History of Community Action on Prison Expansion

In recent years, resistance to prison expansion in England and Wales has grown. In 2014, planning permission was granted for the North Wales Prison project, a mega-prison designed for 2,100 prisoners, making it the second largest prison in Europe. Local residents had resisted the project for over five years through various legal frameworks and lobbying. Most organised opposition came from the housing estate opposite the prison, whose community would be deeply affected by it.

To support these efforts, Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) was launched in November 2014. It emerged from the grassroots movement building efforts of the Empty Cages Collective (ECC), a small anarchist collective focusing on building a movement to dismantle the prison industrial complex. The ECC had toured the UK and hosted dozens of workshops about prisons through the year. CAPE is a wider coalition with a diversity of groups and tactics. CAPE’s intention is to practically, economically and ethically halt prison expansion in the UK before thousands more people are harmed.

In August 2015, CAPE worked with Reclaim the Fields, a constellation of anti-capitalist food growers from across Europe, to organise an action camp against the North Wales Prison Project (now called HMP Berwyn). The five-day gathering was held at Borras Community Protection Camp, a site camp established to oppose fracking in the area. The gathering sought to link land struggles with resistance to the prison industrial complex and ongoing mechanisms of state violence and dispossession.

Over 150 people came together participating in a comprehensive programme of workshops, discussions and practical activities, including developing a garden at the camp. In the evenings, people would travel to local prisons for solidarity noise demonstrations. Suppliers to the prison project were also targeted with demonstrations. A group of people blockaded the three access gates to the prisons construction site for an entire day, stopping important deliveries and disrupting construction.

In November 2015, a UK-wide week of action took place against the North Wales prison project. Groups targeted companies, occupying or disrupting offices, or picketing outside. Stalls were held outside jails to build relationships with prisoner families, especially those supporting loved ones serving indeterminate sentences. The building had to be stopped for a time after people blocked the gates. Neighbourhoods of South London being displaced by the construction company Lendlease’s Heygate Estate re-development were also covered with posters connecting struggles between gentrification and the prison system. The week ended with a massive demonstration at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre. Solidarity actions against Lendlease also took place across the world, including in Sydney, Australia where Lendlease banners were torn down from their construction sites, repainted and hung from highway bridges.

The day after the week of action, then Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced plans to build nine new mega-prisons. It was “all systems go” for CAPE, who invested more time and energy in building a national movement through dozens of workshops, regular tours and actions. Although the locations of the planned prisons were confidential, organisers suspected a regional spread and therefore planned national-scale organising to prepare communities. In April 2016, another week of action took place in Liverpool focusing on how the prison system harms women and trans people. Once again, a national gathering of workshops and discussions was complimented by street-level actions.

There has been a lot of other action taken against the building of these prisons. Anonymous individuals for example targeted large diggers and construction equipment. Others sprayed slogans on the half-built prison fences. The people at the top of the prison construction process have also been made to feel directly responsible for their actions, with the Project Director being told of the fear and repression their actions were causing.

Throughout, the government has shown scant concern for the safety of those locked up. When HMP Berwyn opened its gates in February 2017, a statement was released online saying the foundations had been sabotaged with acid and the prison was structurally unsound. The prison service ignored calls for investigations for the sake of prisoner safety, and began to fill the prison with prisoners.

Other grassroots groups have been formed in collaboration with CAPE. When the first location for the new prison program came out in a newspaper article in March 2016, announcing a potential prison in Greater Manchester, No Prisons Manchester was launched. The group organised event after event in the city to build momentum, including a national No More Prisons Conference in March 2017.

Finally, in December 2016 the next two locations were announced in the Midlands. CAPE quickly organised a tour of local cities in the region to try and build community resistance. Leicester Prison Resistance emerged to fight the planning application for HMP Glen Parva. Individuals did their best to build a group in Wellingborough, but felt defeated after planning permission was granted. In March 2017, more locations were announced – Rochester, Wigan, South Wales and East Yorkshire.

CAPE worked hard to build connections in these areas and support groups getting organised. A coalition was launched called Yorkshire Campaign Against Prisons, as people decided that working at a county-level would wield more power. The group have organised consistent events and managed to get a large number of objections to the planning application. Grassroots resistance emerged in Wigan with a group called ‘Pies Not Prisons’ exposing the asbestos risks of developing HMP Risley and gaining regular local media coverage.

In Port Talbot, South Wales, autonomous local community resistance has been particularly strong – see the previous section about the prison. To supplement the efforts of the local Stop NPT Prison group, No Prisons De Cymru was formed. With a risk of the prison moving to Swansea if rejected in Port Talbot, a group that can raise awareness about the risk across South Wales was a strategic move. The group have hosted touring groups and also produced stickers and materials in the Welsh language about the prison system.

In September 2017, CAPE toured with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons in order to build links between environmentalists and anti-prison organisers. Making connections between movements has been an essential strategy for growing a fairly small anti-prison movement. This section only skims the surface of organising efforts across England and Wales against prison expansion.