Sunday, November 1, 2009

Political Prisoners

Between being a terrible Home Secretary and being installed as Governor of one of our more amenable Caribbean territories, David Waddington popped along to Westminster to blag a Peerage. Pausing in the House of Lords, he made the remarkable statement that “life sentence prisoners are political prisoners. Their lives are the property of the state." Such was the arrogance and power of the Home Office in 1989 that this declaration raised not a single eyebrow. The British judiciary repeatedly turned its back on us, leaving us utterly in the hands of secret decisions, made via secret processes, by politicians. Since then, the law has risen from its slumber and wrested control of lifers away from the fickle, grubby paws of the Executive. In this sense, we are no longer political prisoners. This does not mean, though, that there are not prisoners who are highly political. I am one of them, and there aren't too many of us. Or if there are, most are keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. Who could blame them? Prison is all about power. It is the sharpest edge of political philosophy, the crucible of all that it means to be a citizen. One of the things that baffles most of my peers is that I find this fascinating. Each day is a perpetual lesson from Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesqueu, Locke, Mill and Machiavelli. I never have understood why my peers are largely indifferent to the meaning of their situation, why they do not begin to wonder about the nature of power, of government and of the individual. It is, surely, a small step to from asking oneself why some order from a screw should be obeyed to asking the far bigger question of by what right is any man given authority over another? What is the basis for their authority? This is where my education and my daily existence intertwined. My first degree being history and politics, as I gained a deeper appreciation of political philosophy then my understanding of my situation became increasingly sophisticated. I suppose that daily life outside obscures the reality of the relationship between the individual and the State. You could go years without bumping into people in uniform whose actions make you question authority. In prison, though, the State parks itself in my doorway several times a day and there is a much clearer link between daily life and the politics and mechanisms of power. How, then, could I not be a political animal? If a man knocks on my door to talk about some conflict with the institution, or to ask about various Rules, how could I possibly turn him away? When a man is facing disciplinary charges, how could I possibly refuse to help him with his defence? And how can I fail to become angry and frustrated at the perpetual stream of stupidities that flow from managers in suits who retain a quiet belief that they are omnipotent in their closed world? Even this blog is a political act. You must conceptualise prisons as totalitarian societies, those with power and those without. In such a situation, the mere feeble act of speaking out and questioning carries some political potency. This is why "they" don't like it one bit; not so much for what I write but for the very fact that I dare to write at all.


  1. Thanks Ben! You've been really helpful with this one but not in the way you might think...

    I am doing a degree in Art and Design, part of which is 'contextual studies' and our tutor gave us this text to read called 'Foucault's Discourses of Power'. Well, as with most of this particular tutors hand-outs, the first paragraph made my brain melt and the whole thing has gone unread for too long! Haha. Anyway, having read this blog I think I can attack it with a fresh mindset now.

    ...but I may be gone for quite some time ;-).

  2. There is an assumption when a prisoner leaves the dock and enters prison that he or she will go along with and accept authority.

    What destroys this assumption is when a prisoner instead of saying "yes" says "no". Then a control problem arises.

    The prison regime is based on a military model, however, prisoners have not signed up to join the military. They remain citizens. They are entitled to question authority, unlike a soldier in the ranks.

    The problem the Prison Service suffers from is it does not know how to deal with those who challenge its authority.

    Prison Officers claim to be only following orders. However, as we know, the Nuremburg defence does not hold up in law.

    It is only by questioning authority do prisoners learn the difference between authority and abuse of authority.