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Proletarian issue 60 (June 2014)
‘Workers are the gunpowder, education is the spark’
A former political prisoner explains the government’s motivations for bringing in a ban that prevents prisoners receiving books from outside.
Prison, a tormented world – one where prisoners generally earn a pittance averaging £10 a week, have access only to poor education facilities, and live an existence composed of bars and steel doors that conceal ever-higher rates of self harm, suicide attempts and actual suicide, whilst struggling to exist in a system that is itself in a constant state of flux, apparently undecided as to whether to punish those it contains, or emphasise rehabilitation. This whole set-up culminates in creating individuals, who, on being released, find themselves in a state of trauma – without prospects, and ever-more marginalised.

It is generally accepted that the primary issue in, as well as obstacle to, rehabilitation is that of education. It says something about our society when 40 percent of those incarcerated have the reading age of an 11-year old. Out of a prison population of around 100,000 (and growing), this highlights the immense scale of the issue.

So the issue of Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling’s ban on prisoners receiving books from the outside, alongside a number of other draconian measures,, begs some serious questions.

Firstly, how does it affect a prisoner? I can write from experience that, in such dire conditions, a book – whether it be fiction, science, or history – not only develops and enriches, but indeed occupies the mind in the most productive manner possible under such circumstances. When the provisions for education are generally so dismal, your time, if you desire it to be productive (the encouragement for which is little to none), requires one to become an autodidact, or, if you are lucky, to get yourself onto an Open University course.

However, Grayling and others are now trying to argue that the provision of books is satisfied by the contents of prison libraries – the same libraries that are dependent upon funding from the National Offender Management Service, along with prison and council budgets, all of which have been drastically slashed. This goes hand in hand with poorly-funded English language courses for those lacking a GCSE level, and the prison system’s dependency on volunteer services such as Toe by Toe to teach basic reading and writing.

Such services simply cannot handle the numbers who desperately need to access them – the scale of the problem is beyond their capability. Nor can they have any substantial positive effect on prisoners with relatively short sentences, who slip through the system like sand between fingers.

So the banning of books at a time when the issue of prisoner education is at crisis point – not least due to a lack of literacy being such a monumental barrier to the already extremely difficult task of finding employment upon release – would appear to be not only vindictive but nonsensical.

This leads to the next question: why? As far as Grayling is concerned, the decision could be construed as simply catering to the right-wing populism of the media and the Tory party base, favouring punishment over rehabilitation.

Yet there is far more to the move than simple political point-scoring. While the ongoing privatisation of prisons has received a fair amount of coverage in the capitalist press, much of the significant detail has passed under the radar.

For example, all the items that will now become contraband as a result of Grayling’s new proscription list will henceforth only be attainable via the prison canteen and from approved catalogues. This includes items like new underwear and all other manner of other daily necessities.

Prisons have become self-sustaining capitalist money-making machines, milking a captive and expanding ‘market’ of prisoners. Those companies such as Aramark, who provide shopping services to prisoners, do so at costs comparable to M&S prices – but to ‘shoppers’ who are lucky if they earn even £10 a week!

Much of this pitiful ‘wage’ goes towards paying for basic amenities such as toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, etc. What little is left usually goes towards tobacco and overpriced phone credit, which is often 60 percent more expensive than on the outside.

Many prison services, such as catering and other facilities, have already been outsourced, and there are surely more to follow. As each hived-off part of the prison service reorients itself to generate profits for investors, we can expect to see these businesses looking for more and more ways to milk both taxpayers and inmates in the interests of the bottom line.

However, there is more to Grayling’s book-banning measure than playing to the Tory ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ brigade, and further boosting the superprofits of the prison-industrial complex, wrung from some of the most exploited sections of the working class, as important as these are.

It is worth noting that, were such countries as China, Russia, Iran, Zimbabwe or Venezuela to impose a blanket ban on prisoners receiving books, the outrage expressed from Whitehall and the State Department – as well as from their NGO hangers-on like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – would verge on the hysterical.

For the state, what is truly worrying is that, in many instances, prisoners have used their time, not simply for educational purposes in general, but specifically to learn revolutionary theory. Raw fighters from the streets of Belfast and Derry, and from the rural areas around the border that artificially separates the six and 26 counties of Ireland, graduated from the universities of Long Kesh concentration camp and the H Blocks, able to hone and pursue one of the most sophisticated revolutionary strategies in the world today.

The African-American revolutionary George Jackson, in the introduction to his Soledad Brother collection of prison writings, wrote of how he discovered Marx, Lenin and Mao following his incarceration, adding, “and they redeemed me”.

As the crisis deepens, the growing numbers of political prisoners – be they striking workers, students protesting tuition fees, youth arrested in riots and rebellions, environmental and peace campaigners, members of the armed forces who refuse to fight in imperialist wars, South Asian and muslim youth protesting the zionist settler state, or supporters of national-liberation movements around the world – along with the great mass of ‘non-political’ prisoners from among the youth, poor, working-class and oppressed communities – many of them driven to commit petty criminal acts by dire poverty – are all examples of those whom the class enemy does not wish to find such ‘redemption’.

For our part, however, the self-education of prisoners is an outcome we devoutly wish to see. As Lenin wrote more than a century ago: “The minister regards the workers as gunpowder, and knowledge and education as a spark; the minister is convinced that if the spark falls into the gunpowder, the explosion will be directed first and foremost against the government.

We cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of noting that in this rare instance we totally and unconditionally agree with the views of His Excellency.” (‘What are our ministers thinking about?’ Rabocheye Dyelo, 1895)

The ruling class has good cause to fear the radicalisation that can result from workers getting hold of correct information about the capitalist system. Their system is long past its sell-by date, and their only hope of clinging on to power is by keeping the rest of us in benighted ignorance.

They must not be allowed to succeed. All progressive people should support the broadest possible campaigns to overturn this outrageous attack on basic democratic rights. Education is the birth right of every human being, not a privilege for the few!
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