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People, Prisons & Profit: Contemporary Abolition in the UK

When discussing matters of inequality and oppression, particularly through a radical framework, there always awaits a countering opinion that deep-rooted systemic issues such as the prison industrial complex are somehow uniquely American; the implication being that Britain, a nation regarded for its pragmatism, has nowhere near such issues and thus does not need to concern itself with radical thoughts or ideas.

Despite the comfort that this rose-tinted assertion may bring to some, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst the USA continues to maintain itself by far as the nation with the highest prison population, there are still over 79,000 members of the British public currently behind bars. The Ministry of Justice projects that this number will reach over 96,000 by July of 2025.

Even as recently as 2019, England and Wales were on record as having the highest prison population in all of Western Europe. Nearly 10% of the prison population was made up of former armed forces members, whilst 25% were of Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Despite these statistics of excess, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has unveiled plans to create 4,000 new prison places at 16 different sites, all to deliver the government’s promise to be “tough on crime”.

This tough-stance promise has been utilised by every political party in the UK. Particularly on a local level, every campaigner from Labour to Lib Dem to the Conservatives all promise and guarantee an increase in police resources – and yet, despite the increasing presence of police, overall violent crime in England and Wales continues to rise. This cyclical conundrum renders the promise of further police and prisons a hollow, albeit potent tactic of performative politicians seeking votes from a terrified British public.

There’s been a very intentional and carefully manufactured campaign to ensure that we see humanity as inherently brutal and horrid, all the while maintaining prisons and police as the only viable and indispensable solution. The fact of the matter is that policing and prisons are both relatively new concepts in the grand scheme of recorded human history.

The police system as we know it today stems from two separate institutions from both sides of the pond. In the so-called United States, the modern police system originated first out of slave patrols from the South. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, a portion of these slave patrolmen would go on to form the “vigilante” hate group known as the Ku Klux Klan. The US would then establish a more formal approach, taking inspiration from the British model of policing.

English citizens were understandably rather anti-police at the time they were introduced. Early rumblings of police-like units were starting in France, which inspired Scottish merchant Patrick Colquhoun to slowly institute the concept in London, primarily at the docks, to combat cargo theft. Three decades later, Colquhoun’s work would inspire that of Robert Peel, the man who is regarded today as the father of modern-day policing.

Peel was appointed as Chief Secretary in Ireland around 1812. By 1814, he had set up the Peace Preservation Force. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, this paramilitary institution’s primary function was to squash any form of rebellion or unruliness from Ireland’s working-class population. By the end of the 1820s, to respond to several further uprisings and riots in London, Peel had received royal approval for the Metropolitan Police Act, thereby formalising police into the centralised profession we see today. These officers, or “Peelers”, as they were nicknamed, wore blue uniforms so as to separate their public image from that of the red-coated British military.

Of course, with the rise of Robert Peel’s police came a very predictable rise in prisons being built throughout the island nation. By 1877, millions of pounds were used to build 90 different prisons, a lot of which are still in use today.

Whilst the USA and the UK run their prison systems differently – for profit vs. largely nationalised – the issue goes far beyond a simple economic incentive for placing people in cages. There remains an obsession with punishment, control and an “us vs. them” mentality. Dr. Angela Davis famously wrote, “Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” Policing and prisons were never designed to protect the general public; rather they’re designed to suppress us whilst protecting private property and state interests.

It can be all too tempting for the average Briton on any given side of the political spectrum to dismiss these critiques as only applicable to the American justice system. However, one need not look too far to see the same strain of structural violence within British society.

Earlier last week, a young Black student in Hackney was subjected to a dehumanising strip-search by police at her school. The police, who were fully aware that she was on her period, were unable to find any suspected cannabis on the student, yet still proceeded with a search without parental consent, or even a parent present, for that matter.

In 2019, Metropolitan PC Benjamin Kemp used riot spray and a baton to subdue and hit a young teenage girl with learning disabilities, who was asking for help after being separated from her group, over 30 times.

Sarah Everard was a 33-year-old marketing executive whose murder and rape at the hands of a police officer sparked nationwide outrage, particularly amongst women – a demographic whose safety is all too often used in disingenuous attempts to defend the necessity of the current justice system.

As a result of further protests and direct action from social justice groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, the Home Office sponsored the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the spring of 2021. The purpose of the bill is to further expand police powers, allowing them the ability to perform suspicionless stop-and-searches, as well as the ability to criminalise any public protest they believe to be a “public nuisance”.

Yet despite all of their racist, sexist and classist origins, prisons and police are still being pushed by elites as the main, if not only solution to our social problems. This campaign to ensure that we view prisons as indispensable understandably causes many to struggle imagining life without them. The prison abolition movement has a very rich, yet rather recent history, spearheaded by the likes of Dr. Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore in the USA, and carried on by groups such as Abolitionist Futures.

The abolitionist’s viewpoint is not to turn a blind eye to any harm that is committed, but rather to address the root of the societal issues which lead a person to harm in the first place. Concepts such as transformative justice take influence from early indigenous tribes of the West, whereby the victim and the offender sit face to face and address the harm that has been done, all alongside the support of their local community. This approach focuses autonomy on the victim and allows their voice to be heard, rather than lost through the bureaucratic and often traumatising court system.

When we make such claims that police and prisons are the only ways in which we stay protected from harm, we inadvertently export our care for our communities onto an institution that cannot fix our social problems – and that, in fact, worsens them.

In reality, rather than dealing with violent crime, much of the police’s time is spent on ticketing, responding to noise complaints and otherwise upholding bureaucratic city codes and regulations. If you’ve lived in Manchester or the surrounding area, you might be familiar with the news of the student from India who was fined £150 for feeding a pigeon a small piece of his tortilla whilst having lunch in Piccadilly Gardens. Despite how menial and petty these tasks may seem, it’s not uncommon in the USA, or the UK, for that matter, to see police respond in a very unproportionately aggressive way to such things, escalating further until the citizen either becomes either brutalised or sent to prison.

You may be wondering, “Why not simply reform police and prisons, rather than abolish them?” The answer is that police and prisons themselves were started as reforms. Whilst many point to the Nordic method of prison – apartment-style complexes with more focus on rehabilitation – this fails to grasp at the root as to what causes crime to begin with.

Why wait until a crime has been committed to start providing quality housing and respect the human rights of those who are oppressed and disenfranchised? The safest cities are not ones with the most police or prisons, but rather they are the cities with the most resources.

As the world keeps changing rapidly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have shifted our eyes towards new horizons, new ways of thinking and new methods of problem solving. Prison abolition combats far more than the big-business economics of a prison industrial complex. It’s a direct challenge to our outdated obsessions with punishment and domination – a realisation that we are all, as humans, capable of causing harm. Abolition is knowing that every prison sentence marks a profound failure of our current system, and mostly, it’s a commitment to the notion that the best deterrent to violence are close-knit communities built on care and compassion.

Abolition continues to grow as a topic in the UK as the justice system starts to emulate the United States more and more. As time goes by, this dogmatic insistence on punitive justice over transformative justice proves to be borderless.

So must our resistance.


Image: Strangeways Prison in Manchester, by Neil Theasby, published under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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