Book Review from the January 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Behind Bars: The hidden architecture of England’s prisons. Allan Brodie, Jane Croom, James O Davies.
To socialists this book is an abomination, as repugnant as “Floral Displays at Auschwitz” or “Idi Amin’s recipes for vegetarians”. But hey, you say, don’t get wound up, it’s only architecture, it’s only art. If this were so the book would be merely in bad taste. But it isn’t so. In fact it’s a thoroughly distasteful example of the reformist’s art.
To explain: the first part of the book is indeed a history of prison architecture and surprise, surprise, not all prisons look the grim Victorian monstrosities of popular imagination (although window bars and locks are recurring architectural themes). In the second section of the book, however, great pains are taken to contrast the prisons of today from those of yesteryear. The pointless labour of the treadwheel, the brutality of corporal punishment, chains and tin buckets to piss in, are all recalled. And today’s prisons? Images of children and animals, as if jail is a kind of friendly club for malefactors (Tony and his frigging budgie in HMP Grendon took the biscuit for me). But a prison is a prison for all that. A cell is nothing but a cell.
For all the 200 years of reform, prisons, like the poor, are still with us. Prison is an indictment of the capitalist system. Prison means punishment, generally punishment for the infraction of property laws. In the more exceptional cases of punishment for personal crimes, it results in the further alienation of already psychologically damaged individuals, who need treatment not punishment. Socialism means the abolition, not just of nasty jails, but of all places of punishment.