Even as prisons go, Albany is especially difficult to get out of — or into, for that matter. The high outer wall is topped by a cylindrical cowling, black and smooth, which would throw off a grappling hook or a rope, or anyone determined enough to get up there. Behind that is a sensitive ground zone, where an intruder would set the alarms going. Then another high wall, made from concrete sprayed onto a strong steel mesh. Dogs are on patrol along the walls and all movements are watched by cameras strung high above on slim steel posts. Other posts hold lights which spread a deathly orange, shadowless glow over the prison; when dark falls Albany can be seen for miles around.
Keys do not rattle in Albany as pervasively as in other prisons. Most of its doors are remotely controlled from a central security block. This has some advantages for the prisoners; after lock-up they can ask to be let out of their cells and, provided the central control approves, a man can be allowed to go to the lavatory, take a shower, or whatever. Albany does not, then, endure the noxious routine of slop-out, the emptying of chamber pots brimming with urine and faeces with which the older prisons begin their day.
Albany was built in the sixties, originally to hold men of low security category. It was converted, after the Mountbatten Report and then the Radzinowicz Report, into a dispersal prison, which was an official compromise with Mountbatten’s recommendation to build a fortress prison on the Isle of Wight to hold the hardest, most determined criminals in the country in relatively humane conditions behind an impregnable perimeter. The concept of dispersal meant that men serving very, very long sentences — life several times, perhaps, or with a judge's recommendation that they stay inside for twenty or thirty years — share a prison with others doing only a few years.
Albany began its life with the declared intention of being a place where prisoners existed in what was called "constructive tension”, the meaning of which was obscure but fuelled many a seminar on enlightened penal measures. In any case the policy could not survive the prison's change of role and in place of “constructive tension" Albany offered other things. It was a clean, modern prison with good sports facilities — a “proper" prison where “you know where you stand — you get nothing so you don't ask for anything". Outside the cell blocks it has an open aspect, with views of distant green hills, unlike other prisons where grey walls loom over everything. But at the same time it was regarded as the end of the road of the prison system; men went there with little hope of even the gestures towards “rehabilitation” which the Home Office feels obliged to make.
There is another way in which Albany differs from the older British prisons. In those stark, crumbling, often verminous, relics of Victorian moral correction it is common for three men to have to live in a cell barely big enough to accommodate one for nearly twenty-three hours out of every day. The tension caused by such overcrowding is often assumed to be the cause of much of the trouble in prisons. Certainly, it provides a handy excuse for the Home Office, who can represent it as a problem not of their making; there are so many people in prison because they commit offences and because the courts send them to prison rather than applying other sentences.
But these older, overcrowded prisons do not have serious trouble, on the scale of the recent riot and rooftop protest at Albany. Indeed, every major disturbance at British prisons in recent years has been at establishments where there is no overcrowding. This was so at Parkhurst in 1969, at Hull and Gartree and again at Parkhurst and at Albany in more recent times. Even the trouble at Wormwood Scrubs, where there is overcrowding, in 1979 (which is more accurately described as a riot by the prison officers rather than by the prisoners) was in the long term wing, where all the men are held in single cells.
What then caused the riot at Albany? It is a place of instantly palpable tension. Many of the prisoners there are what the Home Office categorises as hardened criminals, who have committed their offences with some deliberation, accepting the risks involved. This applies not just to the likes of professional bank robbers but also to the politically motivated offenders such as the IRA bombers. Between these on the one hand and the prison authorities on the other there exists a state of persistent antagonism. There is communication of a sort between each side but only as shells communicate across No Man's Land. Some of these prisoners will tell you — as they have themselves perhaps been told by a judge — that they are at war with society (we shall return to this in a moment) and that for them society is represented by the prison.
For the most part this war is a matter of sniping or trench raids; only occasionally does it burst out into a full scale battle. Frustration and repression is breathed daily by the prisoner, like gas in shell holes, and prisons are not places designed to relieve tension. When the frustration reaches an explosive level — and when there are enough determined, or desperate, men with little to lose and ready to give vent to it — then there is the material for a battle. The predictable response to a riot is a more stringent application of the frustrations which aggravated it in the first place. When the protesters eventually came off the roof at Albany they were immediately whisked away, in scaled vans with a heavy escort, to other prisons to be punished.
It is expected that all the political parties of capitalism will have a readily available policy on what they call Law and Order. This may entail harsher laws and punishments or some administrative reforms which do little more than shift the official responsibility for dealing with offenders from one agency to another — like the Children and Young Persons Act of 1969, which was never fully implemented and parts of which have now been overtaken by the latest measure, the Criminal Justice Act 1982. It is the same with troublesome prisons — some experts are sure there should be more restrictive regimes such as the infamous Control Units at Wormwood Scrubs and Wakefield, while other experts favour more “rehabilitative” measures by which they usually mean at most short courses in painting or bricklaying. All such theories share a common motivation — the acceptance of capitalism’s class structure and the condition that one class must labour to the benefit of the other as a morality providing all that is needed for a happy, fulfilled human life.
This comfortable delusion is continually undermined by reality. There is no satisfaction in the drudgery of wage slavery. Class society offers no fulfilment — only alienation. It provokes conflict which is often expressed in forcible attempts at breaching the laws of property. Very, very few criminals have any conscious notion of what their offences actually represent. Far from being at war with society — with capitalist society — they are among the most ardent defenders of property rights, with the ambition to quickly gain enough of it to make it worth their while to defend. However complex criminal motivation, it is essentially a reaction to deprivation, to a socially repressed life, to an inability to attain to some norm of capitalism such as a stable family. So the reaction emerges as anti-social. by offending against this social system's most representative, cherished and defended feature — the rights and privileges of property.
Prisons are not, then, simply places where people are confined. They are monuments to the inhumanity of a social system which exists on the repression of the majority by the minority. They bear witness that the majority are deceived into the belief that this repression is so much in their interests that they should themselves work, as police officers, prison officers, servicemen, to impose it. So the sentence which the working class serve under capitalism — to be exploited, degraded, murdered — is self-administered. And there is no time off for good conduct.
This article was unsigned but I'm 95% sure it was written by Ivan who, because of his employment, was unable to attach his name to it . . . even his 'pen-name'.