Thursday, November 24, 2011

Racism in the Close Supervision Units (CSCs)

A recent admission from the manager of a brutal control-unit at Woodhill Prison in Milton Keynes, euphemistically called the “Close Supervision Centre” (CSC), that prisoners suffering with mental illness are being held there has raised serious questions about the selection process for a unit that was supposedly created to hold only the most dangerous, subversive and unmanageable prisoners in the jail system.

Information provided by Kyle Major, a prisoner currently in the Woodhill CSC, would indicate that it isn't just the mentally ill that have been erroneously labelled “control problems” and sent to the CSC; it seems that ethnicity and a particular brand of religious faith also qualifies one for a place in the CSC.

Of the 23 prisoners currently held in the CSCs at Woodhill and Wakefield prisons at least 12 of them are of the Muslim faith, which begs the obvious question as to why such a numerically tiny proportion of the overall prison population in England and Wales are so dispropotionately over-represented in the CSCs?

The existence of racism in the prison system and indeed the wider criminal justice system has long had an evidential basis and ethnicity influences one's chances of receiving a prison sentence if convicted of a criminal offence and also the quality of one's treatment once inside the prison system. Cultural conditioning amoungst an overwhelmingly white prison staff is largely responsible for perceiving black prisoners as intrinsically “difficult” and potentially “disruptive”, and for those black prisoners who frequently complain or question their treatment the
label of “control problem” is quickly applied and the attendant repessive measures vigorously applied. Skin colour and ethnic identity in prison has always influenced and determined the degree of punishment inflicted if behaviour and attitude towards authority is an issue. When Islamphobia is thrown into the mix then repression against a targeted group of prisoners can assume a deadly edge.

For some time prison staff have been leaking stories to the media about “Muslim prison gangs” recruiting followers and creating disruption in the prison system, and the prison authoritites have publicly revealed the existence of a police / prison service intelligence unit dedicated to monitoring the activities of “Muslim extremists” within the prison population. The image created is of large gangs of black and Asian Muslim prisoners spreading their nefarious influence amoungst other prisoners and actively recruiting potential foot soldiers for terrorist activities in the outside community. Although there is no real evidence to support the scenario created it does provide a context for the victimization of Muslim prisoners and their over representation in brutal prison control units like the “Close Supervision Centre”.

If, as appears to be the case, some prisoners are being “selected” for the CSCs princibly because of their Muslim faith (or “terrorist idelolgy”) then a condition of their “progression” out of the CSC and return to the mainstream prison population would inevitably be their abandenment of that faith; failure to comply would result in an indefinite stay in conditions of strict solitary confinement and clinical physical isolation. At Woodhil prison the Iman is not allowed to enter the CSC or talk with the Muslim prisoners held there, which re-affirms the belief of these prisoners that their faith is the principle reason for their current location. Prison Service order 51 states quite clearly that “All establishments enable prisoners to participate in corporate worship and other religious activities that encourage their spiritual and personal development whilst in custody”. Clearly this does not apply to Muslim prisoners held in the CSCs. Neither it seems does Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. Stripped of even this basic human right, over 50 percent of the prisoners currently being held in the CSCs are being punished for embracing and being identified with a religion that the prison authorities view as a threat to “good order and discipline”. If there is a growing militancy amoungst young Muslim prisoners then the behaviour and attitude of racist prison staff is an important
contributory factor in that, as is the psychological and physical brutalisation of Muslim prisoners in the CSCs.

No-one would dispute that in a chronically overcrowded prison system there are serious problems of control and safety, but none of that is remedied by targeting on the basis of race and relgion a specific group of prisoners and subjecting them to treatment that clearly breaches their basic human rights. A similar sort of racist targeting of black Muslim prisoners in the U.S. during the 1960s provoked the catastrophe of the Attica Prison uprising and the virtual wholesale segregation of the prison population along the lines of race and religion. There are clear signs that such a phenomenon is now happening in some English Maximum-Security prisons.

In terms of the prison “Close Supervision Centres” there is clear evidence that racism is influencing the selection process and fashioning the units into weapons of repression and abuse against “Muslim troublemakers”. It's therefore the duty of anti-racist groups and individuals to campaign for their closure.

John Bowden
Shotts Prison
November 2011

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