Our prisons are awful places.
To be interned is to have your ordinary rights denied and to be subjected to, amongst other things, gross over-crowding, living in abhorrent conditions, abuse, constant violence, inadequate health and mental care and overuse of isolation. No wonder then that when word got out, in April 1990, that the prisoners at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison had taken action to object to the intolerable, it sparked a series of disturbances in prisons across the whole of Britain.
Built to hold 970, in April 1990 Strangeways actually contained 1,647 people. The over-stretched regime at Strangeways regularly locked prisoners in their cells for 22 hours each day and to contain a predictably frustrated population, ‘discipline’ from beatings to drugging with Largactil, was brutal. Given their plight, the demands of those who staged the disturbances were entirely reasonable.
As places of corrective intervention, aimed at rescue and regeneration our prisons are not fit-for-purpose. Our prisons are places of punishment, not redemption. Further, our prisons are not places into which we should lightly deposit young people more in need of guidance and sympathy than incarceration.
It is widely noted that our prison populations exhibit alarming race and class disproportionality. I am particularly concerned about young people with brutal hardship backgrounds who may well have suffered personal, family, and community trauma. What about those who may well be dealing with mental ill health and destabilization, who are frequently labelled as disruptive by the schools from which they ae excluded? What about those doubly disadvantaged by race and class in regard to the availability of straight routes to securing livelihoods, find themselves easily criminalised?
School exclusions and related Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) routinely send many thousands of our young people unto the criminal justice system. More than 90 percent of those suffering exclusion will never achieve the average five GCSEs. Black working-class boys and girls are hugely over-represented in school exclusion stats. Young people on free school meals are more likely to find themselves regularly excluded. Irish travelers even more so. These insights emerge from the Institute for Public Policy Research report, Making the Difference.
Multiple social exclusions
School exclusion is often accompanied by other kinds of social exclusion. The stats tell a story. In a 2019, Open University academic Rod Earle claimed that:
… more than half of the inmates held in prisons for younger people in England and Wales are from Black and minority ethnic, BME background.
This penal overrepresentation picture is worse in the UK than that of the USA! And then there are the even larger numbers (we don’t have access to a count) that must attach to the cumulative impact, personal and social, of these injustices that unbalance young lives, Black and white. These surely undermine domestic, family and community strength, generation after generation after generation.
I am reminded of the militant 1970s anti-racist community activist, Brother Herman Edwards, Antiguan born, who regularly called out the wickedness in a racist society that was, in effect as he said, systematically digging holes, setting poachers’ traps, into which young Black working class boys and girls, could scarce avoid falling. He would have been searching for a metaphor that would speak plainly about the social entrapment plus state harassment fixes that propelled these young people into the prison system. He set up a community youth rescue operation, Harambee (a Swahili word for ‘together’), in Islington, north London, in order to attempt some kind of rescue and reorientation for what would come to be called young people at risk.
Brother Herman’s Harambee, which epitomized the spirit of self-help and self-reliance that characterized militant and imaginative Black community struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually obtained state-sponsorship. I also recall that when he himself was arrested and charged with the crime of not keeping proper accounts (he would often give money form his own pocket to the young people in his care), he famously challenged the authority of the court and defied the magistrates sitting in judgement with the telling taunt, 'you haven’t paid me for the first slave yet'. They found him guilty and sent him to prison for a spell. Harambee no longer exists.
All that to say that when we talk about the scandal of our prisons, we should also talk about what is to be done about school exclusions. At a No More Exclusions (NME) forum not very many weeks ago, I heard a call for the abolition of exclusions inspired by and continuous with the movement to abolish prisons. And meanwhile, before we get to achieving the abolition of school exclusions, we need to find ways to comfort and to rescue the always increasing numbers of those affected, at risk, oppressed by exclusions in a way that Brother Herman saw so clearly over half a century ago.
Colin Prescod is Chair of the Council of the Institute of Race Relations