Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: prisons

Failing Grayling Part Two

I wrote in a previous article that UK Transport Minister, Christopher Grayling, had granted a contract and £14 million of taxpayers’ money to set up a ferry service from Ramsgate in Kent to Europe. The flaw in the cunning plan was that the company awarded the contract had no boats and had never run a ferry service before. In its pitch for the contract it seemed to have cut and pasted from the website of a pizza delivery firm. The contract has now been cancelled and MPs of all parties are calling for Grayling’s dismissal. Grayling has a long record of foolishness and I promised my readers that I would give them more information.

Grayling was also a disaster when he was Minister for Justice. He served for a mere three years but presided over many ill-judged policies. At least nine major policy reforms were abandoned, either because of widespread outrage or because a court ruled against them.

Legal Aid

In 2013, the Ministry of Justice tried to stop legal aid for prisoners in certain situations. The Court of Appeal said this was “inherently unfair” and argued the Government did not provide enough “alternative support” after general cuts to legal aid. In March 2014, Grayling introduced a legal aid cut of 8.75%, with a second reduction of the same amount planned for July 2015. Grayling’s successor at the Ministry of Justice, Michael Gove, suspended that follow-up cut because the MoJ was facing 99 legal challenges over the process, and a judicial review had “raised additional implementation challenges”. One scheme placing restrictions on legal aid for domestic violence victims unless they met specific MoJ criteria was deemed “invalid” by the Court of Appeal.

Tough on Prisoners

Another bright idea was to apply a ban on books being sent to prisoners as part of a crackdown on “perks and privileges”. This was declared “unlawful” by the High Court. In the same initiative, the Government banned steel-stringed guitars. He rejected efforts to improve condom access behind bars, despite warnings of the public health implications. An offender tracking scheme which would allow prisons to keep tabs on dangerous and repeat offenders costing £23m was ditched after “considerable delays” because it proved “too challenging”.

On Grayling’s watch, the number of prison officers declined by 5,000. This coincided with a rise in deaths of prisoners. The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Harding, accused him of interfering with his critical reports into the prison estate and threatening the independence of his office.

Another Grayling cunning plan was a contract to advise the Saudi prison service on training staff and running the organisation. It drew criticism even from some inside Cabinet, and was ditched by Mr Gove in October 2015 – but not before it cost the Government £1.1m.


Another spiffing wheeze was to make offenders pay between £150 and £1,200 depending on what court they were in and whether or not they pleaded guilty. This policy was so unpopular that 50 magistrates resigned in protest. Gove scrapped it seven months after it was brought into force.

A similar genius plan bit the dust when Grayling introduced employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 in 2013 in an attempt to reduce the number of malicious and weak cases. There was, indeed, a 79% reduction in cases in three years. The Supreme Court ruled that the charges were unlawful because they “prevent access to justice” and ordered the Government pay back millions of pounds.


Grayling’s reform of the probation service must surely be the jewel in the crown of his incompetence. The service was privatised in 2015, despite the fact that no-one wanted it and everyone warned that it would be a disaster. The National Offender Management Service, which oversaw 35 self-governing probation trusts, split into the public National Probation Service and private CRCs. The public National Probation Service is still doing rather well. Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, has pointed to many flaws with the new system. Meg Hillier, the chairwoman of the parliamentary public-accounts committee, has said there is a danger that the Ministry of Justice has “bitten off more than it can chew”.

Staff on the front line said their bosses became more concerned with meeting targets that have little to do with helping former offenders. The number of cases soared and safety standards deteriorated. Morale plummeted and many staff left the service.

An eight-month inquiry by the Parliamentary Justice Committee concluded that the Transforming Rehabilitation scheme was failing by every measure and was a danger to public safety. Some private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were monitoring offenders on the telephone, with overstretched staff handling up to 150 cases each. CRCs are meant to ensure prisoners are freed with accommodation, employment and financial support, the Justice Committee found many were being kicked out of jails homeless and with just £46 to last for several weeks. They may revert to crime in order to survive.

HM Inspectorate of Probation said firms commissioned in a 2014 overhaul of the service are “stretched beyond their capacity”. failures by CRCs allowed people to drop out of contact and disappear, including a homeless heroin addict with a “long history in the criminal justice system” who was later wanted for arrest. Many people on probation are being sent back to overcrowded prisons because the private firms who are supposed to be supervising them cannot cope. In the 2016-17 financial year, almost 30,000 court orders were terminated through failure to comply, further offences being committed or other reasons. Convicts who were released but then recalled to prison for violations made up 6,554 out of 85,513 people imprisoned in England and Wales.


MPs on the Justice Committee hit out at the Ministry of Justice’s “reluctance to challenge over optimistic bids” from firms running CRCs and its closed-door renegotiation of contracts. The government had to pay out more money to failing private companies.

Let me conclude by quoting the political commentator, Ian Dunt: “Grayling is at the top of that system of failure. He is that little bit more intellectually, presentationally and ideologically useless than all the others and therefore deserves special mention. But he is merely the totem of a culture that has singularly failed the country.”

American Gulag

This article was published in the Sunday Island on March 17, 2012 


Motes and Beams

The US prison system is an interesting subject of study because it encapsulates the great themes of the Great American Narrative: Genocide, Slavery, Race, Democracy, Sex and Capitalism.

As recently as July 2011, Hillary Clinton voiced concern over the plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Sri Lanka. It is unlikely that there were ever more than 350,000 in the Sri Lankan IDP camps. There are more than 2.3 million people in US prisons, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. America has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63. The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate. San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, has one prisoner.

Ethnic justice


African-Americans account for 12% of the U.S. population. At the end of 2005, of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, 40% were black, 35% were white, and 20% were Hispanic. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males age 25 to 29 were in prison, compared to 2.6% of Hispanic males and 1.1% of white males.


Punishment fitting the crime?


Crime rates are falling but the prison population increases. Americans are locked up for crimes that wouldn’t warrant incarceration elsewhere. Once convicted, Americans are locked up for far longer than prisoners in other nations. We have all seen them on TV – orange-suited, manacled and humiliated in public.


In New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of any illegal drug. There are stiffer penalties for possession of crack, used by Blacks and Hispanics, than for possession of cocaine powder, used by rich white people. The three-strikes policy (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies) of Hillary’s husband made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One prisoner received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.


Of 125,000 federal inmates 97% have been convicted of non-violent crimes. Possibly more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses. Of the country’s total 2.3 million prisoners, 16 % suffer from mental illness.


Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are accused of violent crimes. More than 20% were confined for technical offenses like violating probation, missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails.


Seeing the funny side of gang-rape


Have you noticed that an easy standby of American humour is prisoners getting raped in the showers? Not so funny when one considers a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) which showed that 64,500 of the inmates who were in a state or federal prison on the day the latest BJS survey was administered had been sexually abused at their current facility within the previous year, as had 24,000 of those who were in a county jail that day—a total of 88,500 people.


Wilbert Rideau, an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola Prison Farm) from 1961 through 2001, wrote in 2010 that “slavery was commonplace in Angola with perhaps a quarter of the population in bondage” throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Weak inmates were gang-raped, and traded and sold like cattle. Rideau stated that “The slave’s only way out was to commit suicide, escape or kill his master.” C. Murray Henderson, one of the wardens brought in to clean up the prison, states in his memoirs that systemic sexual slavery was sanctioned and facilitated by the prison guards.


12.1% of young people questioned in a survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current juvenile detention facility during the preceding year.


Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are much higher among black Americans than white. Incarceration for trivial offences in the US can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.


Slavery and prison labour


Many Blues songs have been sung about Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Blues musicians imprisoned there included Bukka White and Son House. Angola had some Blues singers also, including Robert Pete Williams and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly). The land on which Angola Prison Farm stands was purchased by Isaac Franklin during the 1830s with the profits from his slave-trading firm. Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Angola is still operated as a working farm; Warden Burl Cain once said “you’ve got to keep the inmates working all day so they’re tired at night.” In 2009, James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.


Prison labour has its roots in slavery. After the Civil War, freed slaves were incarcerated on trumped-up charges and then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. One has seen movie depictions of prison farms where prisoners are white – Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? In reality most inmates have been black. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.


Louisiana- the inmate state


Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the USA. Of its 39,000 inmates, 70% are African-American. After BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear and were desperate for work, were outraged to see that BP was using prisoners for the clean-up. in Grand Isle, Louisiana, where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men. Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward asking why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”


The prison-industrial-military Gulag


Echoing Eisenhower’s warning about the US succumbing to the military-industrial complex, the term “prison-industrial complex” has been coined.
Increasing labour costs obliged business to undermine the power of domestic trade unions and to exploit the labour of developing nations. When the workers in those developing nations became more organised, labour costs increased and western capitalism had to seek another source of cheap labour. Between 1982 and 1994 the prison population of the USA rose 2.7-fold and most of the newly convicted were fit young people, mainly unemployed. Was this coincidence or was the increase in the prison population deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work-force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries?


There was certainly one example of a [democratically-elected] judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits.
Western capitalism is capable of using the methods of Soviet Communism or German National Socialism. Stalin had the Gulag; the Third Reich used conquered peoples as slave labourers. Prison policy in the USA is no longer about justice, public safety or rehabilitating recidivists. It is about contracting out labour to industry. Investors do not need to worry about strikes or unemployment insurance. All of the workers are full-time, with no absenteeism.


The prison system is a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions and websites. It fits neatly into the military-industrial complex. According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens.


Sweat shops

Human rights organisations condemn sweat shops in Asia but they are also being operated in US prisons. At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations.IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, all profit from prison labour. Between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. In privately-run prisons, inmates receive as little as 17 cents per hour, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison company is CCA (Correctional Corporation of America) in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions”. For any infraction, CCA inmates get 30 days added to their sentence- which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.


Democracy and prisons


Prisoners don’t pay taxes or care for their children at home, and, because many states bar felons from voting, at least one in seven American black men will have lost the right to vote.


Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous book on democracy in America. He had initially gone to the USA to study the American prison system. James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population.”Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”


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