedings with the fundamental question: ‘are prisons answering their purpose, which is that of diminishing the number of antisocial acts?’ Given the vehemence of the Daily Mail with its disdain for video games consoles being available for prisons, and yet its indifference at the increase in crime during the Coalition government, to say that priorities have been eschewed is an understatement. Oftentimes, Middle England gets its kicks from reading that life in prison is a solitary, dismal experience, and yet cares not to check whether this dehumanising experience reaffirms a prisoner’s faith in society, or dooms that to the desperate individualism that often inspired the notion of their crime in the first instance.

Kropotkin goes further, calling prisons ‘breeding grounds for crime’. He argues that prison reform is impossible, and if we are to truly combat the ills of society, we ought to do it through the reformation of social circumstances, and tear the prisons down. I am sympathetic to this view, and the death of the prison ought to be the long-term goal of the anarchist revolution, but this is not to say that incremental improvements cannot be made to the horrendous conditions cultivated by the Tory regime. The difference between the anarchist and the liberal position, therefore, is that whilst one believes reform is a step in the right direction, the other believes reform to be the endgame.

Kropotkin makes a multitude of excellent points during this short reading, so I shall attempt to briefly engage them all: he believes that the prison, by virtue of being a prison, necessarily increases the defects that caused the individual’s criminal behaviour in the first instance. Prison turns you from a person into a number, puts you in overalls in order to separate the individual from their aesthetic identity and produce a uniformity for the purpose of control. ‘Prison work is made to be an instrument of base revenge’- still true a hundred years later. If prison work is supposedly rehabilitative, why is it often for inhumanely low wages? Outside of the prison walls, it would be called debt peonage, or modern slavery. Inside the walls, you’re already less than human to the state- what’s another act of degradation? Besides, they’d argue, it’s economical.

The removal of musical instruments and books from UK prisons has already been excellently discussed by writers far more knowledgeable on the current subject due to their tremendous work, but it is another case in point against the temerity of a system that claims it wishes to rehabilitate prisoners. By treating them as less than human, you produce people who are anger, degraded and unequal. By having complete control over prisoners- as Hardwick is quoted in the Independent, ‘if you need toilet roll, I have to agree to give it to you’- they produce a dependency cycle. It doesn’t take a genius to appreciate that if you are treated as if you are undeserving of society, that you wouldn’t exactly find yourself jumping at the opportunity to embrace society once you have left the confines of your cell.

So what would I suggest? For a start, for all his loathsome policy positions and his gutless posturing, Nick Clegg made a fair, if obvious, point about the over-incarceration of drug users. If I were the Justice Secretary (a fine day in hell when an anarchist is appointed in the cabinet!), I would look to the rhetorical analysis given by Michel Foucault: ‘what if it is not that the prisons are overpopulated, but that the people are being over- imprisoned?’ Just off the top of my head: prison uniforms could be abolished; prison labour could pay the living wage dependent on prison location, prison libraries could be mandatory and their use encouraged, academic lecturers could be invited to hold seminar discussions as a reward for good behaviour, and there would be no such thing as a life sentence. The only problem with these relatively modest changes to the prison system is that they expose the ludicrous inequality, the rampant anti-intellectualism and disconcerting social regulation found in British society outside of the prison. As ever, the easy solution is often the politician’s solution: dehumanise, demonise, and where possible, depoliticise.



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