Sophie Fuggle’s post on the wider context of the Prison Book Ban from her blog Limit Experience is getting some traction on twitter and I was asked to repost it so you might read it too. At least to take a moment to think what kind of malignant and parasitic bureaucracy would sit back while the mugwumps implement their mugwump rule. The original is here.
Books vs. Cigarettes 2
Earlier this week, two news sites featured stories about the banning of books from inside UK prisons. The legislation brought in by Chris Grayling in November put a blanket ban on packages sent in to prisoners. As others who have now taken up the story pointed out – why did none of us pick up on this earlier? The ban of packages just before Christmas is akin to the measures taken by the French prison system in the early 1970s when it banned magazines and newspapers from prisons as well as the famous Christmas packages which allowed families to send in food parcels. This deliberately callous, heavy-handed action aimed at severing links to the outside world is often cited as one of several motiving factors for the work of the Groupe d’Information sur les prisons. To ban a child from sending a parent a homemade card because there might be some form of contraband hidden amongst the glitter and glue seems both archaic and futuristically paranoid. But I would suggest there is something else at stake here. As Charlie Gilmour’s article in the Standard last night points out – if you want to get rid of drugs in prison, get rid of the prison officers overseeing their circulation. Grayling is clearly basing his understanding of how contraband gets into prisons on having once watched The Shawshank Redemption. Moreover, the restriction on books now available in prisons as a result of banning packages should alert us to what is really going on within the prison system – instead of simply reiterating the myth of rehabilitation we have long held onto – we should look more closely at this myth. Why has it suited us, the UK public, to hang on to this myth when so much of what we hear about prisons suggests the opposite? For a start, it sets our prison system apart from what we see going on elsewhere, most notably, the U.S. but becoming a model increasingly transplanted to other Western countries. The warehousing of unwanted, unneeded labour. On a visit to Attica in 2012, I heard a Correctional Officer say ‘I don’t care if they get a degree or watch TV in their cells all day. As long as they don’t cause me any trouble.’ But at least there was the option of study. The prison library at Attica, from what I understand, is incredibly well-stocked particularly with law journals and even those in the Special Housing Unit (solitary) have access to the books via Mark Chapman, Lennon’s killer and self-appointed librarian for the SHU. But coupled with this refusal to recognize rehabilitation as possible within prison, there seemed to be an implicit understanding that people need to be given something to do and that not everyone wants to spend all day pushing weights. So what is different about Grayling’s prison industrial complex? On the one hand, he seems to be fully embracing a U.S.-inflected politics of fear – Grayling’s speech in October 2012, talks about the two strikes rule and evokes a similar right to bear arms (currently without the fire part) in order to protect one’s home and property beyond any reasonable force that led to Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman in February 2012. What Grayling is telling us here is that not only do we have the right to violently and potentially fatally attack those we perceive as a threat, but that we indeed should react in this way. There are people out there who want to take things from us, our hard-earned things, and we should be scared. Moreover, the rising university tuition fees and culture of student debt in the U.K., mean this fear and anxiety extends beyond the mere encroaching on material space to one’s intellectual capital. Grayling expected his speech and seems to expect his subsequent responses to the literary community to be well-received by a wider public, terrified that those in prison will receive the same, if not better access to learning and training than that available to their own children. Immediately, following my visit to Attica in 2012, I was at a conference in Buffalo during which a discussion of degree programmes in prison came up. A member of teaching staff from one if the colleges in Buffalo told us that when she first started there she heard on the grapevine that there was a prison teaching programme offered by the college. She asked a professor in the department how she might get onto the programme and if it was worth her going to talk to the Dean about it. The professor told her to never speak of the programme again. Apparently, there was a time when the college put in proudly on their prospectuses in order to emphasize the role they played within the local community. However, this was received incredibly badly by parents of students who were paying upwards of $40k a year for the same degree. The programme was only able to continue as a result of total secrecy by those involved which meant precluding new members of staff from taking part thus limiting the scope of the programme. The logic amongst parents is fairly obvious: why should they bankroll a programme which would see criminals achieving the same degree as their own children? Why should they be instrumental in turning felons into graduates who would then be competing with their own offspring for jobs? It is easy to see how this logic will be increasingly applied in the U.K. as a means of justifying cuts to education programmes in prisons before seeping into mainstream education. I have heard middle class parents justifying their decisions to ‘remove’ their children from highly regarded state schools based on the argument that such schools do more for ‘underprivileged’ children than their own offspring. The Tory party’s education reforms are always largely taken up with how to privatize state education through the back door. Warehousing begins here. Yet, on the other hand, there is a sleight of hand going on here which means that Grayling is able to channel the notion of rehabilitation hence his use of the phrase ‘Rehabiliation Revolution’ in ways not possible in the U.S. supermaxes. This is why for authors and other writers to scream blue murder about the banning of books is an empty gesture if it is not supported by further analysis as to what is really going on here. A far stronger link between the myth of rehabilitation and prison labour is currently being developed within the U.K. If the prison labour force in the U.S. is increasingly becoming obsolete due to the decline in U.S. manufacturing and pressure of unions not to buy prison-made goods, in the U.K. a whole spate of prison training and apprenticeships are being rolled out which situate prison labour within the continuum of unpaid and underpaid labour which also includes the placements and internships universities charge their students to do in order to get a degree and the workfare programmes imposed on the unemployed. Grayling speech focuses in this respect of the creation of a Timpson’s shop inside a prison (the irony about lockpicking should not be lost here) with the aim of training inmates to work for Timpson’s on their release. This is effectively the state selling slave labour to private industry under the guise of rehabilitation. Grayling is as much an advocate of rehabilitation as Philip Pullman and all the other authors who have come to the rescue of the prison. Only here Grayling recognizes the need to more clearly define the parameters of what constitutes rehabilitation so that this comes to mean the ability to take part in the (unpaid) labour force. More sinister here, is the coupling of such labour with the recognition of the economic value of the criminal subject qua social outcast. Grayling begins his speech by talking about his visit to The Clink,a restaurant run by inmates from Brixton prison. This is not simply about training inmates to cook and wait on customers. This is about capitalizing on the inmate as commodity fetish. To eat at The Clink is to embark on a form of dark tourism lite – to pay top dollar for the frisson of coming into contact with individuals who might have done something terrible whilst legitimizing this voyeurism and vicarious sense of transgression with the feeling you have done something positive to help such deviants by allowing them to serve you and your repulsive, bourgeois friends. The game-show style television programmes which often accompany such initiatives affirm this conflation of prison industry with culture industry. As does the work of charities like the Koestler Trust. If their work seems to go against the grain of what Grayling is proposing, I think more critique is necessary. How is the offenders art programme actually run in different prisons? How much choice in what is produced is given to inmates? Do they even know they are being entered into its competitions? Are they given full ownership of their work or is it deemed to be Her Majesty’sproperty? Does the ability to sell artwork produced while you were locked up mean you will make it as an artist when you get out? I do not want to suggest inmates should not make art whilst in prison and definitely don’t want to endorse Grayling’s view that practical labour such as working in Timpson’s is to be preferred to reading a novel in your cell. What I do want to suggest is the way in which all these activities work together to produce a certain type of subject able to reproduce the myths and discourses of rehabilitation at the same time as be obliged to sell him or herself as a fetish object for consumption by a public unable to think past the looming presence of the prison on society’s bleak horizon.