Parallels Between UK and US Mass Incarceration
Michelle Alexander (2010) does an excellent job at breaking down mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex as a new “racial caste system” in relation to US society. The prison industrial complex and related process of mass incarceration stem directly from hundreds of years of slavery, convict leasing system and black codes in a relatively linear way. She highlights how in the US, mass incarceration can be seen as a neo-form of slavery. Her analysis is exemplary in understanding US prison systems and their expansion, however, globally, prison populations are rapidly increasing yet these other countries do not have the same histories as the US. I believe that many of the same processes occur within the UK however the UK operates under purposeful erasure and amnesia leading to a lack of attention to the ways in which the UK relies on a police state. In this essay I explore the similarities between the US prison system and the UK prison system as a capitalist system of social control and racial exclusion.
Patterns have been formulated, analysed and disseminated within the US to theorise systemic racism (Feagin 2006), colour-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2014), mass incarceration as a racial caste system (Alexander 2010), however the same attention has never been given to understanding racial disparities, racial violence and more broadly racial issues within the UK. Rarely is race explicitly discussed within the UK outside of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) centred groups and activist efforts. Even in the numerous race-focused classes I took at undergraduate level, the majority of the conversation was focused on US society. In a Crime, Race and Ethnicity class that I took 3 years ago, the US was our main case study. Not to mention, that the lecturer teaching the class had wanted to name the class Crime and the Racialised Body, but the University of Leeds, deemed this to be too ‘extreme’. As I continue my academic career, I wholeheartedly believe that this is part of a wider agenda in the UK to erase the horrific histories of Britain and maintain racial amnesia. It must never be forgotten that “Britain is the motherland of racism — it taught America everything it knows about intolerance and oppression” (Bangura 2016).
Police brutality, the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration are often seen by those living in the UK as a US issue, however many of the same processes exist within the UK. I am continuously shocked at the lack of research, especially critical research, on the UK’s prison system especially when there is data to prove that there is a higher proportion of Black men incarcerated in the UK compared with the US (Akala 2018) as well as a higher percentage of private prisons (Kuek Ser 2016). As the ‘ex’-centre of Empire, it is both naïve and dangerous to scapegoat racial issues to the United States when they are occurring all over the United Kingdom. The UK has a long history of state violence yet there is significantly less visibility of this in mainstream media. While Black people in the UK are less likely than their American counterparts to be shot dead by the police — albeit only due to a difference in gun laws — they are more likely to be detained with brute force and left to die at the hands of racist and wilfully negligent officers (Bangura 2016).
Events that unfolded in Ferguson, leading to the Black Lives Matter Movement have been cited by Angela Davis as a “transnational symbol of lethal brutality” (Falcón 2015:220) signifying that the maltreatment of Black people is a global issue. In the UK, there is an absence of information on deaths as a result of police brutality, which is one tactic to cover up the extent of racism within the police force. Of the deaths that have been noted, only the officers involved in the murder of David Oluwale, a Black man in Leeds who was beaten by the police and chased into a river before drowning, were convicted of assault however they were still absolved of manslaughter charges (Teverson and Upstone 2011). This was in 1969. Since 1990, over 1500 people have died in, or after, police custody in the UK with more than 1/3 of these deaths being Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) individuals. Police brutality is as consistent in the UK as it is in the US (Bangura 2016).
Analysing contemporary UK prison statistics is startling. The UK is the most eager incarcerating country in Western Europe and imprisons its population at double the rate of Germany and 30–40% higher than the French (Akala 2018). Currently, prison expansion is rapidly on the rise with the UK’s Prime Minister revealing plans to create 10,000 new prison spaces and increase ‘stop and search’ (Wainwright 2019) — a historically racist police practice within the UK. The prison population of England and Wales quadrupled between 1900 and 2018, however, half of this increase has taken place since 1990 (Sturge 2019). This almost parallels with the US, however, there is not the same level of attention given in explaining this rapid increase. Whereas the Reagan era and his racialised War on Drugs (Alexander 2010) can be used to explain the rapid increase in mass incarceration in the US; there is not the same historical turning point in the UK to explain this increase. Julia Sudbury (2000) argues that to achieve this carceral expansion within the UK (and other Western nations), an ideological and practical borrowing from the US has been implemented. Specifically, she highlights how Britain’s newfound love affair with mass incarceration can be traced back to the Thatcher era and the ‘Iron Lady’s’ relationship with Ronald Reagan (Sudbury 2000). This has caused the prison industrial complex in the UK to converge towards US practices, especially in the last three decades. It has also enabled the UK to use the prison system as a racialised form of social control, following a number of police murders, arson attacks and BME-led protests after the Windrush generation arrived in Britain (Akala 2018).
Similarly to the US, people of colour are disproportionately over-represented within the prison system whereas white populations are under-represented. Black people in the UK make up only 3% of the population, however, they account for 12% prison population (Kentish 2017). This figure means that there is greater disproportionality in the number of Black people incarcerated in the UK than in the US, for both Black men and Black women. Within the US and UK alike, Black bodies are seen as dispensable, however, they are a major source of profit within the prison system (Alexander 2010). The UK also holds 1 out of every 5 prisoners in a private prison compared with the US where 1 in every 12 prisoners are located in private prisons (Kuek Ser 2016). It should not be a surprise that the country at the centre of the Empire should be using prisons for capitalist gain. The issue is why is no one speaking about this? The UK, similarly to the US, is also seeing a feminisation of the prison population with 50% more women in prison compared with the 1990s (Akala 2018). Black women are significantly over-represented within these numbers. Black (and Brown) women, in both the UK and US have been identified as the easiest demographic to fuel further prison expansion and as profit for capitalist gain.
I have a few prison abolitionist friends in the UK working in grassroots organisations that explicitly acknowledge this shift in policing and prisons, however, the general population are oblivious. Mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex are only used within the UK to refer to the US and never to account for what is going on close to home. The figures, especially when addressed proportionally to the UK’s demographics are startling yet scapegoating the issue of racist mass incarceration to the US continues everyday. Although the UK does not have the same history as the US, the purposeful erasure of Britain’s role in colonialism, imperialism and enslavement is insidious. UK politicians have openly said that the British Empire should be celebrated and the average (white) person in the UK today would say that colonialism and empire was a positive thing. There is some level of purposeful amnesia in most Western countries in relation to horrific pasts of genocide and colonialism and the UK is no exception. The cognitive dissonance in the UK to the true histories of British empire is terrifying. Michelle Alexander clearly explains and analyses the chronological changes in the government’s control of Black bodies within the United States, however, in a global world where incarceration is on the rise in most nations, we must address capitalism and the way it relies on racial/ethnic discrimination and hierarchies as the root cause of global incarceration rising.
Akala. 2018. Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire.
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.
Bangura, Siana. 2016. ‘We Need To Talk About Police Brutality In The U.K.’ The FADER. Retrieved 19 October 2019 (https://www.thefader.com/2016/03/29/police-brutality-uk-essay).
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2014. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Fourth edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Falcón, Sylvanna M. 2015. ‘The Globalization of Ferguson: Pedagogical Matters about Racial Violence’. Feminist Studies 41(1):218–21.
Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
Kentish, Benjamin. 2017. ‘Black Britons More Likely to Be Imprisoned than Black Americans, Report Finds’. The Independent. Retrieved 19 October 2019 (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/black-people-prison-uk-more-likely-us-lammy-review-a7935061.html).
Kuek Ser, Kuang Keng. 2016. ‘Australia and the UK Have a Higher Proportion of Inmates in Private Prisons than the US’. Public Radio International. Retrieved 19 October 2019 (https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-09-01/australia-uk-have-higher-proportion-inmates-private-prisons-us).
Sturge, Georgina. 2019. UK Prison Population Statistics. Briefing Paper. UK: House of Commons.
Sudbury, Julie. 2000. ‘Transatlantic Visions: Resisting the Globalization of Mass Incarceration’. Social Justice 27(3):133–49.
Teverson, Andrew and Sara Upstone. 2011. Postcolonial Spaces: The Politics of Place in Contemporary Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wainwright, Oliver. 2019. ‘Epic Jail: Inside the UK’s Optimised “super-Prison” Warehouses’. The Guardian.