Putting the incarceration business on trial : The dehumanization of racist policies and for-profit prisons

Written by Raoul Walawalker, feature writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration lawyers currently offering free legal advice to NHS staff amidst the Covid-19 pandemic

Photo by Ashley Ross @bigarnative

In late June, UK Labour leader Keir Starmer made comments he later regretted when describing a Black Lives Matter (BLM) slogan calling for ‘defunding the police’ as ‘nonsense.’ He apologised for this soon after.

Starmer’s comment suggested a lack of awareness of the BLM campaign, not entirely unlike First Secretary of State Dominic Raab’s somewhat surreal assessment that the ‘taking the knee’ protest gesture seemed like ‘something to do with Game of Thrones.’

Both were criticised for their lack of familiarity with the gesture and the campaign slogan – especially after Minneapolis in the United States had just decided to defund its police department the previous week.

While Starmer might heed a right-wing press calling this ‘Corbynism’— it isn’t. Without any political bias, Chris Daw, high-ranking lawyer and author of the book ‘Justice on Trial,’ explained to Sky News and Channel 4 in late July that the US criminal justice system is full of elected and appointed judges; these people know that their system is dysfunctional but aren’t in a position to change it given how politicised it has become. Moving away from an appeal-to-fear, response-to-opinion strategy is not viewed as an option for them. This is similarly the case in the UK.

‘The balance of [public] opinion is in favour of toughness. Toughness sells; it’s a concept that’s easy to describe, “crackdown,” “toughness,” “young hooligans” and the public responds to these phrases  emotionally. But if you say “Hold on, let’s look at the evidence and what works in Norway and Portugal” people switch off. It’s not a message people can get energised by,’ Daw told Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

Daw went on to emphasise the scale of how our British drug prohibition laws (adopted from the US) have contributed to vast increases in drug deaths and prison population sizes since the 1970s. He also explained to Sky News how, over the same period, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people have simultaneously numbered disproportionately high in arrests and incarceration through the same systemic racism that sees them being stopped and searched more often than white people.

The ongoing expansion projects to boost prison place capacity – presenting this as a win-win situation for regional jobs rather than considering reform – are all the more questionable given that 70 percent of inmates are non-violent offenders.

And while politics may hold too much sway over prison policy and sentencing, we must also consider the extent to which commercial and economic advantage is involved. It is deeply concerning that the four new prisons to be built in the UK – as announced by the Ministry of Justice via Twitter – are being touted as a jobs creation bonanza and, beyond this, that 15 percent of the UK’s prison sector is in private hands – more so than anywhere in Europe. The corporations which own the UK’s fourteen private prisons (Serco, G4S and Sodexo) continue to invest as a result of reassuring profit margins and long-term growth (in prison population) being projected.

Of comparable consideration is the ease with which a lucrative commercial model for prisons can be applied to immigration detention centres which can similarly be assessed in terms of projected detainee population growth, turnover and profit margin. An analysis by CorporateWatch in 2018 assessed that a 20 percent profit was ‘standard,’ across the UK’s private detention centres and that 30 percent was achieved at one centre in Scotland, now famed for its unreported hunger strikes and human rights breaches.

Among the assessed methods of attaining such a high profit margin were slave labour – detainees are paid a mere £1 an hour – lack of scrutiny of contract fulfilment and self-auditing. Additionally, the oligopoly factor that comes when there’s only a very few specialist bidders for big contracts has contributed to this, with these corporations continuing to win contracts despite steady reports of deaths, self-harming and documented abuse. The UK, too, is the only country in Europe that allows indefinite detention, helping to sustain a steady flow of profit through keeping beds filled for often unnecessarily long periods of time.

It is easy to see how a phrase such as ‘defund the police’ is poorly understood and easily shunned in contrast to the simplistic, appeal-to-fear pledges aimed at gaining votes.  The US ‘defund the police’ campaign is about police reform and making resources available to support education, social services, and public health programmes.  In other words, it is about investing in marginalized communities.   In Britain, the public has come to expect promises of ‘20,000 more police officers by 2022’ or ‘10,000 new prison places’ and ‘four new prisons to create thousands of (construction) jobs’; these pledges typify the populist strategy of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his “law and order” agenda.   Faced with these pledges, the ‘defund the police’ campaign is challenged to explain that these big investment promises, principally aimed at locking up more and more individuals, make sense only IF your prime aim is to boost prison populations and develop a mammoth US-style for-profit prison industry, but not if your aim is to actually prevent crime and systemic racism.

If the aim is to reduce crime, an awareness that the UK already has western Europe’s highest prison population and reoffending rates (60 to 70 percent within a year of release) should discourage the model of mass incarceration. With the US having the world’s highest prison population (around 2.3 million) and one of the highest global recidivism rates by far (76.6 percent), this ought to stand as a clear example of what not to do to tackle crime. Instead, diverting police budgets into funding which helps to support communities – such as through decent mental health and addiction treatment and services, youth centres, adult literacy and training for better employment opportunities and affordable housing – is essential.

If the government is sincere in its supposed efforts to address racism, the prison-industrial complex and growth of for-profit migrant detention centres must come to an end. People of colour suffer under these systems exponentially.  The inhumanity of systemic racism, and the structures that sustain it, need to be questioned and banished forever.

This Opinion piece was penned by Raoul Walawalker, feature writer for the Immigration Advice Service. Views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of UAI.
Photo credit ©Ashley Ross.