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Revolutionary Marxism, the prisons system and the Prison Officers Association

This resolution outlines our position on the nature of the prison system

The State

1. The state, regardless of its form (bourgeois democratic, fascist dictatorship, etc.), consists of in the final analysis “special bodies of armed men” (Engels, quoted in State and Revolution). The role of this repressive apparatus is to resist the struggle of the oppressed classes, in particular the working class, and to maintain and strengthen the rule of the bourgeoisie.

2. Socialist revolutionaries stand for the smashing of the bourgeois state apparatus in a revolution. But “alone, the workers’ militia will not be able to smash the power of the bourgeois state. The armed forces of the ruling class will have to be broken from within as well as from without.” Indeed it is a fact that “every revolutionary situation has shown in decisive showdowns with the working class sections of the armed forces have wavered and broken with their capitalist masters” (Trotskyist Manifesto).

3. While the top brass of these forces (army, police, prison guards and other agencies) and their senior commanders in the field are members of the ruling class pure and simple, their rank and file are recruited from the mass of the population, including the working and middle classes. Nevertheless, they are all, collectively and “in the final analysis” an arm of the capitalist state machinery.

4. There is therefore a class contradiction lodged within the state. While this is most acutely expressed in the conscript army, it can occasionally also apply to recruited armies. For the contradiction to lead to the breaking up of the armed force a combination several factors are important: a) great apprehension over or severe defeats in a war, b) a mass antiwar movement at home and c) communist agitation in the ranks.

5. Of course there are preliminary stages, in which parts of the repressive apparatus organise independently from their officers, take action against them and objectively start to shake the chain of command. While communists may agitate for and make propaganda about such steps, they must not confuse these first acts of insubordination with the final breaking of the apparatus. We therefore do not support police or army or prison wardens unions joining the labour movement in such circumstances, even if their actions are very militant and for progressive goals.

6. Socialists need to mobilise tactics to break open the contradictions within the repressive apparatus while never holding out the utopian illusion it can be reformed into an instrument of socialist transformation. Our tactics are always based upon, a “concrete analysis of the concrete situation” and our guiding principle is to develop the class struggle strengthening and empowering the working class against the bosses.

7. In the enforcement of capitalist rule and the defence of private property relations, different parts of the armed state apparatus play distinct roles and functions. The police are the first line of defence of the system, the upholder of “law and order” with all the day-to-day repression of (working class communities and Black and Asian youth) collective liberties this entails. In relatively stable, bourgeois democratic countries like Britain the army is only mobilised on the street as a last resort to defend the system. They thus occupy different positions from the mass of the population from whom they are recruited.

8. While all parts of the bourgeois state must appear to “stand above” from society (in order to give the appearance of being a neutral arbiter of force) the police impose order on a day-to-day level inside the populations from which they are recruited while the army only imposes order abroad in countries under occupation. At the top of the system stand the judges, who are totally unelected yet wield great power (by setting precedent, interpreting legislation, determining sentencing). The police and judiciary have an active role in repression – the police have a monopoly on the use of force on the streets and in society, the judiciary decide who should be denied their liberty through a prison sentence – while prison guards occupy a more passive position, as they ‘only’ enforce the decisions of the latter. However, prison guards, in some circumstances play a more brutal role than the police, for the reason that they are at liberty to commit offences against inmates behind closed doors (though, as the campaign Injustice has exposed similar practices occur in police custody cells too).

The Prisons System

9. Britain has a particularly reactionary criminal justice system in comparison to most bourgeois democratic states (with the exception of the United States). In the ten years to 2003 the prison population increased by 66 per cent for men and 191 per cent for women. As the Howard League notes, this increase “has not been fuelled by escalating crime rates nor by an increase in the number of offenders appearing before the courts. Rather, harsher sentencing has resulted in our ever-escalating prison population.”

10. Overwhelmingly people sent to prison are not a threat to individual or collective liberty, but to private property. Some 78 per cent of people sentenced to immediate custody in 2003, for example, had committed non-violent offences. The prison population hit 84,300 on 11 September – an all time record. During 2004, 95 people killed themselves while serving a prison sentence (all stats from www.HowardLeague.Org ).

11. The discourse of “law and order” is an important component of reactionary bourgeois ideology. Typically statistics will show fear of crime tending to increase despite the number of crimes receding. Individual cases of serious crime, though rare, are given a high profile in the media. Nonetheless social decay and criminality are a real feature of late capitalism, (and) its spiralling inequality and increased social stratification.

12. Socialists do not engage in petit bourgeois romanticism about crime. Crime can plague our communities, and invariably hurts the pockets and the civil liberties of the poor more than the rich. But we insist new repressive laws and coercion from the bourgeois state can never be the solution (“not a penny nor a person for this system”). We propose collective forms of working class crime prevention; defence against state, mob and fascist attacks; progressive penal reform; the legalisation of drugs; and a massive programme of social welfare and public works to tackle the causes of crime.

13. We want to live in a world without a prison system and any instruments of coercion – communism – but we reject calls for the immediate abolition of the prison system under capitalism which would only lead to the proliferation of gangsterism in working class districts. Once in power we would not throw open the doors of the prisons but, place them under workers’ control, purge reactionary officers and enact a comprehensive review of all cases by a workers’ enquiry. It would involve the community in its findings and sentencing and would take into consideration the social circumstances of the crime and the criminal. For those found guilty of crimes against the working class and the oppressed strata and those who pose a serious and realistic threat to society, prison would be appropriate, but even here, incarceration would be unrecognisable from today’s system, with the purpose being rehabilitation, not repression and punishment. Without prejudicing any particular cases, we are in no doubt that the vast majority of female prisoners and a majority of male prisoners would immediately be released under a workers’ inquiry. The remainder, while remaining segregated from society, would be democratically entitled to organise in a prisoners union as a check against mistreatment.

Prison Workers in Britain

14. Prison guards are a core component of the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state. They regularly inflict repression on working class prisoners and this has been well documented by liberal campaigning organisations like the Howard League and similarly tendencies within the working class movement. It is not so long ago in Britain that thousands of Irish Republicans were held interned into the prison system and refused the status of political prisoners, as were many miners, and poll tax refuseniks. Many Irish Republicans remain in British prisons today for violation of anti-weapons restrictions after the Good Friday Agreement, and some G20 protestors are expecting 7 year sentences for defending themselves from police repression.

15. Like all sections of the bourgeois state engaged in repression, prison guards are inclined to develop a reactionary consciousness. This may take a racist form or a more acutely self-referential hatred for the lumpen elements of the working class from which they themselves are generally recruited. While 10% of prisoners in Britain are ex-soldiers, so too are large numbers of prison guards. Both prison warders and those they imprison are recruited from much the same strata of the population. In the army, of course, racist attitudes towards occupied peoples are also actively cultivated.

16. The Prison Officers Association (POA) represents prison guards specifically and is traditionally seen as professional association. In this respect it is a craft-like union. Neither in its position as an instrument of repression nor in its craft unionism, would socialists expect any form of progressive consciousness to develop. But in Britain the POA has developed a leftist leadership, which has put amendments to the TUC conference for a one-day general strike against the anti-union laws in 2008 and led an indefinite strike against attacks on pay in 2007. Today they are threatening strike action if the government pursues prison privatisation, while Brian Caton has joined the Socialist Party and the POA may support an RMT initiated list at the forthcoming election.

17. But both Brian Caton and the union as a whole have combined this with repeated calls for more repression (on) of prison inmates, including repeated calls for better weaponry – so reflecting the reactionary social consciousness typical (amongst servants) within all levels of the repressive apparatus of the state. For example, in 2007 he attacked moves to allow prisoners to smoke in cells saying, “prisons are not hotels” while this year he said moves to end mandatory drugs testing in open prisons would turn them into “drug havens”. While the POA is also the first line of defence for prison officers who have carried out violent attacks on prisoners. Back in 2003, when the Prison Service settled legal cases taken by 14 prisoners, who at Wormwood Scrubs in 1995-9 were subjected to sustained beatings, mock executions, choking and torrents of racist abuse by prison officers, the POA claimed their members were being scapegoated and called for a public enquiry to clear their names.

18. Socialists do not find this surprising or an aberration. It is the very nature of the job – carrying out day-to-day repression of prisoners – that cultivates such a consciousness. This is one reason why socialists do not recruit serving prison officers, because such acts of repression are incompatible with democratic, let alone socialist principles. Only in exceptional circumstances could this possibly change; namely in a revolutionary situation, when a new state is posed in embryo, and a fight will necessarily ensue in order to split all forces under the direct control of the bourgeois state. Nonetheless their position is not the same as police, who impose violence and repression on whole working class communities and labour movement activists in struggle.

19. As a component of the repressive apparatus of the state we oppose the POA’s membership of the TUC. The working class must be independent from the capitalist state and therefore cannot have members of the repressive state apparatus in its ranks. Furthermore, we can make the deduction that, as class struggle intensifies, so too will the state be more inclined to grant generous concessions to those layers directly associated with its continued domination so as to deftly crush any unrest in its midst. The British state first attempted to clamp down on POA following its defeat of the miners’ strike, with the ‘Fresh Start Agreement’ which enforced a 39 hour week at the expense of lucrative overtime arrangements. The state did this on the understanding that it had won a major victory against the working class, so too can we expect it to reverse these attacks on prison guards when after the resurgence of class struggle the working class is again on the ascendance.

20. Opposition to POA membership of the TUC should not be confused with a call for the disbanding of the POA nor does it exclude limited united fronts of the POA, e.g. co-ordinated strike action or calling on the TUC to strike against the anti-union laws. However, any co-operation with these forces must be accompanied by criticism of their ‘left-wing’ and pro-working class pretensions. If prison guards have the right to organise unions, then so too should prisoners.

21. We supported the POA’s call for a one-day general strike against the anti-union laws at the TUC in 2008. But we know they are only very temporary allies even on this issue. The POA should after all make clear they will not implement these laws, i.e. will refuse to imprison any trade unionists. We know they would never adopt such a radical stance, as it would bring them into open conflict with their bourgeois masters by challenging the bourgeois justice system itself. The ironic fact that it is the POA that leads the call for a general strike against the anti-union laws in the TUC, rather than any other union, is after all in itself indicative of the failure of the left trade union leaders to fight on this issue. In short, even when we do strike such a limited alliance, we must not hold any hopes in the bourgeois state or cover up the fundamentally reactionary position of the prison officers.

22. Given the possibility the POA may support an SP initiated left challenge to Labour at the next election, it is vital that we place clear, concrete demands on them to act in the interests of the working class in order to expose their reactionary role to those with illusions in them. Such exposure on concrete issues is a far more powerful device than appealing to more general forms of Marxist argumentation. We need in particular to avoid simply dismissing those progressive policies that it holds – such as the general strike on the anti-union laws. We do not want to be interpreted as arguing, “Please drop your progressive policies so you can better conform to our model of how you should behave and act”. On the contrary, we must ceaselessly demand the POA goes further. The POA should:

  • Campaign against the imprisonment of children, not for more weaponry to inflict injury on imprisoned children. More funding for specialised schooling for young offenders.
  • Cease its attacks on asylum seekers including violent repression of detainees’ protests.
  • End its practice of peddling right wing lies that prisons’ are becoming “drug havens” and opposing measures to liberalise the prison system – attack the government not prisoners.
  • Campaign for less imprisonment – not more. The POA has talked about the prisons crisis but used this to argue for more resources, including more prisons, rather than opposing the massive increase in custodial sentencing.
  • Most crucially – work to rule – demonstrate in practice its claim to be a progressive organisation by not giving out disciplinary charges and behaviour warnings, refusing to conduct unnecessary searches, not writing up ‘security reports’, not censoring mail, listening into phonecalls or banning visitors.
  • Do not implement any custodial sentence given to a trade unionist for defying the anti-union laws.
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