Below is an online version of an article published in the latest issue of Organise, the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.
The Empty Cages Collective is a small anarchist collective that aims to propagate and multiply resistance to the prison industrial complex in England, Wales and Scotland. We actually started with a small grant from AFed to tour the UK back in January 2014. Since then, local groups have emerged across the country, actions, gatherings and a lot of community organising have taken place and this struggle continues to build and gain strength.
Our foresight that the U.K would face a new wave of prison expansion came to a head last winter when the State announced plans to build nine new mega-prisons across the UK. After some cabinet reshuffling, Liz Truss, the now Justice Secretary, is following through with six new mega-prisons being announced, as well as five new “community prisons” for women as part of a £1.3billion building programme. [Ed – please note, Liz Truss is no longer the Justice Secretary]
The mega-prisons locations include Leicester and Wellingborough in the East Midlands, Port Talbot in South Wales, Rochester in Kent, Wigan in Greater Manchester, and Full Sutton in East Yorkshire. The new mega-prisons will cage more than 1600 people, putting them in the ranks of the largest in Europe. HMP Berwyn, the new prison in Wrexham, North Wales is designed to warehouse more than 2100 people, making it the second biggest prison in Europe.
The centre-piece of these prisons are massive workshops. HMP Berwyn’s workshops involve space to “employ” 800 prisoners. The £23m per year in ‘local economic benefits’ sold to the community was extrapolated from how much money companies could make from exploiting prisoner labour . Make no mistake, the State are building the infrastructure to dramatically escalate the exploitation of prisoners. New ‘reform prisons’ enable Governors to act as business managers optimising their commercial relationships.
Prisoners that work in prisons have no rights to organise, no minimum wage, and no health and safety legislation applies. If they refuse to work they are punished via the IEP (Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme) and can have visits, association time (time outside in a courtyard or out of cell) and other ‘privileges’ taken away from them. They are the ultimate captive workforce.
Prison labour has long been a tool for conquest and domination, from using convict labour to colonise countries, to putting prisoners to work to make goods for armies and war. Now the state are also planning on exploiting them for key infrastructural projects, such as CrossRail, once they are released, as well as recently signing contracts with the British Armed Forces. The Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee WISE-RA, part of the Industrial Workers of the World, was started in 2016 to specifically support prisoner resistance and organisation . We have been inspired by comrades in North America who have been supporting prisoner resistance culminating in the biggest prisoner strike in history last September on the anniversary of the Attica Rebellion. Estimates are that more than 57,000 prisoners participated in a work-stoppage across 46 prisons in 22 states. The strikes also led to other riots and uprisings and waves of international solidarity.
We don’t like to play into the “crisis” discourse that is used by politicians to push through reforms. Prisons have always been a crisis for the working class. They have always been places of suffering and death. They are inherently violent, by design, and no reforms will change this. Right now, the UK has the highest prisoner suicide rate in the world. A prisoner self-harms every fifteen minutes and every four hours a prisoner tries to take their own life. Thousands of children are in care, thousands of families are affected and thousands of people are subject to this institutionally structured violence.
This harm is not felt evenly. Over a quarter of prisoners are people of colour, one in ten prisoners is black and the number of Muslims in prison has more than doubled over the last 13 years. 12% of the prison population are also currently ‘foreign nationals’ facing deportation. Over 80% of prisoners have mental health problems, two-thirds have issues with addiction, alcoholism and drug use and 36% are also estimated to have a physical or mental disability. More than a fifth have a learning disability that affects their ability to cope with the criminal justice system.
Nearly half of the children in prison had been on the child protection register, and for adults in jail, more than half had been emotionally, physically or sexually abused as children. 46% of women in prison also reported a history of domestic abuse.  Author Karlene Faith writes how prisons are a place “where all the injustices converge”.
While painting the prison population as vulnerable could be accurate, it is not a revolutionary discourse. In a recent article about the Vaughn Uprising in the United States, Jess Krug writes,
“We have voices. We have knowledge. We are not symbols through which others may build their careers, construct their rhetoric. We do not need to be saved, we are not awaiting the right new hire from the right NGO to devise the right programming. We are, we have always been, the revolution.” 
We believe organising with prisoners and prisoner families is a real opportunity to build working class power in the UK. We know that prisons are but one head of the many-headed hydra that is the capitalist system but the role they play in maintaining this brutal system is a powerful one.
Layne Mullet writes that:
“Prisons are a symptom of the capitalist state’s desire to consolidate wealth and power. They provide a way for the state to continue functioning effectively and are one phase in a lineage of slavery, dispossession, and genocide. To abolish capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, we must work to end mass incarceration. To get at the roots of mass incarceration, we must take on the broader system that produces the logic of keeping millions of people in cages.
Prisons are a specific response to a moment of instability and crisis in the capitalist system. The destabilization and containment caused by the prison industrial complex allows the state to perpetuate unpopular economic reforms that would not be possible in the face of strong resistance movements.”
When doing workshops about prison abolition, we try to dismantle the ideas that prisons are natural, normal and necessary. People believe abolishing prisons is an unobtainable dream, yet to us this work is in the now – it is challenging concepts of punishment and social domination in every day life, it is radical educational alternatives, it is building stronger relationships through community gardens, it is squatting and occupying buildings to try and defend domestic violence services, it is bringing up kids and trying to learn to love people without abusing them.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten ask, “What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.”  This for us is anarchism. A new society that makes prisons obsolete. The struggles are not separate, they are inseparable.
Common questions and uncertainties arise in all of our organising work. What about the rapists? But don’t some people deserve to be in prison? As a collective, we are not blind to the fact that acts committed by many people who end up in prison can and do harm other people. We would never downplay the trauma of being raped, the feeling of violation when robbed or the life-long memory of an assault. The fact remains, though, that it’s often the same communities being criminalised that are most likely to experience these forms of harm. Prison offers no solution to violence or damage and is in fact only part of perpetuating more of the same.
We fight for abolition, some of us as survivors of abuse because the state cannot meet our needs for safety. Interacting with the police and courts is well recognised to be disempowering and ineffective at meeting survivors’ needs because the law doesn’t place the survivor or victim at the centre of the process but rather seeks punishment for or restitution from the perpetrator on behalf of the state. Our power to articulate our needs and determine our own lives is taken away from us.
Our work as abolitionists and anarchists is not just fighting prison expansion or doing prisoner support work, it is also the painstaking work of healing and finding more nourishing ways of being in the world with each other. We know that many accountability processes and other models fail, but this should act as a calling for the greater necessity to do this work. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to responding to harm and we need to invest all our creative energy in doing this work, because prisons will never solve these problems.
We end with Jess Krug:
“A soft left/center consensus around prison reform for “non-violent offenders” allows everyone to ignore the social and political means through which violence is produced. It allows for the midwives of murder to determine, in the end, the defining boundaries of the human. It makes that humanity, that belonging, conditional upon performing a holographic life free of threat – of even the shadow of threat – to a system laser-cut to our peril.
If your political imagination and the borders of your sense of community stop before you, personally, have anything at stake, and you still believe that the murderous state is the best party to deal with those whose violence it has itself produced, then what are you calling justice? Why do your calls for justice, time and time again, rely on this same white supremacist state as its mechanism? If you are offended by the notion of fighting for freedom beside a rapist, a murderer, and an armed assailant – by this argument being put to you by someone whose earliest memories are of assault, sexual and otherwise – then what are you calling freedom, and what are its limits?”
For any folks within the Anarchist Federation who feel inspired to organise with us please email firstname.lastname@example.org
6. All statistics from the Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing, Summer 2016
7. Faith, K. (2011). Unruly women. 1st ed. New York: Seven Stories Press.
10. Harney, S. and Moten, F. (n.d.). The undercommons. 1st ed.