Reactionary hysteria

The furore over "1,000 foreign criminals" raises some basic questions about rehabilitation, border controls and chauvinist discrimination, writes Eddie Ford

All in all, an embarrassing week or so for the Blair government. First, as everyone knows, we had the revelations about John Prescott's unexpectedly athletic sex life with his diary secretary, Tracy Temple - which began following the office Christmas party in 2002 (don't they all?). Then, more substantially, we had the nasty hue and cry over "foreign criminals" - started when the media got hold of figures which indicated that 1,023 non-British prisoners had been released without being considered for deportation, and some of whom cannot be currently traced.

Obviously, this generated a press feeding frenzy - with headlines about "Blair's crisis week" and "government of failure", not to mention "Who's in charge?" and "Are our streets safe?" For the Tories, of course, seeing that the local elections were only days away, these hostile headlines were manna from heaven - especially as it had already been widely predicted that Labour would perform badly on May 4.

Hence David Cameron (and to a lesser extent Ming Campbell and the Liberal Democrats) senses that he has an opportunity to inflict a body blow against the government, maybe even damage Tony Blair enough to force him to take early retirement. Anyway, what Tory politician, given half a chance, does not like to bang on about 'law and order' and rouse the prejudices and paranoia of 'Middle England'?

And there seems little doubt that Blair has been rattled by the flurry of bad press. This was evident in his Blackpool speech to the retail workers' union, Usdaw, where he implored the audience to remember that "nine days' headlines should not obscure nine years of achievements".

Unfortunately for Blair though, and for socialists opposed to the 'law and order' agenda of mainstream politics, this reactionary agitation was intensified - and yet further soured with the distinctly unpleasant whiff of national chauvinism - when it was discovered that someone suspected of being involved in the killing of a policewomen was in fact one of those "foreign criminals". The suspect, Mustaf Jamma, is from Somalia and was not deported on the grounds that the country was too dangerous, and therefore there would have been a very real and present threat to Jamma's safety if he had been sent back.

Inevitably - such is the way of mainstream bourgeois politics - Charles Clarke is now under pressure to resign for his "incompetence", and Blair is coming under equal pressure to sack the home secretary (or have him 'reshuffled' into political oblivion). Cameron, amongst others, including Labour MPs, has demanded that Clarke "must go". Naturally, given the project of deLabourising Labour, Blair is terrified of being seen as soft on crime and the 'causes' of crime - and after stealing the Tories' 'law and order' clothes some time ago, he is certainly in no hurry to give them back.

In what may be a last-ditch attempt to save his job, Clarke sternly told MPs on May 3 that he plans to "strengthen" the law on deporting foreign criminals. Though his actual concrete proposals are so far unclear, mainly intending as they are to curry favour with tabloid editors, Clarke would like to see foreign nationals convicted of imprisonable offences - like shoplifting perhaps? - "automatically" considered for deportation. At present, they are treated on a case-by-case basis by the 'woolly liberals' in the home office. Or, in other words, Clarke would be quite prepared to send ex-offenders - so long as they are not British, of course - to their deaths if it makes him look a bit better in the eyes of the Daily Mail and The Sun.

What about the actual statistics - as opposed to media hysteria - concerning foreign nationals convicted of various criminal offences? As of the end of February 2006, some 10,265 foreign (about 13% of the total) nationals were in British jails - not to mention the 915 inmates whose nationality cannot be identified, or the 600 who initially claimed to be British then switched 'national allegiance'. Of the now notorious 1,023 ex-offenders, 79 of them were originally jailed for serious crimes - including 13 charged for various murder, manslaughter, rape or child sex offences. As an aside, around 50 of them came from the Irish Republic and, since there is virtually free movement between Ireland and Britain, enforcing deportation in their case would perhaps pose problems.

Communists find the whole row over "foreign criminals"  shameful - and deeply irrational. Bizarrely, it seems we are meant to believe that foreign criminals are inherently more dangerous that British ones - maybe like in the good old days when you could walk down the street and get violently assaulted by an honest-to-god Brit, as opposed to a Somali or a Pole.

There should be no discrimination or inequality in the criminal justice system - just as in society as a whole. If someone has committed a serious anti-social offence they should be treated accordingly - regardless of their nationality, whether real or presumed. Though it may be a shocking idea to tabloid hacks, opportunist MPs and such like, prisoners are released - believe it or not - because they are deemed to have 'done their time', 'repaid their debt to society', etc. When prisoners are released, that should be the end of their sentence - not the beginning. There should be no discrimination in the form of this double punishment when it comes to foreigners.

Another alarming feature of this whole affair - which looks set to run and run - is that the very notion of rehabilitation has been thrown out the window, especially if you are a foreigner. Once an offender, always an offender - that was the implication of the often repeated BBC radio news headline, "One thousand foreign criminals are released into the community".

Of course, communists are quite aware of the fact that under the current UK penal regime any idea of real rehabilitation is a sick joke - even if lip-service is paid to the notion that once inside you will be presented with a vista of educational and training opportunities to prepare you for civvy street.

More likely than not, in prison the only 'training' you are likely to receive is from fellow inmates on how to become a professional criminal (as opposed to the bungling amateur you were when you went in) and possibly a long list of useful 'contacts' to make when you are eventually released back into the not so welcoming bosom of society - moneyless, jobless, homeless and ... possibly facing the prospect of being forcibly repatriated to a violent and war-torn country.

However, if the current hothouse debate is anything to go by, there are clearly those who perversely believe that for foreigners - if not for Brits - prison is not only an insufficient punishment. It is also completely useless for anything other than keeping offenders away from society for as long as possible. It should be presumed that foreigners especially will forever represent a danger and henceforth should be removed in some fashion altogether. We should oppose such sentiments and fight for the rational, humane and civilised treatment of all prisoners - even the tiny few who may appear to be unreformable.

Also, once again, the burning question of border controls is out in the open. Communists are for the immediate abolition of all such controls - people should be free to live and work wherever they please. Therefore we are not for the forcible repatriation or deportation of "foreign criminals", or indeed anyone else.

We cannot help but wonder what position our comrades in the SWP-Respect party will take on "foreign criminals" - if indeed they ever deign to tell us. After all, at its founding conference, Respect - at the insistence of the Socialist Workers Party - voted down the CPGB motion calling for open borders, and since then George Galloway has gone on record as saying, "No-one serious is advocating the scrapping of immigration controls". Rather, being decent and fair people, the SWP-Respect comrades support the right of asylum-seekers to stay in the country ... but presumably not "foreign criminals"?

Bearing this in mind, the latest issue of Socialist Worker makes for slightly depressing reading. Lindsey German - after noting with relish that the government "had a disastrous week in the run-up to local elections where Labour was always going to struggle" - goes on to note: "Now we find that a home secretary who is waging campaigns on law and order doesn't even know where his own prisoners are." And that is all she has to say on the subject (May 6).

Frankly, we are at a loss to understand how the SWP is able to limit its comment on these issues to this single sentence from comrade German - at least as far as Socialist Worker is concerned. And how does her remark differ in any fundamental way from what someone like David Cameron or Ming Campbell might say?

Crime can only be understood in relationship to the given society. In a class society, crime is a product of alienation, want or resistance - and the 'justice system', while reflecting the balance of class forces, essentially aims to beat the population into subservience. As for us, the aim of prison must be rehabilitation - not punishment or revenge.

We demand:

l Prisoners must be allowed the maximum opportunity to develop themselves as human beings - there should be a wide range of cultural facilities. Prisoners must be allowed access to books, newspapers, periodicals of their choice and the internet.

l There must be worthwhile prison work, paid at full trade union rates and limited to seven hours a day.

l Cells must be self-contained and for one person alone.

l People should only be imprisoned within a short distance of their own locality - if not, families must be given full cost of travel for visits.

l There must be daily visiting hours and provision for weekly 24-hour conjugal visits.

l Medical treatment must be via the general health service.

l Incoming and outgoing letters should only be checked for contraband: they must not be read or censored.

l Prisoners must have the right to vote and to stand for election.

l Prisons must be run under the supervision of organisations of the working class.

l No discrimination on grounds of nationality. No deportations.