Thursday, February 14, 2019

Prison Break (2016)

The Proper Gander column from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

We’d like to think that scaring children into learning something wouldn’t be an officially-approved educational technique. Unfortunately, even mainstream schooling carries a subtle threat – getting high grades is supposed to be a way of avoiding poverty and dead-end jobs, although we might not have realised it when we were younger. This threat is made blatant in the ‘scared straight’ approach of teaching teenagers to avoid anti-social behaviour.

This method involves young people caught up in small-scale crime being taken to the local prison to see what life is like behind bars. Troubled Teens: Jail Shock (CBS Reality) brings to the telly several American schemes, with blunt, no-nonsense names like ‘Reality Check’, ‘Straighten Up’ and ‘Reset’, as well as ‘Scared Straight’. The emphasis of these schemes is on warning the teens about the hellhole they could be sent to if they continue with their behaviour, and the impact this would have on their families. Their approach is to make the teenagers think about the consequences of their actions, rather than covering issues of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

The teens have been involved in gangs, thefts, under-age alcohol use, promiscuity, fighting, truancy and cannabis smoking. Before visiting the slammer, they tend to be cocky about their behaviour, and several later realise their attitude is a way of coping with not having much hope or self-esteem.

When the teenagers arrive at the jail they’re ordered to remove any piercings and put on drab prison overalls, then handcuffed and led in single file through the corridors. Most of them already have the shocked, sad expression on their faces they’ll have throughout their visit. Some smirk or talk back, and in return get a blast of orders from one of the prison officers, who treat the teens with the same kinds of shouty oppression as the inmates. Some of the guards relish how they will ‘break’ the teens.

The teenagers are then paraded in front of the prisoners, who shout and jeer at them from their cells or behind windows. ‘You want to be here?’, ‘You gonna be mine’, ‘this ain’t no place for you’. Some inmates try to provoke the teens to show them they’re not as tough as they think, others plead with them not to make the same choices. Then, in a shock tactic even more blatant than all the other shock tactics, the doors open and the prisoners storm out. The teens then get their faces yelled at, with threats for the few still daring to talk back. The guards don’t intervene, suggesting that the inmates’ boundaries have been agreed beforehand. The aggression is a warning, rather than a real danger to the teens, and perhaps the prisoners find something cathartic in the shouting.

When the teens are shunted into a meeting room, they meet with individual inmates, jailed for murder or drug offences. They introduce themselves with their prison number, and one adds that they may have a number, but they’re nothing while they’re in jail. The prisoners talk about how their identities and decisions have been taken away. As one of the officers says, when people get locked up they become ‘a slave of the state’, as written in the 13th Amendment.

Each of the prisons tweak the formula, often in bizarre directions. On some visits the teens are made to eat the revolting prison food, get shown the morgue, and speak with their crying parents through a window as if it’s visiting day. One jail makes the teens wear placards which say things like ‘I am a thief’, and at another an officer demonstrates how easily an inmate can get dragged into an empty room. Another group is shown a ‘behaviour modification cell’, painted pink because men traditionally don’t prefer the colour. And one of the teens goes with her mother to meet a funeral director, and watches silently as they plan her funeral as if she’s died through her behaviour.

The cameras return to the teenagers a month after their jail jaunt to see whether it has prompted them to make changes to their lives. Most of those we see have calmed down, made more effort with studying, changed who they socialise with and are getting on better with their families, so as a result, feel more optimistic and happy. Despite these apparent successes, research into the effectiveness of the ‘scared straight’ approach hasn’t convinced British authorities to try it here.

A College of Policing briefing from 2014 concluded that these methods ‘have a harmful effect and increase offending relative to doing nothing at all’. Strangely, seeing the tough regimes of prison life doesn’t really prevent teenagers continuing with behaviour which might lead them there, and may even encourage them. The programmes’ worrying approach of trying to teach through humiliation, shock and oppression, of aiming to brutalise the teenagers out of living their often brutal lifestyles, just doesn’t work. However, ‘even non-confrontational, educational programmes were shown to have no significant effect on the frequency or severity of subsequent offences’, according to the briefing. This suggests that there are wider, deeper reasons which have more influence over people caught up in crime and anti-social behaviour. The pressures of living in our competitive, divided, alienating society have more impact on us than one day in jail.
Mike Foster

Global class (2016)

Book Review from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class’, by Immanuel Ness (Pluto Press, 2016)

The author teaches political science at the City University of New York. He has also been a union organizer and an activist in various projects in defense of workers’ rights. He has shown particular concern with the plight of migrant workers.

Theories of the ‘post-industrial society’ are based on the perception that industry is declining and the industrial working class shrinking or even disappearing. Ness points out that this is an illusion. Manufacturing and mining remain of vital importance to the global economy and employ more workers than ever before. However, they are no longer concentrated in the ‘Global North’ – North America, Europe and Japan – as they were in the twentieth century. They have moved to developing regions in the ‘Global South’ such as industrial zones in the three countries chosen by the author for his case studies – India, China and South Africa.

The statistics that Ness marshals in support of this thesis are indeed striking. The share of the Global South in gross fixed capital formation increased from 14 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2010, while its share of industrial employment in formal sectors of the economy rose from 50 percent to 80 percent over the same period. The corresponding shift in the geographical distribution of wealth is less dramatic because much of the industry in the South is owned by capitalists in the North who repatriate the profits.

Repeated use of the term ‘Global South’ in this connection may be misleading, inasmuch as the new industry is not spread throughout what used to be called the ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ countries. It is heavily concentrated in just a few countries and in just a few areas within those countries. Most of Africa, for example, is still pre-industrial. Clearly we need a terminology more differentiated than binary divisions like developed/developing or North/South.

The main interest of the book lies in its descriptions and analyses of workers’ struggles in three regions – the Gurgaon industrial belt near New Delhi, the Pearl River Delta in southern China, and the mining belt in the northwestern part of South Africa. The three cases differ considerably in terms of political context, union organization (or its absence) and market conditions, although there are some significant common features – notably, the sharp divide between relatively secure and well paid ‘permanent’ workers and insecure and poorly paid ‘temporary’ or contract workers (often migrants).

Of the three groups studied it is Chinese workers who have made the greatest gains in recent years. This is despite the fact that – in contrast to India and South Africa – they are prevented from forming independent trade unions and can organize themselves only within the workplace. The crucial factor seems to be an emerging labor shortage – an inadvertent result of the one-child policy. Employers in India, where labour is in abundant supply, have responded to labour unrest by firing and replacing entire workforces. In China this is not a feasible option.

The account of the miserable pay and harsh working conditions of platinum miners in South Africa, whose protests led to the massacre of striking workers at Marikana in 2012, reveals how little ‘black’ working people have gained from the abolition of apartheid. ‘Black’ politicians, union bureaucrats and police are no less ruthless than their ‘white’ predecessors in manipulating and repressing ‘black’ workers in the service of (still mostly ‘white’) capital.

Ness appears not to have a definite political affiliation, but his theoretical framework (in particular, his concept of ‘imperialism’) shows signs of Leninist influence.

He has illusions regarding the position of workers in China under Mao, claiming that the working class enjoyed social benefits and job security. In fact, the division between permanent workers, who did possess such benefits, and temporary workers, who did not, was already well established at that time.

The author’s writing style could do with improvement and the tables contain some errors. Nevertheless, the book has a lot to offer and is well worth reading, for it does at least attempt to grasp the evolution of capitalist society and the working class as global phenomena.