On prisons, screws – and their unions

An attempt to sketch out my attitude as an anarchist towards the prison system. Why do we oppose them? Why does our solidarity go to the jailed over their jailers? How do we view the role of trade unions such as the Prison Officers Association?

Submitted by Phil on January 20, 2013

Outsourcing and privatisation is a big part of the government's austerity agenda. Under this banner the drive, going back to the opening of HMP Wolds in 1992, to privatise the prison system in the UK has accelerated. The PCS union has argued that “[i]t ought to be a national scandal that multimillion-pound global companies are being handed huge amounts of taxpayers' money to profit from locking people up by cutting staff and working conditions.” A number of campaigns have emerged to save various prisons threatened with privatisation.

No doubt this is a negative move. We need only look at the running of immigration prisons by the likes of G4S and Serco to see how far basic humanity ranks below the profit motive. But even safe in the hands of the public sector, prisons cannot be seen as a public good, and merely challenging their sell off to private security companies doesn't challenge the status quo.

This is a dividing line between anarchists and certain groupings of socialists. Illustrated after the pensions strikes on November 30 2011, when the Lincoln Socialist Party expressed its “disappointment” that local anarchists showed a “lack of support for a section of the movement that has had its democratic rights taken away from them, the Prison Officers Association.” As the Licoln Underground Collective pointed out in response, “it is not true that we deny prison officers their democratic right to unionise and take industrial action. It can only be a positive if they take strike action and we would never deny any worker the right to do so .” However, these are “people who actively carry out state oppression and uphold the oppressive will and law of the ruling elite [...] in opposition to working class interests” and so “we will not actively support them from our ideological standpoint.”

Socialists who take the view that “[r]esponsibility for the actions of the capitalist state lays squarely at the feet of the Government, not the workers employed to carry out its policies” often wilfully misrepresent the anarchist position. This is an attempt to challenge those misrepresentations.

Opposition to the prison system

Before dealing with the guards who uphold it, it is worth dealing with the prison system itself.

There is a level of debate on this within mainstream politics, from conservative hyperbole about the system being “too soft” because prisoners can earn perks like time on a PlayStation with hard work and good behaviour to liberal concerns that the system focuses on punishment too much over rehabilitation. Both view as utterly mad the anarchist position: that prisons ought to be abolished.

The broader theoretical argument behind this is fairly straight-forward. The state's laws are not made to reign in evil, harmful or immoral behaviour, but to preserve and protect existing power structures. Far from merely being somewhere to lock away murderers, rapists and thieves, prison is where society dumps its unproductive and undesirable, its rebels and its poor. More than that, by subjecting the incarcerated to brutal conditions and by ensuring that the criminal's only company is other criminals, the institution serves as a “university of crime,” making hardened career criminals of those who break the law out of need or desperation.

Taking the specific situation in the UK, though the prison population has fallen by 3.1% in the past year, between in the last decade it has risen by over 15%. This in the context of large numbers of prisoners with mental health problems and high rates of suicide and self harm, when as of May last year 72% of the prison population are in for non-violent offences.

The problem is more acute when it comes to children. Reporting to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Commissioner for England found that “the protection of children in custody remains a fundamental concern. There are high incidences of mental health problems, self-harm and bullying with a significant proportion of children feeling unsafe. There are high levels of intimidation, violence and abuse, not only from other prisoners but also from staff.”

The above is often seen as a strong case for penal reform, particularly when considered alongside high and rising re-offending rates. True enough, moves to community sentences and restorative justice alongside proper care for those with mental health problems would go some way to alleviating the issues described above. But they effects of incarceration cannot be seen in isolation from the social system whose order they enforce.

Two-thirds of prisoners were unemployed in the four weeks before imprisonment. Nearly three-quarters of prisoners were in receipt of benefits immediately before entering prison. 5% of prisoners were sleeping rough prior and almost one-third were not living in permanent accommodation immediately prior to imprisonment.

These are not the only factors, and we can see the impact of broken homes, illiteracy and lack of education, drug and alcohol addiction, amongst other things that affect those who end up in prison. But the point is clear enough – when social relations are driven by the needs of capital, and immense wealth goes hand in hand with immense poverty, crime is inevitable. Reform may make the situation less stark, but cannot change that ultimately law, the police and prisons exist not to protect “honest citizens” but to maintain the dominant social order.

That is why groups such as the Anarchist Black Cross have a long and proud tradition of solidarity with prisoners – particularly class struggle and anti-fascist prisoners. It is why when looking towards a future libertarian communist society we consider radically different notions of justice to deal with genuinely anti-social behaviour. And it is why we seek not the reform but the abolition of the prison system.

The role of prison guards

Prison guards, like the police, are on the front line of enforcing the state's monopoly of violence. Examples of their cruelty and brutality abound – across nations, across time, across the public and private sector.

Likewise, we see plenty of examples where prisoners organise in response to this. From recent Russian prisoner protests through a prisoners' strike at HMP Full Sutton to anti-racist organising in US prisons, and so much more beyond.

If “responsibility for the actions of the capitalist state lays squarely at the feet of the Government, not the workers employed to carry out its policies,” then the behaviour of screws in these situations needs explaining. The brutality is far too widespread to be an anomaly. Maybe it's a result of conditioning, whereby dealing with a harsh environment renders harsh people?

Were this true, then one thing that could surely act as a counter would be trade union organisation. Indeed, we can easily find reference to the Prison Officers Association opposing the use of cheap prison labour in call centres, for example. But by the same token, we have stories of prison officers subjecting prisoners to sustained beatings, mock executions, death threats, choking and torrents of racist abuse. Racism and homophobia from prison staff is endemic, despite the union's apparent zero tolerance for its members being in far-right organisations.

POA General Secretary Brian Caton is on record as saying “I do actually believe in punishment.” He adds that “[w]hen the Labour government said they were going to be tough on crime we went along with that,” lamenting only that “being tough on crime hasn't meant giving us the resources to do it. We're now looking after almost 80,000 prisoners with the same level of staff that we had when there were 52,000 prisoners.” Though he speaks to some of the arguments for reform – such as lack of rehabilitation and the imprisonment of the mentally ill – his union's focus is on making sure that being “tough on crime” is adequately staffed.

The Strangeways prison riot in 1990, is one clear example of this. Prisoners revolted against over-crowding and brutal treatment, yet the POA responded by fuelling ludicrous and manifestly false rumours about torture, maiming, dismemberment and forcible castration by rioters. Its members referred to those protesting in the prison as “beasts.” Even if it adopts a modicum of reformist language, the POA certainly does not stand in solidarity with active struggle by prisoners.

Nor should we expect it to, as the membership it represents has the explicit job of containing and preventing such struggles. We can imagine (and argue for) Job Centre workers standing in solidarity with claimants, including by refusing to carry out sanctions and so forth, because what they administer is a concession won from the state through struggle. Prisons, on the other hand, are an instrument of state repression and the shared interests between welfare staff and claimants doesn't exist between prisoners and their guards.

Our solidarity, then, must go to one or the other. As a libertarian communist, I choose prisoners – those locked away for class struggle, for acts of need or desperation, and even those who saw the best way to make a living as being outside the law1 .

I have no wish to deny prison officers the right to organise or the right to strike. Nor would I actively oppose them withdrawing their labour. But this should not be mistaken for positive solidarity or an endorsement of the role they play in the current system. Rather, it is because there is only one way that they can act in the interests of the working class as a whole – by ceasing to do their job.

  • 1Murderers, rapists, paedophiles et al get no solidarity, it should go without saying. But theirs are crimes which defy basic human compassion rather than ones created by an unjust social system using a monopoly of violence to sustain itself.



11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by OliverTwister on January 21, 2013

This is a good post. At least in the UK prison guards are in their own union. In the US they are often in AFSCME, which is a blanket union for government employees. In states which have seen a prison boom, prison guards make up a large section of that union. This helps create a reactionary pull on the union when they support tougher sentencing laws and more prison construction in order to create more "union jobs". Of course in the US this is also tied into the racial divide in the working class. As one comrade mentioned once, in the prisons around Detroit it is very likely that the majority of the mostly-white prison guards and the mostly-black prisoners are either former members of the UAW or the children of former members.

Another state where this had an effect was Wisconsin, which has also had a prison boom that parallels the destruction of the brewing industry in Milwaukee. During the movement there some of the most militant-talking folks were prison guards, including some who even claimed that their union was getting ready to strike. But overall their union has been a major right-wing force in the state and it will probably continue to be so.

Its worth also pointing out that US labor law requires a union which is recognized as an exclusive bargaining agent to defend its members against discipline, or face lawsuit. So unions for police, prison guards, and other repression officials are actually structurally directed to fight against any kind of oversight or potential for disciplining their members.


11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on January 21, 2013

Yeah, good blog and one which is related to history article I just posted about police strikes in the early 20th century: http://libcom.org/history/short-history-police-strikes-1918-1919

Oliver, yes there is a similar situation here. The POA is one of the most militant unions in the UK. I was at a union reps training a couple of years ago where there was a POA rep, who had come fresh from a wildcat walkout which had spread across several prisons in response to several guards being suspended. This type of thing is extremely rare in the UK working class. But in prisons it seems to happen reasonably regularly. However, they could have been suspended for abusing prisoners or being racist or what have you! The POA also had an illegal nationwide walkout a couple of years back. But no we cannot "support" this. I think I could only support this kind of action (theoretically) if it was linked to improving the situation of prisoners, not just to help police them better.


11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Entdinglichung on January 21, 2013

being a militant union which defends its' members interests historically sometimes meant to be completely reactionary e.g. in the case of the 1922 Rand Rebellion ("Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa!") or with the largest white-collar union during the Weimar period, the Deutschnationaler Handlungsgehilfen-Verband which was probably the most successful union 1918-33 in terms of economic gains for their membership ... cops, screws, professional soldiers, etc. (despite all being wage slaves and despite some differences from country to country) can only become our allies when they (like a bourgeois "class traitor") individually reject both the interests of the class they're serving and of their purpose of their profession (maintaining "order") but never as a group with group specific interests (whose existence is totally connected with the ruling order)


This is a dividing line between anarchists and certain groupings of socialists. Illustrated after the pensions strikes on November 30 2011, when the Lincoln Socialist Party expressed its “disappointment” that local anarchists showed a “lack of support for a section of the movement that has had its democratic rights taken away from them, the Prison Officers Association.

not only between anarchists and certain groupings of socialists, it is common among other trotskyist groups to see the Grantite/CWI/SP/Militant's position on "workers in uniform" as a major dividing line between "us and them" often used for ridiculing them e.g. asking them on a demo if they could facilitate a fraternazation between riot police and demo when things are becoming "hot" ... when most other trotskyist groups (and other leftist/subjective revolutionary/whatever/etc. groups) use the term "workers in uniform", they mean the rapidly disappearing species of conscripts being forced to do military service

Red Marriott

8 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on January 18, 2016

A related 2009 discussion here; http://libcom.org/forums/news/prison-officers-unofficial-action-spreads-18112009