Building Warehouses of Suffering and Death: The case against the new prison in Wellingborough

This post is a transcript of Dr David Scott’s talk at the January 10th Public Meeting in Wellingborough.

There is a sickness haunting the prison service in England and Wales. This sickness – a ‘penal malaise’ – which systematically generates suffering and death, goes right to the heart of the daily workings of penal regimes. The meeting this evening has been established to discuss plans to build a new ‘super-max’ prison here in Wellingborough. What I would like to do is highlight some of the deep and profound problems shaping imprisonment and to give you some indication of what building a new prison will do to the local community. Whatever the rhetoric about jobs and financial investment in the Wellingborough community by local and Westminster politicians, what the prison will really bring is intensified levels of harm and human suffering.

We need to recognise at the outset that prisons are not particularly effective at helping either the people they contain or the communities that surround them. Around 50% of prisoners reoffend with a year of release and this number increases as time goes on. This is of course an underestimate as it only relates to those who are caught rather than the actual reoffending rate. If prisons are anything, they are “schools for crime” in which criminal identities are reinforced and new skills or tactics for lawbreaking developed.

Harms are also felt in the community itself. This can operate on a number of different but significant levels. First, there are a great many children who are left without fathers or mothers. Children can end up in care, or face neglect, or struggle to cope with life due to the trauma of the loss of a parent / significant adult. This can impact directly on other members of the community through problematic behaviour by the child / difficulties at school. Elders can also be left without carers. Other members of the family, such as partners, may suffer financial hardship if a main breadwinner is imprisoned.

As prisons are also directed primarily at controlling young men, this can result in communities near prisons suffering from a local shortage of adult men. The consequences can be very harsh on women in the community, as often the under-supply of single men compared to single women, especially in late teens and early twenties, can result in men treating women with less respect. Prison damages human relationships and undermines an ethics of care.

Further, prisons have not proved to be very effective in terms of boosting community safety. Most prisoners, when released back into the community after they have experienced the trauma, hardship and violence of imprisonment, find it hard to readjust. Rather than reducing ‘crime’ in local communities, prisons actually lead to increases in ‘crime’ and also escalate a sense of insecurity amongst other members. The key message is that for the local people near a prison, despite all the talk of counsellors and other pro-prison groups, in human terms, the prison is likely to significantly damage the local community.

I’m not going to focus too much on the financial side of things. I think that this argument is fairly straightforward and has been made by others. But in a time of budget cuts, austerity and the rise of personal debt the very last thing that we need to be spending money on are warehouses of suffering and death.

The money that will be invested into HMP Wellingborough and other new prisons would be better spent on boosting the local economy or supporting welfare services. There has already been discussion of how the money could be spent on a new hospital.

Further investment in meaningful jobs, social housing, education provision for adults and children, child care support, local libraries, transport infrastructure, improved community treatment and voluntary rehabilitation services would all serve the community much better than a prison.

A new prison will not help build life – it will only destroy it. Prisons are one way of regulating the poor – for indeed the vast majority of people sent to prison are from socially excluded backgrounds who have experienced many different challenges and problems in living prior to incarceration. By building a new prison we are not just putting money into the pain infliction industry – we are also shifting focus away from welfare support. Building new prisons are therefore a threat to the welfare services available for everyone in the wider community. The new prison will have hidden consequences and harms for the people of Wellingborough and surrounding area and very little, in the end, to benefit them.

There has been much media coverage in recent months about the prison system being in ‘crisis’. A crisis indicates a cross roads – that it is possible to take a turning that will ease or even end a problem. As I have touched on earlier, I think that the prison has been haunted by a sickness since the very inception of the ‘reformed’ prisons in the early nineteenth century. This sickness, which systematically generates suffering and death, cannot be cured.

Many of the problems that have been talked about in the media are endemic to the penal system. We had major disturbances at HMP Bedford and HMP Birmingham in recent months that many here may be familiar with. The lack of order and consent in prisons, however, is not an aberration. Prisons generally just about get by with begrudging acceptance by prisoners of the mundane daily regime. There are literally hundreds of incidents of prisoner rebellion in this country each year. For example, in 2014 the National Tactical Response Group (special prison riot squad) was called out on 203 times to prisons in England and Wales. We very rarely hear about this unless, like in Birmingham, there is now way to hide this disturbance from the general public. The media are often embargoed from reporting on trouble in prisons. By building a new prison, Wellingborough will be literally importing conflict, antagonism and physical violence into its own community.

It is now well documented that prisoners have much greater health problems than most people in society. The two most often discussed are mental health problems and substance / drug usage. The last major official government report on mental health problems indicated that 80% of prisoners had mental health problems. The most recent study published on prisoner mental health on 22nd November 2016, found that 69.1% of prisoners had two or more psychiatric disorders – what the authors refer to as co-morbidity (Bebington et al, 2016). As prisoners have higher rates of physical and mental illness this places increased stress on local National Health Service resources. This can actually lead to an impoverishment of health provision in the wider community.

Once again, the local people of Wellingborough will lose out. That prisons exacerbate rather than address health issues results in a total mismanagement of how best to address ill-health. It would be better, most cost effective and much more humane to address mental health problems through appropriate provision in the community and local hospitals.

Drugs and substance use are also central to the media narrative. Focus has primarily been on psychoactive drugs like Black Mamba and (formerly) legal highs. Revelations in the media in recent months have pointed to the large number of times ambulances have been called to prisons to deal with drug overdoses. Prison officers and prisoners have come to call ambulances the “mambulance” because of the connection with the harm generated by taking the substance. This again places strain in local NHS resources. It is also something specifically generated by the prison itself.

Prisoners have always taken illicit substances of some sort or other (in the past it was cigarettes and alcohol so it is only the illicit substance that has changed in the last 150 years). The reason why is because drug taking it is an essential part of coping with the prison place. Illicit substances (drugs such as cannabis) can help prisoners manage time. It can help them sleep. It can help them forget that they are living such a stark, mundane and boring existence. Whilst we have prisons we will have drug taking – the loneliness and isolation of the prison itself generates demand for drugs.

There has also been a focus in the media on the physical violence of prisoners, both in terms of violence against other prisoners and prison officers. Focusing on the physical violence of prisoners is of course important, but it is only one manifestation of the violence of incarceration. Prisons are also characterised by what I refer to as ‘Institutionally-structured violence’. This is a hidden and corrosive effects of living in an institution which is deliberately designed to inflict pain and suffering. By default, prisons deprive prisoners of basic human needs.

In many prisons today, prisoners face long hours of ‘lockdown’ – with many prisoners regularly locked in their cells for up to18 hours a day. The levels of boredom and time consciousness are increased through dull and impoverished regimes that fail to stimulate, educate or even deliver the minimum in terms of the vague Prison Service commitment to ‘purposeful activity’. Nearly two thirds of all prisons are crowded and since changes in the rules of Incentives and Earned Privileges (the system of rewards for good behaviour) in November 2013 there has been increasing emphasis on prison officer authority and the disciplining of prisoners. Prisons are profoundly harmful to both prisoners and prison officers even at the best of times, but in brutalising, punitive and dehumanising penal regimes, levels of human suffering may become insurmountable.

The truth is prisons systematically generate suffering and death. 339 prisoners died in prisons in England and Wales in 2016. There were 110 self-inflicted deaths (and at time of writing a further 57 deaths awaiting classification). A prisoner self-harms every fifteen minutes and a prisoner attempts to take their own life around once every four hours. There have been 4126 deaths in prison in total since 1990 and between 1990 and 2010, 1,407 prisoners took their own lives. This last figure is now of course much higher today as 500 prisoners have killed themselves in the last six years.

Prisons then have always been places of death. Large number of prisoner deaths have gone hand in hand with the historical development of the prison. This has not always been visible and not all prisoner deaths have been accurately recorded, but what we do know is that for most people the prison place engenders feelings and thoughts of suicide. It is estimated that somewhere in the region of 40,000 people in prison today are thinking about or have recently contemplated suicide. When we look at the record high number of deaths, combined with the number of attempted hangings and drug overdoses in prison, there can be no doubt that building a new prison in Wellingborough means building a warehouse of suffering and death

I have attempted to visibilise the hideously ugly reality of the prison. But what can we do right now? Well, we can start by simply telling people that we know about the harm the new prison will create. This can be to friends, family, work colleagues, neighbours, other members of local communities and the local press about what the new prison will mean for Wellingborough. We must get a message out acknowledging just how dangerous and counterproductive prisons are, and always have been for the people they house, those that house them, and local people.

We can also focus on building a deeper culture of democratic accountability among the people of Wellingborough. What I mean here is for the local people to have a genuine voice in determining how their lives are shaped rather than simply accepting the top down decisions from politicians and other bureaucrats. Building democracy and ‘people power’ should be part of any constructive way forward. Together we can also try to encourage and embolden local people to have the political courage and will to directly engage and participate in trying to solve the problems we face in our communities without recourse to prison or punishment. To this end, people here tonight can become further involved in the direct actions and public education campaigns by activists like those at CAPE (the Campaign Against Prison Expansion).

Let me end with four key slogans that we should demand of the local Wellingborough council. We want:

  1. An immediate and radical reduction in the prison populations NOW!
  2. A moratorium on all prison building.
  3. Any money that is earmarked to be spent on the prison to be reinvested instead into enhanced welfare provision for the local community
  4. The development of non-violent alternatives to prison that can lead to support or rehabilitation for lawbreakers and appropriate redress and recompense for victims / survivors.