The common belief that prisons are full of dangerously anti-social people from whom the rest of us must be protected is a lie. It is a lie so popular that even to question it is deemed to be an act of the wildest utopianism. We are taught to regard the imprisonment of the few as some kind of guarantee of the security of the many. But the many feel far from secure. And the imprisoned are mainly harmless, or harmful only to the extent that they are treated as they are.
As a child I remember a cop coming to the school-cum-prison in which I was being educatcd-cum-indoctrinated-cum-incarcerated to tell us all about what would happen if we broke the law. He carried the authority of a man born only a little too late for a career in the Gestapo and he terrorised little children with fears of the dire consequences of their wrongdoing. Boys with stolen sweets in their sticky pockets almost wet themselves. The cop painted images of dark dungeons presided over by men with the tolerance of Old Testament gods. We all agreed that this was no place to end up in. Next time our class went shoplifting the look-out arrangements were especially vigilant.
Years of being conditioned to fear the awfulness of prison hardships and indignities has done much to strengthen the unhealthy respect for property which so pervades the working class. Most people are afraid to take any of what they themselves produce, not because they believe it really should belong to the property-owning minority (the real thieves) but because they dare not break the thieves’ laws. They are scared. The prospect of prison is supposed to make us scared.
As a means of teaching people to respect private property prisons are remarkably unsuccessful. Most inmates come out with more knowledge about how to get away with breaking the law than they had when they entered. There is no evidence at all that prisons do anything very much except scare people who are not in them and brutalise those who are. The tragedy is that most of those in there have been quite well enough brutalised by the deprivations and degradation of being propertyless in a property society without needing a prison regime to roughen their edges.
Millions of prisoners are incarcerated across the world simply for disagreeing with the government. From the tortured wretches in the hell-holes of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran (apparent international enemies, but all at one when it comes to the Dictatorship of Property) to those in Britain who refused to become conscripted killers in time of war (the “crime” which sent so many socialists to prison) or pay their poll tax, what are these but prisoners of conscience? It doesn’t pay to stand by your principles under capitalism. In China there are approximately ten million political prisoners locked away in camps. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the trade boycott.
And yes, there are the few—a small minority even within the minority of the prison population—who are so damaged, so ruined by their upbringing and circumstances, and so driven to brutality that they have murdered, raped and committed unspeakable acts of cruelty and inhumanity. Is the humane response to brutalise them further by locking them in cells and punishing them for what society has made them? It has become a commonplace of mean-minded conservative sneering to deride those of us who counsel compassion and understanding for those whose deeds the tabloid press choose to call evil. (Their evil-spotting becomes remarkably myopic when it comes to nuclear buttons and bombs dropped from legalised terrorists in the name of international order.) well, call me a “do-gooder” (which is preferable to being a do-badder) or a softy, but the truth is that only spite can justify taking an inadequate person and making them less adequate by throwing them into the hopeless despair of imprisonment. These places are an affront to a society which declares itself with haughty arrogance to be civilised. They are monuments to the barbarity of a system which cannot afford compassion and support for the damaged and so buries itself in the futile and spiteful torments of punishment.