Will not be stopped by longer sentences

Breeding ground for terrorists

The Tories’ populist response to the London Bridge attack is no surprise. But the relationship between the prison system and Islamist terrorism seems to be symbiotic, argues Paul Demarty.

On the face of it, the November 29 terror attack on London Bridge was an uncomfortably familiar affair.

Almost uncannily familiar, in fact: the same area was attacked by a group of Islamists two and a half years ago (with greater loss of life) - also in the final stages of an election campaign. Usman Khan, last Friday’s attacker, seemed to take the copycat-crime job very seriously indeed, down to the use of knives and fake suicide vest.

He succeeded in murdering two people, both young participants in a prison rehabilitation conference at Fishmonger’s Hall, run by Cambridge University. Khan was there ostensibly on the basis of his having been involved in a prison education scheme called Learning Together, but seems to have calculated that he could do more damage in an enclosed space, where his presence would raise no alarm, and drastically turned on his ‘rehabilitators’. One of those killed, 25-year-old Jack Merritt, had been a volunteer on the same scheme (the other, 23-year-old Saskia Jones, was planning on joining the police force). There then followed the widely reported fightback on the part of brave individuals in the hall - a Polish cook who set about Khan with a narwhal tusk, a convicted murderer on day release fighting back with a fire extinguisher and administering first aid to the injured; and, finally, Khan’s suicide-by-cop outside on the northern side of the bridge. The remnants of Islamic State claimed responsibility, and nobody is around to gainsay it.

Throw away the key

Given the choice of target, it is not entirely unfitting that subsequent discussion has focused on the justice system. The way in which this has happened, of course, is rather repugnant. There is, as noted, an election on; terrorist rampages of this sort are catnip to parties of law and order, and the Conservatives under Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were hardly likely to take the high road. So, after a desultory observance of the suddenly obligatory practice of suspending campaigning after such tragedies out of ‘respect’, Johnson proceeded to lay the whole thing at Labour’s door on Andrew Marr’s BBC television show.

The early release regime that saw Khan let out after serving eight years for his part in a foiled conspiracy to blow up the London stock exchange was a product of the last period of Labour government - or “leftie government”, as Boris unconvincingly termed those of Blair and Brown in this context - and Jeremy Corbyn and friends all voted for it. If he won the election, Johnson would see to it that no such dangerous individuals would be released early.

Even Marr was not able to let that one slide by. Surely Conservative policies over the last decade have some influence on the outcome? Johnson was not having it: his government was “new in our approach, and it’s new in the way we will tackle issues of public services”. To recap, Jeremy Corbyn shares personal responsibility for all the actions of his party in government; Boris Johnson does not, because he has changed his mind and this time he is going to sort everything out. Splendid! Corbyn and his allies were quick to point out that this was outrageous, and we must concur.

While we are on the subject of Johnson’s deceitfulness and moral corruption, it is worth noting that Merritt’s father, Dave, has been screaming blue murder on his late son’s behalf, objecting to the prime minister’s use of a man who in the end died for his belief in rehabilitation. He son wanted:

a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences, or convict people on joint enterprise. Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation, not revenge. Where we do not consistently undermine our public services, the lifeline of our nation. Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that.

Johnson’s outlook is as intellectually contemptible as it is morally so. Labour spokespersons were quick to point out that early release policies are merely one tiny detail of a criminal justice system that is creaking after 10 years of responsible Tory stewardship. Austerity ground down the prison system as much as anything else. Staffing levels are at dangerous lows; even with early release, overcrowding is at dangerous levels. Violence and self-injury among prisoners is skyrocketing. The probation system, meanwhile, was privatised during the tenure at the ministry of justice of that most gormless of public servants, Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling, a move that ended predictably in disaster.

These economic pressures - quite apart from the prevailing hostile political environment for convicts - will tend to undermine attempts at rehabilitation of prisoners. A particularly pertinent point here concerns one particular aspect of ‘rehabilitation’: making sure that prisoners are not absorbed into dubious initiatives like, say, radical Islamist groups. There are many signs that such groups are starting to positively exploit prisons as recruiting grounds, and really the results speak for themselves. Khan joins Khalid Masood, the Westminster Bridge attacker, the Kouachi brothers of Charlie Hebdo fame, and more and more others in the list of Islamist terrorists who, if not recruited, have had their ‘radical’ beliefs reinforced in this way.

Contempt for prisoners and the prison system leaves the screws little opportunity to police Islamist groups (and in fact Islamist prisoners are often better behaved than most, since their objectives lie outside the jail walls). It also intensifies the alienation suffered by inmates, which will tend to make them easier marks. On its own terms, Johnson’s ‘let them rot’ attitude is flagrantly counterproductive. ‘On its own terms’, that is, if we accept it as a policy suggestion in good faith, rather than a side of raw meat to be hurled into the cage of his angrier followers. We know which one of these is true, alas; and so we must assume that Johnson is no more concerned about the perverse consequences of his macho bluster than those of his philandering.

Purpose of prison

Yet this is not merely a momentary, contingent contradiction in Tory policy, but more like a fundamental problem in the idea of prison in its modern sense.

Though long-term confinement of transgressors goes back at least to ancient Greece, for most of the intervening centuries the primary means of retribution were otherwise - capital and corporal punishment, and enslavement being the most popular. The growth of the British empire (and its rivals) offered a variant of the latter in the form of deportation to the colonies. The basic idea of such forms of punishment is to scare others into not committing crimes.

Slowly, however, these avenues began to be closed off. The use of violent punishments for trivial offences - routine for centuries, and made worse in response to the growth of the urban underclass in the early modern period - drew the ire both of reforming members of the elite and mass movements. In the slave economies of the Americas, meanwhile, indentured Europeans were displaced by the ‘products’ of the triangle trade; once Australia amounted to more than an impossibly remote hardscrabble chain of settlements, it ceased to take in convicts too.

Long-term imprisonment began to displace these traditional remedies under such pressures. For reformers, imprisonment was preferable both for being more humane than enslavement and killing, and for holding forth the possibility (however slender) of rehabilitation. For the state, it must be said, it was a rather impractical matter, and remains so today. If you hang someone, you need only bury or cremate them, and the state’s problem is solved. If you flog them, they can be turned loose afterwards. Enslavement outsources further discipline to the master, and deportation to the authorities at the periphery. The prisoner is to be fed, sheltered and clothed by the state for the duration of their sentence; guards must be hired to watch them; and so on.

A subtle problem creeps in, thanks to the contradictory impulses behind imprisonment. Prison must be unpleasant enough to serve as a comparable deterrent to the threat of execution; but it must also return people to the streets in a fit state to participate in society. This is a very serious contradiction indeed, for the sort of brutal environment that serves the first is likely to brutalise the inmates; thus the perennial problem of recidivism, of which Khan’s killing spree is a particularly acute example. Moreover, by creating an artificial social environment composed more or less entirely of criminals, people tend to leave prison having learnt a few tricks, and if no path is available back to normality, then they will merely become more effective criminals. The result: ‘Throw away the key’ may play well with Daily Mail readers, but it can only exacerbate problems of overcrowding and tendentially increase the size of the criminal underclass.

It is notable, finally, that in countries such as the United States the prison system is increasingly a source of forced labour; thus it is tending to regress to a kind of internal ‘transportation to the colonies’ of the surplus population.

A socialist revolution will not immediately end all thefts, common assaults, murders and rapes; we may expect counterrevolutionary terrorism as well. Moreover, a socialist revolution is not likely to throw up, in the short term, ‘revolutionary’ alternatives to the criminal trial. It will be necessary to test evidence as fairly as possible and dispense justice in some form.

For communists, the purpose of any criminal justice system must be rehabilitation, and ultimately - like any other wing of the state - self-abolition. For us, there is no such thing as a surplus population: our political aims are the free development of each and of all. This means, among many other things, weaning society off incarceration as rapidly and extensively as possible. Prisons shall only ever be so humane as long as they are places it is forbidden to leave - that is, as long as they are prisons at all. Restoring the humanity and self-worth of those acutely alienated by capitalist society will always be easier outside a prison cell, and confinement should be deployed primarily as a means of ensuring public safety (for example, keeping serial rapists off the streets) rather than of punishment. Which means, consequently, that even high-security prisons must be maximally humane and close to ordinary life.

It is impossible to know whether Usman Khan could have been rehabilitated, if things had been better, but surely many might be. As for today’s chaotic, filthy, overcrowded prisons: by their fruits shall they be known.