Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Freedom you gave away.

So I was out of the loop for a while. I say a while, I mean 32 years. In that time politics rolled on, nations came and fell, new empires were born, and laws rolled off the production line like tins of beans. Things changed whilst I was away.

Not that these changes pass prisoners by; imprisonment is not a Rip Van Winkle experience. Through newspapers, TV, radio, staff, visitors and - mostly - through the perpetual influx of new prisoners who obviously bring cultural shifts along with their Court Warrant through the gates. Being out of the way needn't mean being out of touch.

And yet....There are parts of prison culture which are unalterable. One of these is a complete lack of privacy. At whim, staff can descend upon you and insist you undress, peel back your foreskin and squat over a mirror. Every item in your possession can be pawed over, read, copied, every letter censored, every phonecall recorded. Being a modern prisoner is to live in a fishbowl that sits on the desk of the Secretary of State.

Such freedoms as privacy may be circumscribed out of necessity in prisons, although even that argument has had to take on a nuanced hue. Letters across most of the estate are no longer routinely censored, though the right for staff to do so remains. Every word whispered across a table in the visits room is not listened to, because there are not enough staff to position one at each table. In these ways, although the right to privacy has been lost, the practicalities of intrusion limit the malign effect of that.

Privacy is but a useful illustrative point. I could be referring to any of the rights which individuals assert as the legitimate limits of State power. And during the years I was subjected to that power I resisted in every sphere of my existence. Devouring political theory and history, which was then honed in the daily machinations of prison life where State power is at its most naked, I have slowly become something of a libertarian. Essentially, there should be strict limits on State power to intrude into the private sphere.

However, as I was busy fighting to create a personal sphere in prison, and struggling to escape prison for "freedom", you lot were all busy signing away all that had been fought for since, at least, Magna Carta. I have been released into a society which not only fails to appreciate its freedoms but which has forgotten the most important lesson of history - governments may indeed be necessary, but they are to be treated with suspicion and scepticism. Like prison governors, in fact.

At what point did we think it was a good idea to get rid of a suspect's right to silence? If the State wants to throw a person in prison, why do we equivocate over the idea that they should damn well prove their case? When did we find it acceptable that the local council can install hidden cameras and set spies upon us over our school choices and bin over-filling? When did it seem a clever idea to institute secret courts, with secret evidence? And detention without charge or trial?

These are but mere examples of the intrusion, not just into privacy but physical liberty itself, which society blithely surrendered. As important, but more subtle, is the censorship of thought and speech which has inveigled its way into the dominant discourse.

It is utterly repugnant that unpleasant, offensive ideas cannot be discussed. It is an outrage that society swapped the freedom to speak for the right not to be offended. And it is disgraceful that society has abandoned the idea of challenging horrible or dangerous ideas by argument or ridicule and instead turned to the State to enforce this pathetic demand not to hear anything we find distasteful.

Perhaps it takes a man who has been without freedom for most of his life to appreciate the very concept. Because those of you who have enjoyed it all along have treated the very idea of freedom with contempt.


  1. Best blog for a long time Ben - even with the jab at governors !!!
    Inner vision

  2. Good blog Ben.

    How true - another important matter, that we seem to have given up on, is the right to assume innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Lip service is given to this but in reality most people assume guilt as soon as the papers hear of something and the police arrest/charge someone. I am always worried about how busy our Appeal Courts are - and although some people will 'appeal' even if they are innocent there are 100s and 100s of people who are genuinely innocent

    Appreciate the blog and it is certainly food for thought.

  3. No we haven’t!

    It isn’t the voters who made these changes, but their representatives in Parliament. Well, not all of them, but thanks I suppose to the party system, it’s the executive that’s carved out of them by whoever the leader might be that do the changes! So basically it was Blair. Why did he do it? It’s possible to assume that the Home Office have a constant agenda to limit freedoms (and in Blair’s case another factor more generally - internationally i.e. - would have been what the US neo-cons wanted). So we have a weak personality, without any particular morality-derived agenda of his own, doing what his masters want (the better to thrive personally ---both in and later, out of, office). That explains a lot. But Blair is special only because of his breathtaking representations to parliament pre-invasion all those yrs ago. As to freedom-limitation more generally, all executives do it, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the human calibre of those comprising the executive in parliament.

    Look at what’s happening to the NHS for more illustration that it’s not the voters making the big changes. A clegg-enabled Cameron landed in power in 2010, without a mandate for anything very much. What the tories did have, however, was a previously wholly worked-out plan to privatise our v wonderful health service. Nobody would vote into power a party advocating that. They didn't. But we have it anyway. Clegg (an unusually right-wing lib dem, btw) we may blame for that.

    Prison is as close to perfect human surveillance as it’s possible to get (by definition, really). But that’s micro ---whereas CCTV cameras etc in free society do pretty well as much as can be done to replicate that on the macro level. Think of all those anodyne looking ANPR cameras on stalks and bridges everywhere on our roads systems nowadays.

    CCTV, right of silence, the introduction into evidence of previous convictions (not something you adverted too), ANPR network – and v probably much else, too …..

    …. all arrived NOT by the inadvertence of the populace, but by very sneaky moves by the executive, once installed in power.

    Also, need to mention what to me is perhaps more serious than this ---the fact that the only mandates 'allowed' nowadays, are right-wing ones. Trad lab long gone. Neo-lib Blair extended thatcherism, when you think about it! But just to make sure, we have folks like Clegg (who, if the voters 'get it wrong' on voting day ---will step in to get it 'right'). How does that work lol! You'd almost think there was something behind the scenes going on, wouldn't you ....but then we're all conspiracy theorists now, maybe. or should be.

    Bring back Heath, all is forgiven!

  4. in interest of fairness I may need to say that 1994 was the year in which the golden thread of British justice was effectively abolished….cos Crim Justice and Public order Act 1994 section 34 did that. Before saintly Blair’s arrival into troughing psn that is.

    and as I read yr post, what was going through my mind was the fate of Hirst v UK (re its implementation – or not –here. No votes for prisoners is a hobbling of the principle of universal suffrage. But so too is the behind the scenes removal of any decent choice through ballot box. What with right-wing press, and creatures like Clegg ---- we’re doomed innit (lol). All of this situates what’s happening in prisons regarding your points, very firmly with what wider society is heading for. It’s a small world. And getting smaller…
    geoff again

  5. Excellent post Ben.

    Why do commentators believe that these evil measures are right wing? Surely these changes were 'radical', and therefore left wing.

    The method used by all modern parties to inveigle these State sponsored controls, is to appeal to our sense of fear, especially the fear that women have been taught to have by the mainstream media and the like.

    Or as W. C. Fields would say: "I always keep a supply of stimulant handy in case I see a snake... which I also keep handy."

  6. I think it started a few years before Ben was sent to prison, with the IRA mainland campaign and skyjacking in the 1970s. These terrors were real, but not so sinister as successive governments' using antiterrorism as a pretext for encroaching upon our freedom. If we do not fight tyranny in its embryo it will grow large. The British public all but fell asleep on this one. The work has been done by stalwarts such as Liberty. I spent roughly one quarter of my adulthood as a lifer behind bars, where the reality of the little man's struggle against the power of the executive and the judiciary was acutely felt. Outside was Thatcher ranting against the evil dictator Saddam and later there was Blair playing much the same tune. It seemed calculated to distract from growing tyranny within, and the public stupidly loved it.

  7. YOu can choose not to give some of your freedom away. I don't like flying, so i don't have a passport. My driving licence was issued in the 80's, so it is an old pink one, without the photo. I choose not to be on facebook, for the world to see who my friends are and my business. I choose not to have my car registered at my own address, (it is at a friend's so i still get documents, but not the bailifs for parking tickets). I choose to have an unregestered mobile phone. etc. Of course this doesn't make me like teflon, where nothing sticks, but i am not making it easy for them. Good website is yourstrawman. Right, just going to watch on iplayer teh program about probation that was on last night, i dare say my blood will be boiling shortly.

  8. Did we get rid of a suspects right to silence? Wiki says no, but I concede that's an imperfect source.

    Agreed the rest is bad, although the current government seems to be clawing back bits and pieces. They claim.

    1. Oh, and the farcical Twitter joke trial was, finally, quashed. So we haven't quite decided free speech is less important that being offended just yet.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.