There’s an old cliché that you judge a society by how it treats its weakest and while this is still a very good measure I’d argue the real test of a society is how it treats it least popular members.
In Britain, as in most societies, the people who garner the least public support are those who have been judged to have broken the rules of that society – prisoners.
Last week, Justice Secretary Liz Truss launched a white paper which she claimed would herald £1.3bn investment and the biggest overhaul of Britain’s prisons in a generation.
The cash will be put into Britain’s creaking prison system over the next five years and will fund 2,100 extra prison officers, drug tests and will grant more autonomy for governors.
In recent years, a drastic and deliberate underfunding of Britain’s prisons has seen an exodus of staff and declining conditions. These have led to an alarming rise in violence, self-harm and drug use among inmates.
Truss promised MPs there would be ‘zero tolerance’ of attacks on prison staff and said body cameras would be rolled out to more prison staff.
Predictably, Labour’s response was that the investment was too little too late but the growing problem in our prisons is about much more than money.
Any talk of prisoner’s rights causes eye-rolling among a large number of Brits. The general opinion is that prisons are not holiday camps and prisoners’ conditions should be poor so that prison serves as a deterrent to any potential law-breakers.
Last year, when the European Court of Justice ruled that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was a breach of their rights, it was another nail in the coffin of Britain’s EU membership. The British media argued that being convicted of a crime means you lose your right to have any say in how the country (or continent) is run and the public generally seemed to agree.
Even if the prison system was fair and just, which it blatantly is not, the way to deal with someone who is judged to have broken the laws of the land is not to brutalise them and treat them as sub-human. The purpose of prisons should be to protect society from people who would do it harm and to lead those who break laws on a path back to being fully functioning members of society.
Prison reformers warn that Britain’s jails are the worst that they have been for 100 years. They are more over-crowded with fewer educational programmes and less leisure time. The situation is getting worse rather than better. This week riot police had to be shipped into Bedford Prison after around 200 prisoners rioted over the deteriorating conditions.
Reductions in mental health services also mean that people who should be receiving medical help are instead treated like criminals. Earlier this year, Sarah Reed, who had a history of mental ill-health following the death of her child, was found dead in her cell in Holloway prison. Sarah’s death should have been a warning for how we are failing both our prisoners and people with mental health issues.
This is more than just a call from ‘bleeding heart liberals’ to treat prisoners better. Prisons that brutalise rather than rehabilitate cost all of us. We are all more at risk of becoming victims to reoffenders and the financial cost of reoffending is estimated at as much as £13bn per year. Britain’s reoffending rates are around 50% but in some prisons this rockets to over 70%.
It’s clear that making prisons tougher does not deter crime and increases the likelihood of reoffending. The country in the world with the lowest reoffending rate is Norway where only 20% of prisoners go on to reoffend when released. The country operates system of restorative justice where prisons aim to be as close to normal life as possible. The punishment is the removal of your liberty, not your rights.
On the other end of the scale is the USA, which has the highest incarceration rates in the world (a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are in US jails). US prisons are violent and dangerous with inmates handed out harsh sentences for even fairly minor crimes. In the USA the reoffending rates are 76%.
The awe-inspiring Angola 3
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing the two remaining members of the Angola 3 speak at an event in London. In the early 1970s, Black Panthers Robert King, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were convicted for crimes they clearly didn’t commit and jailed in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana. The three had been organising resistance in prisons and the state wanted to silence them. On the flimsiest of evidence, the three were convicted and placed in solitary confinement – which meant a 6×9 cell for 23 hours each day – for decades.
After a concerted campaign which lasted for 44 years, the three were eventually released. Robert King was released in 2001 and Albert Wilcox was finally freed earlier this year. Herman Wallace died in 2013, just days after he was released.
The men were in no doubt that they and the rest of the prison population were the last remaining American slaves. When the 13th Amendment brought an end to slavery in the USA, a clause was inserted to appease the restless south which stated that slavery was abolished for everyone except prisoners.
Robert had formerly escaped from prison and had no remorse for this.
“I exercised the only right a slave has, the right to rebel – so I escaped,” he said.
Hearing these amazing men tell their tale of a life in a system designed to strip them of their humanity was humbling and the humour and spirit the two men demonstrated was awe inspiring.
Robert was the first of the three to be released after he accepted a guilty plea. Although he thought long and hard about confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, he decided he could do more for his two comrades on the outside.
“When I got out, I vowed that even though I was free of Angola, it would never be free of me,” he said.
True to his word, he campaigned relentlessly for the freedom of Albert and Herman and now that they have all been released the two remaining activists are devoting their lives to protesting against solitary confinement, the corrupt US legal system and for freedom for political prisoners everywhere.
Albert said: “We stayed strong because we knew we were right. The law can change overnight but morality never changes.”
Both Panthers saw the Black Lives Matter movement as the natural continuation of their movement. The Panthers were targeted and vilified and virtually their entire leadership ended up in prison or on the run. Albert hopes BLM manages to avoid the same traps.
Albert and Robert were keen to highlight the case of Leonard Peltier, a leading Native American activist who was jailed in 1971 after two FBI agents died in a confrontation with the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Leonard was convicted even though it was proven that FBI agents coerced witness and is now aged 71 and is suffering from ill health.
Amnesty International has launched a campaign for clemency from the outgoing Barack Obama. The campaign may well be his last chance to die a free man.
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White Men Dancing is a weekly column. Kiri Kankhwende and Maurice Mcleod keep an eye on Westminster. Politics is too important to leave to politicians.
Maurice Mcleod is a social commentator with Jamaican/Swazi heritage. He is director of his own communications company, Marmoset Media, and writes regularly for The Guardian and The Spectator among other titles. He is also a trustee for campaign groupRace on the Agenda. Maurice often appears on Sky News as a talking head and writes about social issues, race or politics. He tweets as @mowords