Overcrowded, violent and desperate – prisons erupt

breack the chains rcg

The final months of 2016 saw prisons across England grip­ped with an outpouring of frustration and rage against a brutal and overcrowded system in which prisoners are becoming increasingly desperate.

• 29 October – Lewes prison, Sussex; a six-hour ‘rampage’ took place on one wing of the prison: three prisoners face charges of criminal damage, violent disorder and prison mutiny.

• 6 November – Bedford prison: 200 prisoners took over two wings, one of which was heavily damaged; 50-60 prisoners were moved to other prisons and three face charges.

• 20 November – Moorland prison, Doncaster: 40 prisoners smashed up a wing of the prison; 30 of them were moved out to other prisons.

• 16 December – Birmingham prison (formerly known as Winson Green, and now run by notorious private security company G4S): 100 prisoners were involved in a disturbance des­cribed by the POA as ‘the worst since Strangeways’; 240 prisoners were moved out to prisons across the country, as far apart as Hull, Cardiff and Thame­side in south London. The POA warned of further riots at the receiving prisons but this did not transpire. Eight prisoners have so far been charged with criminal offences.

• 22 December – Swaleside, Kent: 60 prisoners took over a wing of the prison (see article).

While the government talks of ‘reform’ (by which it means decentralisation and yet greater involvement of private profiteers) and the Prison Officers Association (POA) repeats its endless mantra that all problems will be solved by a combination of increasing staffing levels and locking up prisoners for even longer, those at the sharp end are making their own comment on the prison system heard by the only means at their disposal.

On 18 December FRFI comrades in Birmingham attended a solidarity protest outside the prison and we send our support to all those who have been charged and who are being made scapegoats for the brutality of the prison system.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 255 February/March 2017

Swaleside – collective misery will become common purpose

On 22 December 2016 the fifth ‘serious disturbance’ in English prisons in two months broke out at Swaleside Category B prison in Kent. The unrest throughout the system now seems uncontainable as conditions within most prisons become increasingly inhuman. Long-term prisoner and FRFI contributor John Bowden, who was recently moved back into the English prison system from Scotland, comments from Swaleside.

Following each recent riot the Prison Officers Association (POA) offered its own well-publicised and opportunist explanation for the ‘crisis of control’ now afflicting most prisons: insufficient staff. Whilst it is certainly true that financial cutbacks in prison resources have caused a serious decaying of conditions and infrastructure, as well as reduced staffing levels, the actual cause of the current prisons crisis originates in the ‘get tough’ criminal justice policy of the Tony Blair government, and those that succeeded it.

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Violently attacked by Wakefield search team

Kevan Thakrar prison

During my 13 days at HMP Wakefield in March 2010, I was severely mistreated. Every attempt has been made to cover this up since then, however it remains part of ongoing litigation. Prior to my return here in 2015, my solicitor raised serious concerns about plans to locate me back here, especially whilst the matter remains ongoing, but was assured that the constant use of a video camera during all interactions with prison staff and the additional protections of a double-door cell, with instructions that no officers enter whilst I am in it, would keep me safe from further harm. From the beginning, these assurances have proven meaningless, with my treatment worsening as time passes but even I was shocked by the stupidity of the latest attack upon me.

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Whitemoor escape trial stopped

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 135 February/March 1997

'In one form or another all long-term and high-security prisoners in both Whitemoor and other gaols will be made to suffer in revenge for the escape and it will be exploited by Michael Howard and friends to win sympathy for repressive policies already in the pipeline.' FRFI 121 October/November 1994.

'Although such publicity was embarrassing for the government and Prison Service, it was also of use to them as they sought to further crack down on prisoners' rights and entitlements. Indeed, for varying reasons, a high-profile but profoundly dishonest examination of the apparent failings of the prison system suited the Prison Service, the Prison Officers' Association (POA), the government and the opposition parties.' FRFI 123 Feb/ March 1995.

NICKI JAMESON follows the story of the Whitemoor escape.

The second trial of the six would-be escapers from Whitemoor prison came to an abrupt end on 23 January 1997 when Judge Maurice Kay ruled that adverse publicity meant the men could not receive a fair trial. The publicity in question was an article in the previous night's Evening Standard and editor Max Hastings was summoned to court to apologise. The first trial, in October 1996, had closed just two days after it opened, for exactly the same reason, and Hastings and the journalist who wrote the offending article appear to be the only media employees in London who were unaware of this situation. Unless, that is, the truth is more sinister and the one-time Falklands war correspondent turned right-wing editor, rather than making an unfortunate mistake, was doing his patriotic duty and ensuring the state's secrets remained secret. A case of investigative journalism in reverse.

By the time the trial was halted, it had become evident that the prison officers and governors giving evidence were not only contradicting one another, but were telling a substantially different story to the one they told to the government's Woodcock Enquiry conducted directly after the escape. It had also become clear that crucial pieces of evidence, mainly in the form of video film, were mysteriously 'missing'. Leaping ten steps ahead of general suspicion that 'bent screws' had assisted the prisoners in their bid for freedom, Michael Mansfield QC posed the blunt question to the media assembled outside Belmarsh Crown Court, ‘Was this something where the security services set up the escape?'

If such a scenario is indeed the case, and many sources confirm entrapment as highly likely, it begs the further question as to what the purpose of such an exercise would be, particularly as the escape brought such opprobrium down on the Prison Service. There are two main reasons why such a high-profile 'disaster' would ultimately be in the state's interest: firstly, it might have been considered a way to disrupt the 'peace process' in Ireland and dismiss any demands being put forward for an amnesty for political prisoners; secondly, it might have been seen as a useful tool in the drive towards increased repression in British prisons. The counter-argument to the second suggestion is that the government doesn't need to manufacture excuses to attack prisoners' rights; it does so anyway, seizing on occurrences such as riots, escapes or crimes committed by prisoners on home leave, whenever it needs to. There is no doubt, however, that, whoever initiated the Whitemoor escape, it was then exploited for such a purpose.

The Woodcock Enquiry recommended a whole series of repressive measures which are now in operation, not just in high-security gaols or Special Security Units (SSUs), such as the one the men escaped from at Whitemoor, but in every prison in Britain. The Woodcock report tells of an honest but demoralised prison staff running a high-security prison where tough prisoners rule the roost, security measures are lax and prisoners have unlimited personal possessions, private cash and access to telephones. In this context the escape is described as 'a disaster waiting to happen' and has been used to justify the introduction of. among other measures: volumetric control (limitation on personal possessions to what can be fitted in two small boxes), random cell-searches at which the prisoner is not permitted to be present, Dedicated Search Teams trained to do nothing but conduct searches, restrictions on private cash and CCTV in visiting rooms. Woodcock suggests that closed visits are the only 'completely secure' option for exceptional high-risk prisoners (ie those kept in SSUs — the Whitemoor escapees have been on permanent closed visits, both domestic and legal, for over two years and all judicial challenges to this have so far been rejected).

The prisoners involved in the escape refused, not surprisingly, to speak to the Enquiry team at all. Woodcock also met resistance from prison staff, as did Cambridgeshire police who were conducting their own investigation. A prisoner at Whitemoor told FRFI in November 1994 that the main preoccupation of staff who spoke to Woodcock seemed to be 'diverting the attention onto the visitors when they know they should be looking closer to home'. In January 1995 the Director of Public Prosecutions sent detectives back to re-question some officers whose statements were unclear, prior to deciding whether to prosecute the six or not; the officers refused to answer any questions.

The 'missing' video evidence concerns the first four minutes of the escape and some seconds worth of the part where the three prisoners who got over the wall, but got no further, were recaptured. This latter part allegedly shows Danny McNamee being beaten by prison officers and it is obvious why the prison authorities should want it to be lost. However, despite the standard POA denials, the beating is a matter of record. Andy Russell wrote to FRFI after his recapture: 'Outside the gaol I had them sitting on me under the same conditions (cuffed and face down) while one pulled my head back for another to kick. It was the same for Danny McNamee ... ' More mystery surrounds the earlier film which, if the prosecution case were true, would show the prisoners cutting a hole in the fence with bolt-cutters; if the case the defence hoped to run is true, the film would show the prisoners going through a hole which had already been cut.

The question of 'who cut the fence?' is crucial to the debate as to whether the prisoners acted alone, were assisted, or were entrapped. Furthermore, given that the men were charged not with escape (maximum sentence 10 years), but with ‘breaking prison' (maximum sentence life imprisonment), it was important while the trial continued that they prove that it was not they who actually substantially damaged the fabric of the prison and did the physical ‘breaking'. Aware of the difficulties it was running into in this respect, the prosecution had told the judge that they would be applying to have the charge on the indictment changed to escape. But before they could actually put in their application, the trial was stopped.

There seems little doubt that this trial was halted deliberately before it got too close to the truth. Whether it would have got all the way there is impossible to guess at. Likewise, in the unlikely event that Mike Mansfield's demand for a second public enquiry is granted, it may very well be just another, better cover-up. But the ‘Whitemoor story' is not going to lie down and die. Among others, the wife of prison officer Brian Curran, ‘missing', like the video evidence, since March 1995 when he was suspended from his job at Whitemoor, will see to that, as will her MP, a former aide to Prisons' Minister Anne Widdecombe. There may, of course, be no link between the escape, Curran's disappearance and the death of prison officer Marcia Whitehurst, who was on her way to court to give her second day's evidence to the escape trial when her car plunged into a river. And the Pope may not be a Catholic.

For the six prisoners concerned, the collapse of the trial is a victory and they are overjoyed. They have succeeded in sowing massive public doubt about the integrity of prison staff and have not been convicted of anything as a result of the escape. The next stage for them now will be to continue their struggle against closed visits, a 'security' restriction imposed to punish visitors as well as prisoners, and completely redundant if you accept that the Whitemoor escapees were 'assisted' by prison officers, not visitors. And there will be a further court hearing: civil action is being instigated over the beatings the men sustained on their recapture. Stand by for more revelations — this is Britain in the 1990s and beneath the facade of democracy and judicial accountability, the state is ruthless.

 

Books behind bars: Angels with dirty faces – Walidah Imarisha

As I tend to only read books which have been recommended to me by others, I find I have a similar taste to, most are old with some so old it is almost impossible to get hold of a copy especially through the underfunded prison libraries in this country. This is made worse by the obscurity and niche category of what I have found to be the greatest titles, resulting in some remaining on my to-do list until I am lucky enough to come across them years later. When I then recommend these same books to others, I know it is unlikely they will hunt them out with the same level of dedication I have, but some books are just too good to keep quiet about.

Thanks to the guys at AK Press, I am today able to make noise about a title published in 2016 which should be easy to get hold of by everyone. Having just finished Angels with dirty faces by US writer and activist Walidah Imarisha, my immediate thought is Wow! This book is so insightful, creative and powerful that I have fallen in love with Walidah. The bibliography alone reads like my own personal wish list but Walidah has done more than read all of these books, she has truly understood them, sometimes even more than the authors themselves, who range from Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander to Noam Chomsky. She has been able to analyse the concepts found in each of these books, including justice, crime, prisons, politics and racism; then link them all together smoothly in an easy-to-read, gripping collection of true stories. 

Being a prisoner, you can never really know the experience a prison visitor goes through but this is just one aspect Walidah enlightens readers on when she tells her own personal story. The book is broken down into true accounts of three people who are all connected in some ways: Kakamia, a man sentenced to life as the secondary participant in a joint enterprise murder when he was only a teenager, and who has clear mental health problems; Mac, the hitman for a notorious gang turned snitch; and Walidah herself, the life of the book, daughter of a struggling single-parent, mixed-race family grown into an amazing woman with a fascinating intellect who left me with the desire to meet her. 

Even if only to steal future reading ideas from the bibliography, this is a book you have to get. You will be mesmerised and transfixed whilst reading this, and will become a better person with the knowledge it imports. The best book of 2016! 

Kevan Thakrar 

[Kevan Thakrar is an avid reader who was wrongly imprisoned in 2007 for the joint enterprise murder of three men. Kevan has been detained in solitary confinement in the Close Supervision Centre (CSC) system, since 2010 when he attempted to defend himself from attack by racist HMP Frankland prison officers. For more information and to contact Kevan about his conviction and campaign for freedom, or to recommend or discuss books, go to www.justiceforkevan.com or write or email via emailaprisoner.com to Kevan Thakrar A4907AE, HMP Wakefield, 5 Love Lane, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, WF2 9AG]