No Political Prisoners Here: No Political Prisons Anywhere
Catalan politicians arrested for the referendum have finally appeared on trial, after spending 17 months in prison without trial. Why has Europe not spoken out to defend these political prisoners? The answer lies in other states’ increasing tendency to detain dissidents.
People face jail for peacefully using their bodies to stop our extractive industries that threaten ecological meltdown. Last year, in Lancashire the ‘Fracking Three’ were jailed, before a successful appeal. In Germany activists protecting Hambach Forest from lignite coal mining faced prison time. The British state also convicted the Stansted 15 with terrorism for peacefully chaining themselves to a deportation flight, a potentially life-saving action, in March 2017. Elsewhere, people face incarceration for giving humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants, including Italian mayors and human rights defenders in Greece. Beyond the 12 Catalan political prisoners, Spain is incarcerating opponents, including a rapper ‘slandering’ the King.
This recent amplification does not mean there was a golden age, but the number of European political prisoners is rising. Peripheral Turkey showcases the trend. It has long imprisoned opponents, especially Kurds. But since the 2016 coup it has imprisoned 10 Parliamentarians from the main opposition HDP Party, even though they renounced the coup. Worldwide, Turkey jails the most journalists.
The world faces systemic crises and growing resistance to the system, which is one motivation for national governments not to condemn draconian measures elsewhere. The normalisation of prison makes holding political prisoners increasingly tenable. What comes to mass incarceration, Britain showcases a wider trend.
Britain’s racist immigration and detention system is synonymous with Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’. But Tony Blair built and filled the mass detention centres including Harmondsworth, Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel, all opened in 2001. Indefinite child detention was another Blair legacy.
Britain’s prisoner to population ratio is among the highest in Europe, similar to Romania and Spain and about three times that of Finland and Sweden. Prison population of England and Wales, and Scotland roughly flat-lined from 1900 to 1950. It has been growing ever since, with an accelerated uptick in the early-1990s onwards, especially in England and Wales. You might expect the vast rise in prisoners from 1980 to 2010 to correlate with a sharp rise in recorded crime. But this has not been the case, including for violent crime.
What correlates clearly is the politicised nature of the prison population. Black people are four times more likely to be inside than white counterparts. Lower economic status makes jail likelier. Marginalised communities face institutionalised state violence, and far more custodial sentences. The same system neglects violence against people of colour, the working class and women. It is criminal how few rapes lead to conviction. But over half of women prisoners are domestic violence survivors.
Whilst crime levels do not correlate to today’s mass incarceration, a new discourse does.
Prison population in England and Wales peaked in 2012, following Blair and Brown’s New Labour tenure. It promised to be “tough on crime”, which it was, and “tough on the causes of crime”, which is questionable. From 1997 measures included reducing jury trials, increasing mandatory sentencing and youth incarceration, introducing ASBOs, child curfew orders, ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy… the list continues.
Blair argued he was protecting the “law-abiding majority”, a loaded term. This was not about dealing with London bankers’ crimes or the military-industrial-complex. Blair out-toughed the Conservatives who – under Thatcher then Major – started expanding prisons with longer sentences and brought in bills such as the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which criminalised everything from peaceful protests to loud raves.
Germany, Spain, Netherlands and Belgium’s prison populations also grew in the 1990s. But the US set the pace. It has the highest prisoner to population ratio anywhere. Yet some Republican politicians and attorney Generals in the 1960s were talking seriously about prison abolitionism. Instead, Reagan built the prisons. But Nixon laid the foundations.
Nixon pushed the ‘law and order’ doctrine that would be echoed worldwide. Using racist dog-whistle politics, he targetted the Black community, anti-war activists and other sections of society he defined as ‘undesirable’. This was a counter-revolution against the civil rights and anti-war movements. Many former segregation politicians jumped on his bandwagon.
What Nixon started, Reagan institutionalised into a ‘War on Drugs’ and ‘War on Crime’. Supported by evangelicals, Reagan argued for the morality of this draconian approach based on an Old Testament framing of good or bad – jail was the place for the latter. Christian Right ideas were preached alongside a neoliberal dogma of no alternative, and mass incarceration fit neatly into the neoliberal privatisation model. Like Blair following Thatcher, it was Clinton that took on this policy and expanded it.
It is remarkable how much the law and order narrative has become a centrist political position, despite the fact that prison fails society, as high reoffending rates show. The prison-industrial-complex is clearly racist and benefits private corporations.
Still, even people otherwise offering sympathy to the protesters or immigrants broadly, may say“But the Catalans did break the constitution”, “the fracking industry is just going about its law-abiding business” or “if someone hasn’t been granted asylum, they have to be deported”.
There are of course alternatives to the UK-US prison system. The Netherlands is now closing prisons, after it stopped custodial sentences for minor crimes. Its crime rate has dropped in tandem. Finland in the 1960s had relatively high incarceration rates, but they realised it did not work and now its not only has a low prison rate, but a third of convicts are in open prisons.
A restorative justice approach goes even further. It puts the victim’s needs first, then examines what is wrong with the society to cause the crime.
Taking this approach, it becomes impossible to incarcerate people for exercising their political rights – and possible to see that those arriving at our shores are often victims of crimes committed by the very states that currently lock them up.