Monday, December 03, 2007

A question...

One of the things I haven't worked out about my politics is what I think about prison guards. At Arohata the guards were mostly older Maori and Pacific Island women. When I visited the guards told us that we weren't allowed to be hug our friends too much, because the guards had been told off by their bosses for being too lenient the day before.

Don't get my wrong guards, and the absolute power they have over prisoners, have driven me to exhaustion, and they can do far worse to those inside. But they are workers, and reasonably well unionised ones. So driving out to prison one day, the question became, would I support a corrections strike?

On one level the answer is of course, I support any strike, and I would. But after the last few weeks I immediately started thinking about the effects of a strike in the prisons. When they're short staffed in prison they respond by locking prisoners down for longer and cutting back on activities which increase the need for guards, like visits.

I know I absolutely would not support a strike which restricted visiting and increased lock-down, if my friends were in prison. Hell, I hated Labour Day while they were in jail, because we couldn't visit. Knowing that can I say that I'd support those tactics when it's not my friends being effected?

Ultimately it's not my call, I'm not a Corrections worker (and will never be a Corrections worker) - and I do believe workers have a right to choose their own tactics. But I think I could only get on the picket line if Corrections were disrupting the prison intake in some way, if the number of prisoners were reduced. If the only effect of a theoretical strike were to further reduce prisoners freedoms then I don't think I could support it, and I didn't think I'd ever say that about any industry.

This is a question that only really troubles those who automatically support workers struggles and also believe in prison abolition (Asher? Byron?). But I know there are at least a few readers of those blog who share these positions. What do you think?


  1. Its deffinatly a difficult issue, and I don't really have an answer.

    I have thought about the issue of private security guards before- workers who are usually contracted out, often unionised, and yet sometimes brought in to break strikes etc, the solution in that case I think is not to support strike breakers but support strike action taken by security guards in solidarity (and when they don't, point out that Labours Employment Relations Act makes this type of solidarity illegal)

    With prison guards however its a lot harder to decide what line to take.

  2. See with security guards I think it's very simple - they do some shitty things in their job - but as workers I support them without hestitation. Particularly as I don't think they're an essential industry, so if they go on strike then things just left unguarded, which I'm all for.

    And I would absolutely support any strike from prison guards if it any way disrupted the muster.

    It's just given what I know about the unions in Corrections, prison management and the NZ legal situation, if there was a strike the most likely effect would just be to increase lockdown of prisoners.

    I think tactics are up to the workers, although that would be a pretty ineffective method of strike. I think the lockdown would be entirely management's fault, not the workers. And yet... - I hated labour day when they were in.

  3. Anonymous5:44 am

    Prison abolition? Are you mad?

    What would you do with all those thugs that roam the streets killing, raping and maiming people? Where would you put the Kahuis and Tamiheres of this land? Think again.

    Don't waste your time on the ethnicity of the prison wardens.

  4. Maia - I understand what you're saying about the strike making things worse for prisoners. Strikes make their usual bad day even worse, no doubt.

    But, how is this different from commuters who lose their only way of getting to work if there's a public transport strike, or pensioners that would have to pay more for heating costs if there was a coal strike or a strike at the refinery.

    All strikes effect the innocent and well as the employer... and the striker too!

    Strikes are a tool with lots of bad side effects. It's much better so solve workplace issues before it gets that bad. That's why there are so many laws and systems designed to make sure strikes are really just a final resort.

  5. There will still be prisons under socialism, or whatever you want to call a poast-capitalist society. There will still be people required to run them. The difference being prisons then will be much more humane, as will the role performed by prison guards.

    In the here and now, I can understand why some socialists aren't keen on supporting prison guards. But the way I look at it is this. If we're going to ever build a new society, we have to win over as much of the military, police, etc as we can so that ultimately, they cannot be used by the ruling class to put us down. In this category I certainly include guards.

    Btw, love the name of this blog.

  6. Anonymous6:47 pm

    ",,they cannot be used by the ruling class to put us down."

    Phil bc, what the hell are you doing here in NZ? Why aren't you buying a ticket to the socialist paradise of Cuba?

    Very convenient socialist approach of preaching revolution while enjoying the lifestyle and perks of capitalism.

    Lack of decency and scruples come to mind.

  7. Phil - Under your sorts of socialism there may still be prisons - but not under mine. In the last month I've stood in front of four lines of barbed wire fences knowing my friends are on the other side.

    I agree about the prison guards having to eventually be on our side (I'm not sure about the police - surely we can send them to an island somewhere). Which is why I would support them if they were in any way putting a wedge in the prison machine with their strike (if their action limited the muster - even by one - I'd be there). But if all they're doing is making things worse for the prisoners - well I don't think I'd be there.

    camryn - I don't agree with your analysis that strikes aren't . Prisoners aren't consuemrs, they're people under the absolute power of the prison guards.

    Shanti - please don't post to my blog again.

  8. Anonymous6:09 am

    maia, I post wherever and whenever I want, unless your socialist / communist censorhip blocks me, which of course is the standard way of the left to deal with dissenting voices.

  9. Maia - I know prisoners aren't consumers, but are commuters who only have public transport to get to work or hospital just as limited in their ability to escape the effects of a strike. Strikes always hurt some innocent parties. You need to accept and realise that before suporrting any strike.

    Re: Police - In this hypothetical future, wouldn't sending police to an island somewhere be kinda like putting them in prison? I assume it was a flippant comment :-)

  10. Maia,
    How would you, in your ideal society, deal with a serial rapist?
    I’m not trying to be difficult; I’m just interested to see how you would design it.

    As to strikes - Camryn is right - there are always side effects - some of which might be good and some not so good for an anti-capitalist. For example maybe a supermarket distribution center strike might remove no brand products from the shelves thus making everything more expensive for the poorest people etc (generally strikes will hurt the poorest first and worst).

    I suppose one needs to either commit to being a deontologist (“I support strikers, always”) or a concequentialist (“I support strikers where the strike has good results”). I’d be the latter but I expect you’d be more comfortable with the former.

  11. Anyway - the workable options I can see in order of how anarchistic they seem are

    1) Allow them to do whatever they like. The assumption is that individuals just can't do as much harm as a state. (This is the position most people assume you have if you say ‘I oppose prisons’)
    Pros - no cost no set up costs
    Cons – Your average violent rapist could rape a lot more people and wouldn’t have to go to nearly as much trouble hiding their activity.

    2) Some sort of anarchist community where people gather somewhat spontaneously to expel and retaliate against those that break rules
    Pros - again easy to setup
    Cons - very erratic justice and probably harsh justice for those tied to a location - more or less no consequences for those that can travel and hide their identity.

    3) Prisons being replaced by a complex rehabilitation system including mental institutions etc
    Pros - less crime
    Cons - very hard to setup very expensive (at first maybe not in the long run) and complex. Rather un-anarchistic. In some regards prison by another name.

    4) prison being replaced by community work and other such restitution NOT involving any sort of prison. however since I understand that prison work programmers generally don’t pay for themselves (i.e. supervision is required) this is likely to require a back stop for the very significant number who won’t cooperate. Rather like the above -either

    A) allow some violent offenders to get away with no consequences
    B) permit 'violent retribution' by community groups for those that don’t comply.
    C) a bigger structure - for example a massive personal surveillance system (think 'big brother') this could be managed at a state or community level depending if one wants fairness or local responsiveness.

    even with B and C if it is done at a community level you get the issue of 'person commits crime’ – ‘person says they will work off their crime’ – ‘person runs to new town’ – ‘new town doesn’t know him’ – ‘person commits crime again’. So there is a bit of A.

    5) have prison but only for violent offenders (not for property offenses etc)
    This doesn’t sound like prison abolition at all but seems to masquerade as prison abolition at times. One issue here is that there are ways to hurt people other than physically - its hard to define what the actual limits of law need to be.

    6) Just for completeness - brutal state rehabilitation and surveillance – so brutal and complete that no one ever makes it to prison.

    any other viable options?

  12. I guess there is also the idealistic model that says there just won't be any criminals after you remove structural interference. I think we would be outstandingly lucky if it happened that our 'natural state' was entirely crimeless (at least in regard to rape) - it seem terribly faith based. I understand orangutans have a very high rate of rape for example.

  13. Anonymous4:05 pm

    "..just won't be any criminals after you remove structural interference." Tell that to Castro, the satrap of the Caribbean, to see what answer you get.

    By the way, spare a thought for all the political prisoner languishing in Cuban cells and the thousands his communist tyranny has killed.

    Capitalism rules!

  14. yeah santi - but Maia isn't a communist - she's more of an left-anarchst and I presume Castro would be pro police/prisons - more so than anyone in this discussion.

  15. Anonymous2:57 pm

  16. I actually popped in here to see whether or how Maia would respond to that report, because it represents a real vindication of the police handling of Operation Austin.

    In particular the independent authority praised the way victims (of whom there seem to have been more than have brought to public attention) and has recommended the practices developed be added to the Police Best Practice Manual. That's pretty amazing.

    Maia, was that an acceptable use of police power, or do you still think no such thing exists?

  17. My response to the report is: at last the legal system has finally shown that it can recognise major flaws in the legal system if the evidence is shoved in its face hard enough.

    It's not a vindication of the legal system, it's not even a justification for it. At best it's a recognition that the p*lice force attracts people like Rickards and will be abused by them, and that it's inherently unable to prevent that abuse. Let's wait and see whether they manage to convict the offenders and imprison them before we all get too excited. My expectation is that they will discover much evidence of violent crime that does not lead to prosecution let alone conviction, and that the failure to convict will be trumpeted by the suspects as proof of innocence. The pattern has not (yet) changed.

    Saying "anyone can have a gun, but we have a good public hospital system" is not a justification for liberal gun ownership laws.