May 24 2022

‘In our prisons violence is institutionalised’

‘In our prisons violence is institutionalised’

Photographs by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

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United Kingdom - Prison - YOI Aylesbury

The control and repression function of the jails is a well established strategy as far as the prison administrations are concerned and reflects the basic truth and reality that prisons are essentially nothing more or less than a manifestation of state violence.

  • Thanks to Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE (@prisonimage)

Ultimately prisons exist as instruments of state violence and – no matter how legitimized by statutory law –  their prime function and purpose is to inflict pain and suffering in the interests of social control. They are nothing more than blunt weapons of state power and ruling class authority and for those confined within them the experience of naked vulnerability and brutality is a constant every day reality.

Control within prisons themselves is maintained by a mixture and blend of officially sanctioned violence in the form of riot-squads, control units, segregation-units and ‘control and restraint teams’ and the more unofficial forms of violence inherent in prison gangs and prisoner hierarchies, which ultimately are allowed to exist providing they serve the interests of the system in maintaining the overall prison status quo. Intrinsically prisons embody the iron law that ultimately power equals violence, especially in closed and total institutions like prisons where people, usually the most dispossessed and powerless, are held against their will.

In the UK prisons unofficial violence is an institutionalised and ‘normal’ way whereby prisoners are controlled and terrorized into conforming and it is customary for those officially employed to maintain prison ‘good order and discipline’ to recruit and manipulate prisoners into controlling their fellow captives by any means necessary, even occasionally murder.

The creation and manipulation of prisoner power hierarchies is intended primarily to ‘keep order’ within prison society and has a very long brutal tradition. ‘Offenders’ are conditioned to the institutional reality of unofficial power and violence from a young age; youth detention centres, youth custody institutions and their predecessors the reform schools and Borstals are all characterized by violent inmate hierarchies and a knowing of one’s place and a culture enforced by fear and often terror.


Power equals violence
Those officially charged with maintaining ‘good order and discipline’ in such child prisons often derive enormous pleasure in grooming and encouraging bullies or ‘Daddies’ to keep order on their behalf, thereby creating an assumption amongst child prisoners that power equals violence; a belief and behavioural trait that usually characterizes their future relationship with the community resulting in increasingly longer prison sentences for violence.

Within such institutions small groups of gangs of inmates are empowered by the guards to enforce order, who then happily turn a blind eye to the violent initiation of potential ‘troublemakers’ is the norms of the institution. In such institutions it is the ‘Daddies’ who police and maintain order at whatever cost to the psychological and physical health and safety of the other child prisoners.

In 2003 during a trial of a young prisoner being tried for the murder of another prisoner at Feltham Young Offenders Institute in England it was revealed that guards at the jail would regularly organise fights or ‘gladiator contests’ between prisoners for entertainment and would even place bets amongst themselves on the combatants.

It was also revealed at the trial that the guards had deliberately placed a young vulnerable Asian prisoner into the same cell as a young hardcore neo-Nazi prisoner which resulted in the murder of the young Asian prisoner. Predictably no investigation into staff behaviour at Feltham followed the trial. The brutalisation and even murder of young working class ‘offenders’ in state institutions matters nothing to the ruling class who consider such young prisoners as merely scum to be tamed and broken.

In the adult high-security prisons it is also prisoner hierarchies that are manipulated into a weapon against organised resistance and individual defiance. Throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s and still to some degree today, control and order was enforced through a group of dominant prisoners known as the ‘Chaps’ or ‘Faces’, usually right-wing gangsters who actively colluded with guards in suppressing resistance amongst prisoners. In maximum security jails such as Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, prisoners considered ‘trouble makers’ were targeted by guards who then encouraged the ‘Chaps’ to ‘deal with’ the prisoners so targeted.

This would often take the form of the ‘Chaps’ paying a mentally psychotic prisoner with drugs or tobacco to stab and sometimes kill the targeted ‘troublemaker’. With the support and help of the guards the ‘Chaps’ occupied the pinnacle of the prisoners’ hierarchies of power on the understanding of course that ultimately their role was to maintain ‘good order and discipline’ of the system.

In the 1970s Irish Republican combatants entered the English prison system following bombing campaigns in English cities. Their reception was one of violence as guards and the ‘Chaps’ colluded in organising attacks on them. When the Birmingham 6 (six innocent Irish men framed for bombings organised by the IRA in Birmingham in 1974) were received in Wilson Green Jail in Birmingham they were met by a reception committee of guards and prisoners who badly beat them up.

In the early 1970s Irish Republican prisoners in English jails were few and so they were constantly abused and attacked, usually at the instigation of the ‘Chaps’ who would usually pay other prisoners to do it. And of course the guards, mostly ex-soldiers, many of whom had served in Northern Ireland, turned a blind eye to what was going on or actively encouraged it.

Things began to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s when more Irish Republican prisoners came into the prison system and began to organise and fight back. What were known as the ‘Balcombe street active service unit’ (probably the most effective IRA unit ever sent to England) came into the prison system in the late 1970s and warned the ‘Chaps’ that unless their attacks on Irish prisoners stopped their families on the outside would be targeted for bomb attacks, it had the desired effect and the violence against Irish prisoners ceased.

IRA prisoners then began to organise prisoners generally and were at the forefront of many of the major prisoner uprisings during the 1980s. In 1998 following the Irish peace agreement, IRA prisoners were released and a vacuum then developed into which the Chap element began to again fill.

The first Muslim ‘terrorist’ prisoner who entered the prison system in the early 2000s experienced exactly what Irish Republican prisoners had experienced, violent attacks instigated by the ‘Chaps’ and guards. Some of the attacks were especially murderous, resulting almost in deaths, and of course the guards were then happy to turn a blind eye.

Then, as with the Irish prisoners, more and more Muslim activists entered the prison system and formed links with many young black prisoners, and began to fight back. Eventually the balance of power shifted and the ‘Chaps’ faded away, and the guards confronted by a growing and organised population of Muslim prisoners, were placed on the defensive and ceased instigating attacks on individual Muslim prisoners. The erosion of the ‘Chaps’ power seriously undermined the strategy of the guard to divide and rule prisoners, and so regimes were now characterised by straightforward lock-down and greater restriction on the free association of prisoners beyond their cells.

The sub-contacting out to prisoner groups of the control and repression function of the jails is a well established strategy as far as the prison administrations are concerned and reflects the basic truth and reality that prisons are essentially nothing more or less than a manifestation of state violence despite whatever fallacious and legitimising justification is propagated to defend their existence – ‘public protection’, ‘rehabilitation’ etc – the whole fabric of prison society is permeated with psychological and frequent physical violence and always the captive is made aware that a failure to conform or accept one’s condition of total disempowerment will inevitably result in even greater and worse abuse and brutalisation.

There is of course only one way that prisoners are able to defend themselves from the violence or the system and that is to create solidarity and organisation, thereby changing the balance and relationship of power with those operating prisoners. If the brutalisation and repression of prisoners is an inevitable result and consequence of their absolute powerlessness, then their self-empowerment through solidarity and organisation is the only means by which the violence of the system can be overcome and successfully resisted.