John Bowden: Prison a Political Weapon

As the capitalist economic crisis deepens and impacts more viciously on the lives of the poor and working class, the reshaping of the welfare state into a carceral state is becoming a social reality for more and more of the poorest and disadvantaged.  The increasing starvation of resources for public services like the NHS, welfare benefits and social housing contrast sharply with a massive expansion of the prison system.

In June, then Tory prisons minister Victoria Atkins announced that the government would be spending £3.8bn on significantly expanding the capacity of the prison system to prepare for tougher sentencing.  A significant proportion of that money will be given to private corporations to construct, operate and staff more prisons. Atkins promised that 20,000 new prison places will be created, raising the prison population of England and Wales to 100,000. At 80,800 in England and Wales, and 7,500 in Scotland, Britain already has the highest per capita prison population in WesternEurope.  

The reality is that the more prisons are built, the more quickly they will be filled and overcrowded.  Prisons in Britain are already bursting at the seams, and in total lockdown, which has never been lifted although pandemic health prevention measures have been scrapped on the outside, as it suits the prison authorities and Prison Officers Association to keep everyone confined to their cells. 

In a report published in early July, following its June 2021 visit to Britain, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) wrote: ‘In its visit reports on prisons in England dating back to the 1990s, the CPT has repeatedly highlighted the cumulative deleterious effects on the lives of prisoners of chronic overcrowding, poor living conditions and the lack of purposeful regimes. Moreover, during the 2016 visit, the CPT’s delegation found that these long-standing problems were exacerbated by a significant escalation in levels of violence. Similar findings were made by the CPT during its 2019 visit and the Committee once again concluded that the duty of care to protect prisoners was not always being fully discharged, and that the environment in the adult male establishments visited remained fundamentally unsafe for both prisoners and staff.’

Prisons are not just used as instruments of social repression against the most marginalised and disadvantaged, but also as weapons of political repression during times of political and social unrest. The recent rise in unrest amongst what remains of the original working class in Britain and the approaching spectre of a potentialwave of increasing strike action, also motivated the state in significantly expanding the prison system. Likewise, the increasing criminalisation of protest - exemplified by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which came into force on 28 June, and the further Public Order Bill, which is designed to make yet more parts of peaceful protest a criminal offence – demonstrates how ‘law and order’ has become overtly politicised. 

Traditionally the so-called radical left in Britain has failed to recognise or understand the true purpose of prisons as state weapons of class repression or the struggle of prisoners as an authentic part of the wider class struggle, but the time is approaching when that realisation will be forced upon them.


John Bowden, a long-time prison organiser and member of the Prisoner Solidarity Network, was recently released after 40 years of incarceration. While all those who were sent down with him were released after 20 years, Bowden was kept back as punishment for his anti-prison organising.