Striking Back Against the Prison State
"WELCOME TO THE CLAMPDOWN... Constant CCTV surveillance, more police weapons, zero tolerance, dissidents facing terrorist treatment, the new top cop at the Met comes to us direct from Special Branch. Every year they bring out more laws - to outlaw more protests, pleasures and survival or to make the punishments more severe. Every year the police have more weapons and power. Every year the state extends its controlling tentacles into more areas of life. And every year they build more prisons..."
This was the opening paragraph to the leaflet that launched the CAGE network. CAGE was born out of discussions at the UK Earth First! Summer Gathering in Suffolk in August 1999. In the aftermath of June 18th, with the new Prevention of Terrorism legislation looming and increasing evidence of State clampdown in almost all areas of personal and political life, people were scared. The idea behind CAGE was to find a way for Earth First! and the wider community to take back the initiative and tackle this fear by doing what we do best and taking direct action, this time against the growing mechanisms of state coercion.
Many of the examples of growing repression that we discussed were in the form of new legislation, such as the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, the Prevention of Terrorism Bill (now Act), and the attempted erosion of the right to trial by jury. Resistance to these involves lobbying Parliament and attempting to prevent things becoming law, and experience shows we're not good at that. What was needed was something that offered potential for effective grassroots action. The area that became the obvious target was the prison system.
In the UK more people are being sent to prison every year and sentences are getting longer. The UK prison population (the average amount of people in prison at any one time) has been rising since 1993, when it was 45,000.[2 ]It is currently around 65,000. At the same time, a massive prison building programme is underway.
Increasingly prisons are being built and run for profit by private companies. There are currently 3 private prisons under construction, with 3 more planned, as well as extensions to existing prisons. The government's own estimates suggest that with the introduction of new draconian legislation (notably the Crime and Disorder Bill 1998 and the Crime (Sentences) Bill 1997), the prison population will rise to up to 80,000 by 2007. To accommodate this the Prison Service aims to have 3 sites, with full planning permission, at all times.
This is a scary prospect, but it also offers a way of resisting the clampdown. Prison construction sites are more susceptible to direct action than policy decisions; private companies, operating for profits, are more vulnerable to economic sabotage than the government; and direct action and economic sabotage are what we do best.
This article takes a look back at the year that has passed since that first meeting: what CAGE has done, how effective it has been, and where we might go in the future. It is based on the thoughts and experience of just one person, and does not represent the network as a whole (that would be impossible) or any of the other individuals in it.
A Year of Action
In the past year CAGE has touched on several issues, including police militarisation, UK arms fairs and mental health detention, but most of the actions have been focused on either resistance to prison building or fighting immigration detention.
Immigration detention is the most horrendous abuse of life and liberty in the UK. Refugees are imprisoned without charge, trial, time limit or proper reason given. Most are political asylum seekers fleeing danger, torture and death threats. Many speak no English and are very afraid. Across Europe countries are closing borders and clamping down on refugees. Far Right and neo-Nazi groups in places like Dover are cashing in on the atmosphere of racial hatred. At any one time there are over 1,000 people detained in the UK under the 1971 Immigration Act. Thousands pass through the system every year and it is getting worse. The most recent Asylum and Immigration Act includes proposals to increase the capacity for immigration detention by up to four times.
Run by the Immigration Service, rather than the Prison Service, these detention centres are technically separate from the prison system, but from our point of view they are very much part of the same system. Locking people up and keeping them under guard is prison. Immigration Detention Centres (IDC) are run for profit by the same companies that are running the new private prisons, and immigration detainees are also held in HM Prisons - an entire wing of HMP Rochester is devoted to refugees.
The first ever CAGE action took place at Campsfield House IDC on November 27th 1999. At the time it was the largest refugee prison in the UK, with up to 200 inmates. The flagship of the immigration detention complex it was opened in November 1993, and is run by Group 4 security.
On the last Saturday of every month there is a demonstration outside the centre. Many of the people locked inside Campsfield have seen nothing of the UK but airports, cells and Group 4 vans. They are held behind a twenty-foot high razor-wire topped fence. Throughout the centre there are surveillance cameras. Friends and relatives wishing to visit are searched before passing through five secure doors. Campsfield operates as a high security prison. Inmates are constantly told they are not welcome, that people in the UK don't want them. Many are so worn down that they accept voluntary deportation. To hear people on the outside on their side makes a real difference.
For the sixth anniversary of the centre's opening, CAGE decided to join up with the Close Campsfield Campaign's monthly demonstration. Over 200 people showed up with helium balloons, paper aeroplanes, music, spanners and bolt cutters. CAGE had made two hundred multi-coloured masks in the shape of butterflies, to encourage people to mask up, which was good, as the police were prepared and present in large numbers. Each panel of the fence had been numbered for evidence gathering and some people were stopped and searched as they entered the area. Nonetheless, because of the layout of the site (a very narrow path at the edge of the fence that was easy to block police from seeing) and the large number of people (about half of the 200) who came in sorted affinity groups, we made our presence known to the inmates and some damage was caused.
That was the start of a good year and CAGE seems to have created a real buzz of excitement.
On Friday 14th July 2000 around 100 people occupied a piece of land in Ashford, Surrey, where the government wants to build yet another womens' prison. The action was timed to coincide with Bastille Day (the celebration of the storming of the state prison in the French revolution of 1789). Tripods, tents and marquees were set up and we settled in for a weekend of action and discussion and information sharing about prison expansion and how to stop it.
On the Saturday over sixty people left the Bastille Day site to visit Harmondsworth Immigration Detention Centre, near Heathrow. They joined the Close Harmondsworth Campaign's picket, climbed onto the top of the fence surrounding the centre and spoke to the refugees inside, ignoring police pleas to come down and stop damaging the fence.
The next day 8 people armed with phonecards, propaganda and cherries, entered Harmondsworth to meet the people they had spoken to over the fence.
One refugee they met, Salim Rambo, had been caught up in the civil war in Zaire and now fears for his life if he returns home. Salim had lived in London for nine months waiting for his case to be heard. He was taken to Harmondsworth by policemen who jumped him after he responded to an invitation to an immigration service interview. He had not seen a solicitor or had his case listened to. He was due to be deported on Tuesday to Germany. They had already refused his asylum application, so from there he would be sent straight to Zaire and possible death.
All day Monday was spent trying to get his deportation delayed. Phonecalls to solicitors, MPs and the Immigration Service established that he did have a legal case to delay his flight, but the Immigration Service were not interested, and his flight was leaving at 7.15am the next day...
Early Tuesday morning four people from CAGE leafleted passengers about to board Flight BA 902, taking Rambo to Germany. At 8.00am a CAGE activist, who had purchased a ticket, stood up and refused to let the flight depart while Rambo was still on it. The flight was delayed for two hours and the pilot insisted that Rambo be removed. Immigration officials threatened him with a beating, but he would not get on another plane and is still in the UK (now held in Haslar Detention Centre near Portsmouth).
Within hours of this action at Heathrow Airport, people had contacted the group for information on how it was done. Just three days later at Gatwick the deportation of Amanj Gafor, an asylum seeker from Iraqi Kurdistan, was stopped in the same way.
British Airways and its shareholders profit from an average 5,000 deportations a month. They don't care about the lives they endanger, but they do care about their image and don't like being disturbed by actions and protests. Missing a take-off slot also means a £10,000 fine, and similar actions in Belgium forced commercial airlines to stop deporting asylum seekers, so keep it up!
The spontaneous build-up of events over the Bastille Day weekend that led up to the airport action was completely unexpected, as was the buzz around the site in Ashford about resisting the prison building. From the beginning the response from local people was amazing. They don't want the prison. As soon as we arrived, people were bringing food and trying to persuade us to stay for good! Even train drivers passing the site honked their approval! Leaflets were taken door to door inviting people to come to the site, where they were shown plans of the proposed prison and information about CAGE, direct action, prison privatisation and immigration detention.
We had to leave on Monday, but people are already discussing follow-up actions. Ideas include targeting any company that dares to bid for the contract and even setting up a permanent site to stop construction altogether.
We have also received news of covert sabotage at Campsfield House and to a prison service building site near Bristol, and we have reason to believe that the Home Office are taking the threat of a direct action campaign against private prisons very seriously indeed. With both the treatment of asylum seekers and prison privatisation, many people have expressed the feeling that these are issues whose time has come.
As well as organising actions, a lot of time and effort has been put into researching the issues and spreading information about why we should resist prison building and how it might be done. There is now a website with information about the CAGE network and the UK prison building programme, and it has links to a wide range of relevant groups and resources. We also have information about the companies and consortiums that are currently running Britain's private prisons and bidding for the upcoming contracts. A map has been put together of prison building sites, company headquarters and offices and immigration prisons. A list is being compiled of companies exploiting prison labour in the UK.
Early CAGE network meetings skirted round a lot of issues. The name CAGE, for example, doesn't actually stand for anything: it is a working title that never got changed. People wanted to get to the heart of what CAGE was felt to be about - taking action and inspiring others to take action. This headlong rush to action was brilliant in many ways. CAGE went from not existing at all to being a group that was taken surprisingly seriously, in a matter of months. Taking action is the most powerful way to prove that something is possible.
For example, on 30th May 2000, the construction site of HMP Rye Hill (near Rugby) was occupied and brought to a standstill for an afternoon by around 30 people. This was the first action targeting prison building. HMP Rye Hill is one of three prisons under construction, and is now almost finished. It is being built by our old favourites Carillion (formerly the construction side of Tarmac Plc) and Group 4.
The action was very simple; a crane-sit with banner drop, climbing on machinery to stop work and occupying the site offices. The police arrived late and everyone got away. It was significant, because it showed that it could be done. Tackling the prison system head-on is a daunting prospect. What the Rye Hill action showed was that action against prison building is not very different from action against roads - it's about stopping the same processes, in similar ways. We're even up against some of the same corporations.
By moving so quickly into direct action however, a lot of things were glossed over and some important questions remained unanswered. The most important of these was defining exactly what was the CAGE network? How is it new? How should it fit in with the many political organisations that have been working around prisons and prisoners for decades? How should it be structured? What should it actually do?
When CAGE was being set up there was always a danger of re-inventing the wheel. Why start an entirely new group when scores of them already exist? The Anarchist Black Cross (although now folded), the Anarchist Federation, Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, Southall Black Sisters and countless miscarriage of justice, prisoner support and asylum seeker justice campaigns have spent years dealing with issues we are just starting to look at. The work CAGE is trying to do can hopefully provide a fresh perspective and some fresh energy.
CAGE place resistance to prisons firmly in the context of anti-capitalism and resistance to economic globalisation. As Lorenzo Ervin puts it, "The Prison-Industrial Complex, as some activists call it is really a 'new' form of slavery with a 'twist.'" A pattern has been observed in the US; workers, earning say $8.00 per hour, are losing their jobs as corporations take advantage of the "free market" and relocate to (for example) Thailand, where workers can be paid as little as $2.00 per day. Unemployed and alienated from society the American worker turns to some outlawed means of survival. They are then arrested, put in prison and made to work for as little as 22 cents per hour.[11 ]
Cheap prison labour is actually bringing some American companies back from the global South. For example, DPAS, a San Francisco-based company, closed one of its exploitative factories in Mexico and relocated its data-processing work to California's San Quentin State Prison because it saved them money.[12 ]In a statement supporting prison labour, Representative Bill McCollum, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee said that; "by authorising a wage rate for prison workers of less than minimum wage when the goods or services to be sold would otherwise be produced offshore, we will provide those companies with a means to stay competitive."
The examples quoted here are from the US and it is certainly in America that the rot runs the deepest. There are two million people behind bars there - twenty five percent of the world's prison population (although the US makes up only five percent of the world's population).
However in today's climate of globalisation, the lessons from the US must be learned fast. As part of a global trend towards privatising the functions of the state, multinational companies are taking over the expanding prison system in the UK. Under New Labour's Private Finance Initiative (PFI), a company fronts the money, builds the prison, runs it for 25 years and gets paid back by the government at a fixed rate per inmate per day. Because in the short term the cost of the prison is borne by private funds, this allows the government to build many more prisons than under the old system, and lock more people up.
The system is imported from America, and many of the same companies are involved. US private prisons hold people longer than state prisons would, fund right wing 'law and order' politicians and lobby the government for harsher sentences. They are paid per inmate per day, so the more people that are locked up the more money they make.
The UK is leading the way in Europe in introducing a free market in human misery. Alongside the US and Australia, our government are the pioneers of prison privatisation. The UK prison population is in fact expanding at a faster rate than that in the US. The British government even awards contracts to Wackenhut, a company that many American states won't touch because of their record of malpractice, cost cutting, criminal indictments, riots and deaths.
The strength of Earth First!-style direct action lies in strategic, creative and lateral thinking - standing back, viewing the whole operation, identifying a weak point, and going for it mercilessly. The perennial spanner in the works - using the element of surprise and doing the unexpected. In the case of prisons this has meant looking beyond the prisons themselves, with their daunting razor-wire topped walls, to the management consortiums, investors, companies exploiting prisoners as slave labour, and the relatively undefended construction sites and corporate headquarters on which the industry depends. All of these could be weak links in the chain.
CAGE has its roots in ecological direct action and the 'new wave' of anti-capitalist protests. This has had a profound influence on its nature and ideas. From Earth First! CAGE inherited the principles of non-hierarchical organisation and of attempting to directly address the problem in hand without relying on, or seeking approval from, politicians, bureaucrats or other bosses. From the beginning CAGE adopted a radical, no compromise stance of complete rejection of the prison system and avoided reformist arguments about improving prison conditions in favour of out-and-out resistance.
Many of the other groups mentioned above focus their work around prisons or prisoner support campaigns and individual miscarriage of justice cases. This is extremely valuable work and it takes up a lot of time and energy. Early CAGE meetings made the decision to avoid getting tied up in campaigning for individual cases. The idea was to maintain a focus on the system as a whole and how individual cases and issues fitted into it. That way it would be possible to work with a wide range of groups without getting tied to any single campaign.
It looks good on paper, but, despite calling ourselves a network, CAGE has so far been a small number of people dotted about the country, getting together in centralised meetings to plan actions. Looking forward, if we want to become more than just EF! working under a different name, on a slightly different issue, we are going to have to work hard and resolve these problems.
Out of the Ghetto?
Legislation like the Terrorism Act is explicitly directed at political activists, and the UK direct action community does seem to have been feeling the heat a bit more since the success of June 18th. It would be blind and arrogant though, to believe that "the clampdown" talked about in that first CAGE flyer was just about us.
Around 44% of men and 15% of women are convicted of a criminal offence at some time in their lives. Most are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Of men in prison 79.4% reported having no qualifications, 72% left school before reaching 16, and of women surveyed, 61% were mothers before going to jail, with an average of three children under the age of sixteen and 49% had experienced sexual abuse.
More significantly, research shows that if you are black you are more likely to be stopped and searched; more likely to be arrested; more likely to be remanded in custody; and more likely to receive longer custodial sentences if found guilty. In 1997 up to 18% of men and 25% of women in prison were from a minority group. Though black people make up only 1.7% of the general population over 10 years of age, 10% of male and 13% of female prisoners were black. Yet there is no evidence to show that black people commit more crimes than white people do.
The focus of CAGE on fighting prison expansion therefore provides an exciting opportunity to form links with some of the groups and communities that simply don't see ecological issues as relevant to them. One black American writer summed it up perfectly when he wrote:
"April's demonstrations in Washington and the ruckus in Seattle last November announced the arrival of a new spirit of political activism. But one question must be asked: Where is the color in this new movement? The monochromatic complexion of the activists sparks the same concern it did 35 years ago. In both Seattle and Washington, observers noted the relative absence of African-Americans from the mix of protesters.
...The prison-industrial complex, where the scavenger logic of globalism is most crudely expressed, could be aligned with the overall battle against corporate power. As Manning Marable has written, "There is an inescapable connection between Seattle and Sing Sing Prison, between global inequality... and what's happening to black, brown and working people here in the United States." Although the connection is plain, it has failed to produce an organisation capable of attracting both blacks energized by recent struggles against police brutality and whites newly lured to the fight for global justice."
For me the most interesting opportunity that CAGE offers the EF! network as a whole is that, through turning our attention to prison and immigration issues, we may prove able to break out of the 'white activist ghetto'. It has not, however, proved easy. Building links was one of the main aims behind the Bastille Day land occupation. The idea was to bring together a wide range of political groups already involved in campaigning around prisons and related issues; to talk about direct action, the experiences of Earth First!, and how they might be applied to anti-prison campaigning. These discussions were to take place in a space we had occupied and taken from the Home Office, to give people a sense of possibility and power - after all, nothing inspires like success.
Unfortunately, this was the least successful aspect of Bastille Day. Despite considerable effort put into networking the action and numerous groups saying in advance that they would come, when it came to it, around one hundred of "the usual activist suspects" turned out to take part. This is perhaps because of the anti-social meet up time (9.00am on a Friday), but the occupation continued all weekend and very few of the groups we had hoped to see arrived.
Nonetheless, there have been more successful links made with groups to discuss the potential for working together. Unsurprisingly, this has mainly been achieved by going along to their meetings and events, to find out what issues they are interested in and where we can find common ground. This is easiest done at a local level and it has proved difficult to achieve with the CAGE network structured as it is (a few people working hard to produce big national actions). The question of how to structure the (definitely growing) CAGE network, which was glossed over in the beginning, is therefore an important one, and I believe can no longer be ignored.
Which is not supposed to sound too negative. What has been achieved in so short a time is impressive and what might be achieved in the future even more so. Direct action against prisons is sexy and exciting. From the storming of the Bastille to the unreported escapes, because prisons are one of the ultimate symbols of state power, there is huge revolutionary potential in taking them on..
For more details contact: CAGE, c/o 182 Mansfield Road, Nottingham NG1 3HW, UK.
Telephone: 07931 401 962
Web: http://www.veggies.org.uk/cage/ [13 Aug 2002 pages moved - we're looking into it]
2) Home Office Projections of Long Term Trends in Prison Population to 2007.
3) Prison service website: http://www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/statistics/
4) Home Office Projections of Long Term Trends in Prison Population to 2007.
5) See: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/pfd/inv992ki.htm [13 Aug 2002 Gone - we're looking into it] for more information.
6) Home Office figures for detention, February 2000, showed 977, before the opening of Oakington in March 2000. Statistics from Home Office Research Development and Statistics Directorate.
7) Campsfield Monitor Issue No.15, September 2000. Published by the Close Campsfield Campaign.
8) Home Office figures for detention in February 2000 show 183 people detained in E-wing of Rochester Prison. Statistics from Home Office Research Development and Statistics Directorate.
9) See: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~asylum/ [13 Aug 2002 No longer there - we're looking into it] for more information.
11) Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy (Agit Press, 1998).
12) Prisons and Global Economics or Why they'd rather send you to Prison than to School, at: http://www.a16.org/resources/#flyers
13) Prisons and Global Economics: http://www.a16.org/resources/#flyers
14) Statistics from the US Department of Justice show at least 1,972,664 behind bars and around 4.5 million on parole or probation. See: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/
15) Prisons and Global Economics: http://www.a16.org/resources#flyers
16) See: http://www.newsunlimited.co.uk/archive/artical10,4273,38504000,00.html [13 Aug 2002 broken - we're looking into it]
17) Snapshots of prison privatization: The Planet, Dark Night Field Notes, No.11, p.44.
18) Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, lecture to Elliott School, January 2000.
19) Gregory Palast 'Free Market in Human Misery' in The Observer 26th September 1999.
20) Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, lecture to Elliott School, January 2000.
21) Facts and statistics taken from Let's Get it Right - Race and Justice 2000 published by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) pp.13-14.
22) Salim Muwakkil, A Common Enemy, from BRC-news at: http://www.blackradicalcongress.org/