A great number of aggressive new laws have been introduced in recent months, from £10,000 fines for organising protests (a dictator’s wet dream that one) to increasing maximum sentences for anything related to assault PC. On Tuesday alone Boris Johnson was shouting the odds about ending early release.
The strong implication is that the State is gearing up to deal with any hint of rising dissent by strengthening its punishments, particularly for any early leaders who might emerge and for the purposes of exemplary sentencing. But where are they going to put people in such circumstances? It’s worth bearing in mind, because the government is rolling out these measures alongside a strongly opportunistic approach to using Covid as cover while it attempts to construct its dystopian vision of post-Brexit Britain.
Fines for fluffies
One thing the government isn’t likely to be overly worried about is peaceful protest in the form of lollipop waving or generalised forms of civil disobedience (targeted direct actions such as sabotage or property destruction are another matter).
As an example, one of the tactics which Extinction Rebellion utilised in its early incarnation was intentionally provoking mass arrests, on the grounds that once you fill the jails the State becomes unable to deal with you. This strategy has had a number of flaws, primary among them that the police and government were first confronted with it in the 1950s, so have had plenty of time to come up with countermeasures.
XR found (and is finding) that the government does not in fact jail everyone who causes civil disruption, often preferring to fine and injunct protesters instead, which has a strong off-putting effect against anyone who isn’t well off (essentially acting to financially punish their friends, family and comrades as well as them), and has the added bonus of reimbursing some of its increased policing costs. Where jail is used, it’s usually as a drawn line on exactly what the edges of the State’s patience are.
However in the event of large-scale and more severe unrest the government actually does have something of a problem on its hands, and this has been the case for some time despite previous massive building schemes which doubled the size of the prison estate between 1990 and 2011.
When things turn ugly
A key example of the issue the State has is highlighted by the 2011 riots which took place in the wake of the death of Mark Duggan. For all that they were historic events, the number of people actually jailed was not perhaps in line with the number of participants, and turned out to be remarkably similar to the number of prison places spare in the system:
- Prison population, July 2011: 84,902,
- Reported spare capacity, August 2011 (riots take place August 6-11): 1,485
- Prison population, December 2011: 87,371
So in the aftermath of the riots, around 1,000 people were jailed almost immediately with around 2,500 serving sentences by the end of the year, overreaching the official capacity of the prison system by just over a thousand. This was dealt with primarily by just shoving more people into the same number of rooms, leading to an intense overcrowding problem (bearing in mind 24% of prisoners were in overcrowded conditions before the riots), but it was, essentially, a close enough match between the number of people getting sent down and the ability of the system to cope.
The strong implication here is that, under pressure, the justice system will tend to respond to headline cases with extremely harsh sentencing, squeeze as many other people in as it dares and then ignore the rest, hoping no-one will notice the system is creaking at the seams. Later, as the situation calms, its quietly offers lighter-than-normal sentencing on “non-political” cases to even things out again.
But simply stuffing your cells is not such an easy option at a time of Covid unless you want to cause an immediate infection scandal – which places something of a bind on a system which is already in the midst of a significant upheaval.
Over the last half-decade or more there has been a lot of talk about swingeing changes that are set to be made to the prison sector. Much of this has revolved around plans to convert the entire system away from accessible, albeit older, jails in and around urban centres to so-called “mega-prisons” in more remote parts of the country.
(NB// This removal of people from their families and concentration in isolated environments might seem counterintuitive to any system with a pretence that it is trying to rehabilitate prisoners. Cynics may note that the land the older jails are on has become in many cases extraordinarily valuable.)
But a lot of this talk ignores what are likely troubling raw numbers for the likes of hang ’em and flog ’em merchant Priti Patel, whose enthusiasm for locking up over statue graffiti has little relation to the government’s real capacities.
Because despite years of grandiose threats (or promises, I suppose, if you’re stupid enough to think it somehow helps anything) to expand the prison system to upwards of 100,000 places, the unspoken truth is that numbers have actually been declining – and even taking into account the minimal social distancing that’s been attempted, are at their lowest levels for a decade or more.
In September 2016, when Theresa May was in charge and Boris Johnson had joined her Cabinet as foreign secretary, the prison capacity situation was as follows:
- Prison population: 84,708
- Total capacity 86,968
It was at this point that the Tories began the expansion plan described above, in which they promised 10,000 new places, theoretically bumping the total to 95,000 and prompting a major campaign against the project. Freedom originally mapped the planned changes here:
As is the standard for the Tories however, promises aren’t always what they seem even when made squarely to their base. Three years later the promises began to unravel, when a headline election promise emerged in August 2019 that the Tories would build 3,360 places by 2023 from the previous pledge, and then add another 10,000 more places on top using a £2.5bn construction fund. So an estimate of the Tories’ 2019 plans for expansion would place their total estate, after everything is built at something like 95-100,000 prison places, which seems like the sort of round number a civil servant or politician would be drawn to.
A year later, these were the official figures on prison capacity for September 2020:
Prison Population: 79,185
Capacity: 81,151 (-3,800 due to Covid restrictions = 84,951 more usually)
From these numbers, while the Tories may or may not wish to at some point achieve this massive expansion plan, it’s nowhere near ready. In fact the prison system has almost exactly the same number of places available as it did in 2011, and fewer than it had in 2016.
So where do they put everyone?
That’s the million dollar question. If unrest happens at any sort of scale the government is going to be left with some difficult questions to answer. How do you jail thousands of people, as in 2011, in the midst of a pandemic and when you are already stretched to full capacity? It’s a question with a number of potential answers, none of them good – stuff and be damned? Start putting people in incomplete, unsuitable or mothballed institutions? Nightingale Prisons to go alongside the Nightingale Courts?
One thing is certain, Priti Patel’s ranting hasn’t at present got the structure behind it that she pretends, and in its absence she, and her Tory hardline backers, have the potential to get far out of hand when that reality becomes clear.
You can find out more about the campaign against megaprisons at an event being held on October 21st by CAPE Midlands: How To Stop a Megaprison. Community Action on Prison Expansion is a grassroots group aiming to halt the expansion of the prison system before more lives are damaged.