John Bowden | 06.04.2003 11:07
In 1994 Fight Racism Fight Imperialism highlighted the complaints of prisoners in the Full Sutton segregation unit who were experiencing what amounted to a regime of terror. A gang of eight to ten prison officers were routinely dragging prisoners from their cells and systematically beating them up, largely as a form of group enjoyment. The police are currently investigating fresh complaints about staff brutality in the Full Sutton segregation unit, which prior to any investigation of their own, the prison authorities have predictably refuted.
During the early days of the dispersal system some of the most high-profile rebellions (Parkhurst 1969, Hull 1976, etc) were provoked by ill-treatment of prisoners in segregation. The cumulative effect of those uprisings was a principle factor in fundamental changes to the way segregation units in long-term prisons were run. Since 1994-5, however, and as a result of Michael Howard’s massive onslaught on the right of prisoners, prison staff have again seized back the power to run segregation units as places of fear and gratuitous brutality.
Prison officer culture has always been imbued with the view that control over prisoners should be maintained by the threat and use of physical violence, and in the hidden world of the segregation unit that view is given open and free expression. In some segregation units so all-pervasive is the use of violence that prisoners literally live in fear for their lives.
Following the arrest and conviction in 2000 of prison officers for brutalising prisoners in segregation at Wormwood Scrubs, Director General of Prisons, Martin Narey publicly declared that in future such behaviour would be rooted out and punished. In 2002 I spoke with Narey and described to him the behaviour of staff in the segregation unit at Long Lartin. He did absolutely nothing about my complaint. In her most recent report on Long Lartin, the Chief Inspector of Prisons Ann Owers absurdly praised the ‘professionalism’ of staff running the segregation unit there. This despite a recent successful legal action brought by prisoner Billy Whitfield who was awarded thousands of pounds in compensation following repeated beatings by staff in the Long Lartin segregation unit. The establishment obviously measures prison officer ‘professionalism’ by the degree to which they’re able to subdue and pacify ‘difficult’ prisoners.
During the 1970s and 1980s a high degree of solidarity and organisation amongst long-term prisoners ensured that staff operating segregation units in the dispersal system were ever mindful of the potential for collective unrest and were therefore, to a degree, circumspect in their treatment of prisoners. Today that wariness has gone and the abuse and ill-treatment is widespread and routine. When prisoners are organisationally weak and powerless he confidence of the system is consequently increased and those in its employ will invariably seek revenge against perceived ‘troublemakers’ and leaders.
It took long-term prisoners in Britain decades of struggle and sacrifice to shift the balance of power slightly in their favour and stop the brutalisation and murder of prisoners held in segregation. That struggle must be pursued again by the current generation of long-term prisoners if the thugs and sadists who now run places like the Full Sutton segregation unit are to be stopped.
John Bowden, HMP Durham