March 30, 2020 | 15 minutes read

Free them all, for public health!

In support of Community Action on Prison Expansion's campaign to #FreeThemAll4PublicHealth, Red Fightback presents a Marxist basis for decarceration and prison abolition.

Free them all, for public health!

In support of Community Action on Prison Expansion's campaign to #FreeThemAll4PublicHealth, Red Fightback presents a Marxist basis for decarceration and prison abolition. Our recent book, Marxism and Transgender Liberation, establishes a materialist basis for understanding the historical development of patriarchal violence. By connecting the breakdown of labour interdependence to the development of class society, colonisation, alienation and the origins of white supremacy and patriarchy, and applying these lessons to other forms of violence and harms against people, we can begin to chart a course out of the quagmire.

Crimes of Humanisation and Crimes of Dehumanisation

The capitalist ruling class presents an analysis of crime which separates it into two broad spheres, the non-violent and the violent. The construction of both categories of criminality are inherently racialised. The culture of white supremacy, which presents whiteness as an embodiment of the civil, humane and divine, constructs Blackness as its antithesis, projecting the ills of white society onto Black people and then purging itself of these ills by criminalising them. This is being achieved most visibly through the sensationalised narratives in mainstream media depicting gangs of Black youths, surges in Black youth knife crime, and Islamic radicalisation, which are dog whistles that imply a unique and innate brutishness to Black, Brown and Muslim people. The image of the 'terrorist' is a recent manifestation of the long historical process depicting Muslim, southeast Asian and Middle Eastern people as innately violent. Even non-violent crimes, such as drug possession, carry racialised connotations of violence. White supremacy socialises us to code certain criminal behaviours to skin colour and other cultural signifiers like dress, language and location. These narratives justify the expansion of violent border regimes, harsher sentencing, the widening of police powers and over-policing and repression of areas with a high population of people of colour. In Britain, we can see the ramifications of this in a crisis of disproportionate sentencing as more than half of incarcerated youth are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background. Resistance to expansion of police powers, in particular stop-and-search, has been the centre of various proletarian movements and uprisings in Britain.

Violent crimes involve some degree of deprivation of life or violation of bodily integrity of one person by another, such as assault, or in extreme cases, rape or murder, while "Non-violent" crime entails crimes against private property or against bourgeois morality, such as theft, trespass or drug possession. According to the Scottish Government's report on recorded crimes in 2018-19, only 3% of recorded crime was "non-sexual violent crime", and 5% was "sexual crime". The largest recorded group of crime was "crimes of dishonesty" at 46%, such as theft, trespass, burglary and fraud.

We understand these categories differently. The criminalisation of trespass is a cornerstone of the state suppression of Travellers and fundamental in keeping people homeless. The proletarian position on theft is clear - when the workers and oppressed take into their own possession something that doesn't "belong" to them, they are articulating through their action an intuitive understanding that the way society is organised has robbed them, that they have contributed more greatly to the sum of abstract labour appropriated into capital by the bourgeoisie than they have received, and that the very laws of exchange and fair price that govern the capitalist mode of production entitle them to their share of the total product of society. Darcus Howe, a lifelong socialist and Black Power militant, heavily involved in decarceral & abolitionist work in Britain, summarised the socialist position on petty theft and mugging in this 1975 interview:

Interviewer: "Mr. Howe, as the Editor of a magazine called 'Race Today' you recently published a document in which you say 'We are uncompromisingly against mugging. We see the mugging activity as a manifestation of powerlessness, a consequence of being without a wage.' Could you tell me what you mean by that?"

Darcus Howe: "The young people have begun the rebellion, refusing to work. They have received very little support from other sections of the population, as a consequence of which, they must find money by these means. We say we against those means, not because we are moralists, not because we are religious freaks, but precisely because mugging involves loss of life and liberty, and the continuing attack upon that section of the black community, police brutality, prison brutality, a whole wastage of human creativity, that is why we're against it." - Interview of Darcus Howe for ThamesTV, First shown 31/01/1975 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUMQf87aMSY

The socialist position is thus to argue that the reappropriation of the surplus by the proletariat should not involve petty theft, but should be directed towards the true enemies of our class in an organised manner. That many working-class people resort to petty theft is not a reflection of any moral failing on the part of this class, rather, it is a condemnation of the broader left that has failed to organise itself sufficiently in solidarity with those who have been left without alternative. "Theft" in the form of reappropriation of social wealth is a crime of humanisation, a crime that transforms the 'criminal' positively, that expresses a revolutionary humanity in response to capitalist inhumanity. Theft among the workers cannot and will never be abolished by the reactive punishment of such crimes after they occur, but by correcting the root injustice, the systematic looting of the proletariat. When the proletariat holds in common with our fellow workers the wealth of the whole society, when we see ourselves reflected in it and when we can exercise our will over it through proletarian democracy, putting the productive forces of society towards our collective needs, only then can theft be abolished.

What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it. " - Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth

The other category of crimes, those termed "violent", require separate analysis. Following the basis established in "Marxism and Transgender Liberation", interpersonal violence is understood to have occurred much less frequently in communalist society, as they were "constantly immersed in the collectivity" of their communities and had straightforwardly interdependent productive relationships that weren't mediated through a market which obscures and abstracts the economic relations between people. Extending this, the "violent crime" occurring in society today is symptomatic of alienation. Where the concrete interdependency nurtured an understanding that an act of violence would hurt not just the victim but also the perpetrator and the whole society, the abstracted interdependency of capitalism obscures this. While we are today more dependent on the labour of others than ever before, due to the enormous division and specialisation of labour, we cannot see the specific contribution of most of our fellow workers to our own immediate needs. This problem is responded to by reactionary forces with an attempt to impose, by the prison and other means, the same sense of 'consequence' through a socially mandated punishment after the point at which harm has occurred. The revolutionary alternative is to raise the consciousness of workers and oppressed as to our interdependency, to nurture from childhood an understanding of the value each worker to the whole of society, but most fundamentally of all, to reorganise the productive relations of society so that the value of each person's labour is apparent to all - this is only possible by constructing socialism. Dismantling the capitalist criminal 'justice' system is only one of the many necessary foundations to ending acts of violence and harm. The construction of socialist economic relations, educational systems, and means by which people can intervene through the state when serious harms do occur are all fundamental to the project of harm elimination. Cuba, which has one of the lowest murder rates in Latin America, demonstrates the efficacy of the kinds of approaches to social harm that are only possible under socialism.

Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” Angela Davis, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex

Most of the violence in society upholds existing oppressive social structures, like white supremacy and patriarchy, which are reinforced, not undermined, by the bourgeois prison. British prisons detain more Black people proportionally than the US, and Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. People from BAME backgrounds make up 26% of the UK prison population, despite being under 10% of the population. BAME males make up 51% of the young offender prison population. These are crimes of dehumanisation, abuse that divides people from each other and undermines social solidarity, and they demand a response. Taking for example the violence of rape. In 2013, a Ministry of Justice report estimated that between 60,000 and 95,000 rapes or attempted rapes occurred in England & Wales alone. Of these, only 15,670 were recorded by the police, 3,850 proceeded beyond a report, 2,910 went to trial, and only 1,070 resulted in a conviction.

The prison system is not contributing to a reduction of this kind of abuse. On the contrary, it contributes to the prevalence of the abuse in three key ways. Firstly, by ensuring the perpetration of abuse, including sexual abuse, of incarcerated people by guards. Secondly, by alienating all incarcerated people from society, dehumanising them and making them variously more likely to experience these violences and more likely to perpetrate them by severing the social relations that prevent both. Thirdly, the prison contributes by falsely presenting itself as a solution to violence, obscuring the need for a radically different approach and hindering the development of processes that humanise and strengthen social bonds.

The persecution of crimes of dehumanisation by the bourgeois carceral system serve primarily to legitimate the carceral system as an approach to social problems, and as a means of suppression of the proletariat in general. The bourgeoisie plainly do not persecute crimes of dehumanisation out of an interest in developing positive human relations.

In 2017, the charity Women in Prison stated that 79% of women who access their services have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse. Research by the Ministry of Justice indicates at least 57% of incarcerated women have experienced domestic violence, while 53% experienced at least one form of child abuse - but the MoJ figures are anticipated to be an underestimate as people are less likely to report abuse to the ministry responsible for jailing them. Straightforwardly, the prison system that legitimises itself on the basis of protecting people from these harms uses that legitimacy to punish the victims of these harms.

Prisons in the Pandemic

"Prisons are Petri dishes for this pandemic. Overcrowded, understaffed, completely filthy, full of vulnerable individuals without the agency to self isolate. Telephones shared by hundreds while soap is no longer given out as standard: personal hygiene is now a privilege." Carl Cattermole on British Prisons, Freedom News

The despicable conditions in British prisons and detention centres today make them incredibly high risk for COVID-19. The Ministry of Justice's response is to implement a "lockdown", which means 24 hours a day of solitary confinement. This approach is a death sentence - the UN Committee Against Torture considers isolation for 22-23 hours/day to be unacceptable, and the UN has banned the use of solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days - less than the period of physical distancing understood to be necessary to contain this pandemic. As "D", a currently incarcerated person in the UK, writes:

"...it will mean we will be locked behind a cell door for 24 hours a day and the thought of that along with more delays with my parole has left me feeling very depressed and anxiety levels are sky high. I’ve never felt more trapped and powerless in all my life. ...There may be a time when visits will cease until further notice and I understand why this may have to be put in place but again the thought of this is horrible to bare." - D, via Freedom News

In Iran, 54,000 prisoners have been released, with many pardoned, to prevent the spread of disease within prisons. In contrast, the UK government's response, through the emergency powers bill, is to extend the powers of the police and guarantee the most dangerous possible conditions in jails. Micha Frazer-Carroll states the racist impact of this for gal-dem:

"The police and immigration officials will also gain the ability to detain and test anyone they suspect has the virus. … “reasonable grounds”, in practice, often just means the application of racial biases and criminalising black individuals."

Smash This Machine

"... One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'...." - Marx & Engels, Preface to the new German edition of the Communist Manifesto, June 1872.
"To smash this machine, to break it up, is truly in the interest of the “people”, of their majority, of the workers and most of the peasants, is "the precondition" for a free alliance of the poor peasant and the proletarians, whereas without such an alliance democracy is unstable and socialist transformation is impossible." - Lenin, State & Revolution

Prison abolition, as but a component of the command "to smash the bureaucratic-military machine", has been a theoretical pillar of Marxist-Leninist organising from its beginnings. Drawing lessons from the successes and the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx and Lenin present this task as absolutely fundamental to the proletarian revolution. Of course, there is a distinction between the abolition of the bourgeois prison, and the abolition of prisons in general. The construction of the apparatus for the suppression of the existing ruling class, for the suppression of capitalistic, extractive and exploitative relations of production, is a necessary task of building socialism and managing the transition from capitalism to communism. This process, which in particular historical contexts has involved the construction of prisons or prison-like state organs, leaves many confused about the commitment of Marxist-Leninists to prison abolition.

"It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination. The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom, and wage slavery. And since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a 'special force" for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power." - Lenin, State & Revolution, "What is to Replace the Smashed State Machine?"

Capitalist prisons are a pillar of ruling class power. In moments when class struggle reaches particular heights, the prisons are a key basis for containment, confining militants and disrupting mobilisation - this has been witnessed clearly in Britain during the 2011 uprisings provoked by the murder of Mark Duggan, in the trade union struggles from 1970-74 and 1984-5, and in response to the Brixton uprisings in 1981. The role of British prisons and prison camps in the suppression of anti-colonial struggles throughout the world is well documented. Prisons in this context are tasked with the destruction of individuals, imposing on them the violent conditions of social death by stretching to their limits as many of their humanising relationships as possible with the aim of severing these relationships, maximally alienating the incarcerated person from social life, maximally dehumanising them and tearing the fabric of their communities.

In periods where the class struggle burns at a lower intensity, the prison fulfills the aim of producing subservient and socially weak workers, both to serve as a profitable labour force within the prisons and to use this group as an organ of wage-suppression for the workers on the outside. Prisoners who refuse to work are punished and can have rights to visitors and time outside of their cell withdrawn. The incarceration system in this country is explicitly white supremacist in character. British capitalism was built on the profits from chattel slavery and colonisation. The structures of white supremacy that were first articulated through the slave ship and the plantation were reconstituted in response to the slave rebellions into the prison-industrial complex we face today. The capitalist carceral system today is a result of the modernisation of the slave ship and the plantation, not their abolition. Most plainly visible through the deportation system, the use of prisoners as slave labour, and the regular racist murders by police and prison officers, white supremacy is embedded at the deepest levels throughout the entirety of the policing and prison apparatus.

We draw a distinction between the prisons of the bourgeoisie for the suppression of the proletariat, and organs under the command of the masses for the suppression of the bourgeoisie. The task of the proletarian revolution and the socialist state, the destruction of the bourgeoisie as a class, and the severance of their parasitic relation to production through private ownership, does not require the destruction of every individual who composes or collaborates with the bourgeois class. The uprooting of the existing relations of production is the task of a proletarian organ of suppression, and this is expressed in various forms, from the least violent, through the straightforwardly humanising proletarianisation of the bourgeoisie, to the most violent. These forms are chosen in the negotiation between the power of the revolutionary masses and the strength of reaction of the bourgeoisie.

"The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it. For if the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists. That affirmed intention to place the last at the head of things, and to make them climb at a pace (too quickly, some say) the well-known steps which characterize an organized society, can only triumph if we use all means to turn the scale, including, of course, that of violence." - Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth

Cuba: A Model for Decarceration & Prison Abolition

"The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth." - Che Guevara

The Cuban system is a serious step towards prison abolition, held back primarily by the imperialist blockade that hinders the nation's socialist construction. Soffiyah Elijah articulates some of the key differences in an interview with Guernica Magazine. The most striking are the complete upturning of the principles of capitalist prisons stated earlier - maximum alienation, the destruction of social relationships and communities, and the production of subservient workers and suppression of wages. In Cuba, the approach to social harm is pedagogical rather than carceral or punitive. There are no guard towers, assault weapons, high walls or barbed wires, nor uniforms separating the people serving sentences from the prison staff. The party of visitors from the USA were permitted to look around unaccompanied, without being searched, something not even lawyers experience in institutions at home. There is strong community integration - nobody is ever incarcerated outside the province in which they live, and the main difference with different 'security' tiers of prisoners is how frequently they can travel home for the weekend (between one and three weekend furloughs per month). There are no separate facilities for different security levels. The family of the person have regular visits from a social worker to ensure their needs are being met.

"Prisons in the US are tied to a profit margin. And in Cuba, prisons are tied to, and the society is focused on, valuing the human being. So everything that they do, from the education to the fact that the healthcare system is free, to the entire approach of incarcerating someone, is tied to how do we make the most out of each individual, because the view is that the human is the most precious resource that their country has." [10]

The entirety of the system is oriented towards the minimal period of state intervention to give the person the support they need to never return to the prison, and alternatives to incarceration are made available wherever possible. In 1997, these alternatives were expanded to cover sentences of up to 5 years, making them available to 95% of prisoners in Cuba. By contrast, as a consequence of the "Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act" of 1994 ending the eligibility of prisoners for Pell Grants, by 1997 prison education programmes were almost entirely terminated in the US. The two approaches, punitive and pedagogical, could not be more divergent.

"Prisoners or their families may request conditional liberty passes. These are similar to furloughs and are granted to allow the prisoner to tend to their own or a family member's health. The furlough time is counted as part of the sentence." - National Network on Cuba

The work programme is particularly laudable - work is considered a right, rather than an obligation, and all services available through the prison are free. Incarcerated workers earn the same wage as a free worker would, and where possible in the same industry in which they were previously employed. Regardless of work, they and their families are still guaranteed social security. Prisoners who participate in the conditional release programmes work outside the prison, among the rest of the working population, in plain clothes, such that without their own disclosal their colleagues won't even know that they're incarcerated.

"Families are incorporated through joint counselling into the rehabilitation process. Each prison is staffed with professionals who are trained to assist the family and the prisoner plan for [their] re-entry into the community. The focus is on rehabilitation as opposed to retribution and punishment." - National Network on Cuba

The Cuban model provides clear steps towards prison abolition - but the work of decarceration and socialist construction is unfinished and ongoing. The stark differences between the model here and in Cuba reinforces the need to dismantle the British prison system in its entirety. Take, for contrast, Guantanamo Bay, a prison camp run on occupied Cuban territory, filled with prisoners who have never even had a trial, brought there as part of an extraordinary rendition programme that the Blair government participated in. It is not possible to 'reform' the bourgeois carceral system in the UK by adopting some of the Cuban techniques - such an approach is precluded by the capitalist relations that dominate our society. The Cuban state is of the proletariat and for the proletariat, and its organs are an expression of the will of the Cuban people responding to their specific circumstances. The British state exists to serve the capitalists and suppress the proletariat, with qualitatively different ends and means.

Prison abolition is a fundamental basis of revolutionary organising, and a key strategy in weakening the capitalist ruling class' means of suppression. Beyond this, it is a transformative, pedagogical approach to social change that recognises at the deepest level that humans are social beings, that as living beings we are constantly changing, growing and learning, and that social ills are not treated by tearing people apart but by strengthening our social bonds. The value of a human life is immeasurable, and the wastage of one an inexcusable loss. We call for a total emptying of the bourgeois prisons, with absolute certainty that the machinations of the carceral system and the dehumanisation entailed are a far greater social harm than any of the people locked inside them are capable of enacting. In the context of a pandemic, with 27 cases of COVID-19 identified across 14 prisons, and 2 lives already lost, the task of decarceration is more urgent than ever. Free them all, for public health!