The Laziness of Prison

Yesterday we heard the good news that Trenton Oldfield and his family have survived their ordeal at the hands of Theresa May (#DeportTheresaMay) and won their appeal against his deportation.

So today we bring you his autumn issue article on another pointless aspect of our criminal justice system: prison.

Image: The Queen vs Trenton Oldfield.

The Laziness of Prison by Trenton Oldfield

Being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day doesn’t give you much of a chance to run in to people, let alone start up many conversations, but whenever there was the opportunity I would ask screws, in-house ‘charity’ workers, the Serco van drivers – whoever was around – what is the point of prison? What is it for? I asked everyone I could; what is meant to happen to me or any one of us in here as a result of spending 6 months, 6 years or even 16 years in prison?

This question became quite pressing about one week into my prison sentence when it started to become evident that somehow all of us behind those walls had travelled back in time. Somehow we were now part of an institution, a set of buildings and a way of thinking that hasn’t changed for many hundreds of years and was probably redundant, and certainly intellectually corrupt, when first conceived, in any case.

Whenever we had ‘association’ time (free time out of the cell that would last for 30-60 minutes), I would also try to read the information pinned on the noticeboards, thinking perhaps I would find a statement about what prison was for, what would happen to me in the 2-6 months I would spend there. In three different prison wings I didn’t come across anything of the sort. It was a pretty strange feeling being locked in a cell 6 x 8 feet for 23 hours a day and really having no idea why or what should happen as a result of such an endeavour.

Since leaving prison I have only been able to find statements explaining what the prison service does, such as ‘holding prisoners securely’ and ‘providing a safe and well-ordered establishment in which we treat prisoners humanely, decently and lawfully.’ What is meant to happen in, and as a result, of the secure and well-ordered establishment seems less important, or not important at all. It is this gap between machine, admin and humanity that makes spending time locked up behind a steel door, far away from loved ones, so difficult.

There are many institutions, and particularly so in Britain, that seem to exist purely as a result of historic momentum, ‘tradition’ and a lack of imagination. Prisons, which should have been abolished generations ago, are ballooning. The prison population has increased by 30% in the last decade and doubled in the last 20 years. In the last decade, prison sentences have increased on average by 20%. The UK is on something of a prison building spree, and has the highest number of private prisons anywhere in Europe. Britain, Romania and Bulgaria are the only European nations to withdraw the right to vote for prisoners.

Despite not knowing what prisons are for, the corporate-state continues their mushrooming growth right across these islands. At the same time, funding is being dramatically cut to education and health services for prisoners. If you end up in prison the chances are you will be spending your time working for little or no money in corporation work camps. And, of course, if you are black or Muslim, the likelihood of you ending up in prison increases significantly. If you are Afro-Caribbean you currently have a greater chance of being criminalised and ending up in prison than entering higher education. 25% of prisoners are from ethnic minorities, who are only 10% of the general population. Black men make up the largest percentage of this group. These men are disproportionately dying at the hands of prison screws, police and G4S and Serco – over 1000 deaths in custody in the last decade. These men are also experiencing the highest rate of the use of the mental health act to detain them.

Apart from supplying readily available and highly managed slave labour, prisons do one thing particularly well and that’s create and maintain the idea of a ‘criminal class’. Prison creates a collection of people that all of us so quickly and often without thought deride and ridicule – and, at the same time, fear. Prisoners and ex-prisoners are at the bottom of this county’s hierarchical pyramid – they’re there for everyone else to kick. How often do we call for a person we dislike to be sent to prison, to ‘rot in jail’?

Despite ‘doing our time’ prisoners come out with a criminal record, which only serves to further stigmatize, undermine and criminalise. This is particularly problematic when there is clearly institutional class and race bias in sentencing decisions. With just a little imagination and just a little bit of work, there’s every possibility of criminal records and prisons being abolished. It’s lazy to have prisons. They are a vestige of another time and don’t have a place in any modern, progressive society.

Trenton Oldfield is one half of Myrdle Court Press, the publishing arm of This Is Not A Gateway. His hobbies include open-air swimming and protest; he dislikes elitism, prison and Theresa May.

Pick up your copy of STRIKE! here