Prisons and Police Brutality: Last Line in the Defence of Exploitation and Oppression (Part I)

The following piece of writing contains the names of people who have died at the hands of the bourgeois state.

The role that law enforcement plays around the world is not simply one of preventing crime or ensuring the safety, health and belongings of all members of society as some common views, definitions and media may lead us to believe. The existence of the police and prisons, and their real function in society, is immediately tied to maintaining the exploitation of the working class through upholding capitalist private property relations. This role is in direct confrontation with the interests of the working class and the unique position we hold as being the only class capable of bringing about revolutionary change to society and emancipating humanity.(1)

Our position on law enforcement does not come down to opposing or accepting officers as individual people. A police or prison officer could be considered the nicest friend, neighbour or relative you know. Yet, they will still go out and break up organised working class actions and acts of social unrest or keep those who have been imprisoned in check just as quickly as a cop who is nasty when off the clock.

Although the issue goes well beyond the individual, it has been the brutality of individual law enforcement officers against individual workers (who are usually black, brown and/or mentally ill) that have been highlighted in the media in recent times. Because of this we find it relevant to shed some light on the conditions inside the prisons (which contain over 40,000 people) in Australia and the brutality and negligence of law enforcement officers.

Prison Labour and Prisoners Conditions in Australia

Typical jobs in prison include those which reproduce the prisoners’ daily lives — kitchen and laundry workers, cleaners, gardeners, and grounds maintenance workers. There are often carpentry, metalworking, fabric and textile, order picking, bakery and recycling roles available which also produce surplus value. Some prisons even double as farms, with Cadell “Training Centre” in South Australia currently undergoing $3 million worth of upgrades to their dairy facility.(2) Everything from boomerangs, bed linen and cheese to airline headphone sets, office chairs, and flags are produced by prisoners and stamped with the “Made in Australia” tag. The ongoing pandemic and trade war with China has seen an increase in demand for Australian made furniture and prison labour is now helping fill this gap.(3) These workers provide a cheap labour force, they are highly exploited and paid only a fraction of what the prisons and the companies they sign contracts with bring in. The national minimum wage is $19.84AUD an hour, but prisoners are often paid as little as $0.82 an hour or between $25 to $70 for a 30 hour work week and they receive no superannuation or other benefits.(4) This is not so much wage slavery as outright slavery and Australia is far from the only place that it is happening.(5)

As funding for mental health care has repeatedly been slashed over the years it is prison that has become a dumping ground used to “take care of” those which the state deems to be a burden on the system and used to compensate for the lack of hospital beds and mental health professionals available.(6) In reports from 2018 on male prisoners and 2020 on female prisoners it was found that poor mental health and past trauma is common, with almost half of all prisoners reporting a previous diagnosis of mental illness before imprisonment.(7) Poor physical health was also commonly found with conditions such as brain injuries, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, and heart conditions being present. Levels of education were disproportionately low and the rate of homelessness, unemployment and underemployment in the lead up to entering prison was disproportionately high. Upon leaving prison it is clear that this situation worsens with almost half of those soon to be released anticipating homelessness and less than 1 in 4 having organised paid employment that would begin within 2 weeks. Almost 1 in 5 prisoners had at least 1 parent or carer who had been in prison during their childhood, while 2 in 5 had dependent children of their own. It was also reported that 9 in 10 women in prison are mothers. Here we see how imprisonment and its preconditions such as insecure housing, unemployment and low paying employment, poor education and poverty are passed on throughout the generations. About three-quarters of people entering prison had previously been imprisoned and nearly half had been in prison during the previous 12 months. Although for some people from disadvantaged backgrounds, prison can actually provide better access to professional mental and physical health care than they experienced on the outside, these health improvements are often soon lost after people are released due to adequate health care and support services not being provided during their transition back into the outside world.

The Department of Correctional Services and its supporters claim that rehabilitation is the primary focus of prisons. They say that the jobs and training provided are simply to benefit prisoners and wherever possible the prison workplace is set exactly as it is on the outside. First of all, anyone who has ever worked on the outside knows that the workplace comes with copious risks, injuries, exhaustion, and alienation. Secondly, having a track record of previous imprisonment is a major hurdle in finding employment regardless of qualifications and experience. While it may be true that some prisoners get access to rehabilitative programs, if the aim truly was rehabilitation then the effort to keep people from ending up back in prison would be made, accommodation, employment and adequate professional mental and physical health services would be provided rather than all too many people being allowed to enter a continuous cycle of imprisonment and release. However, in a world with a system that has been in crisis for the past 50 years, if we held our breath waiting for the capitalist state to ensure housing and all other human needs for working class people, formerly imprisoned or not, we would very soon suffocate.

Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality

Indigenous Australians are the most imprisoned group of people on earth based on the percentage of their population (3.3% of the Australian population are Indigenous, but Indigenous people compose 29% of the prison population — 2,333 per 100,000).(8) This comes as a result of capitalist oppression and exploitation, born out of imperialism — everything from racial profiling, slave labour, forced assimilation, and ethnic cleansing to wage-labour, low wages, high unemployment rates, poverty and intergenerational trauma. At least 475 Indigenous people have died (or been killed) in police, prison or youth custody since the 1991 Royal Commission 30 years ago and seven have died during a seven week period beginning at the start of March 2021 alone. One of these deaths was of an unnamed 35-year-old man at Long Bay Prison in Sydney. While not all of the details are currently known, we do know that this is the same prison where prison officers crushed 26-year-old David Dungay Jr. to death in 2015.(9) One death was that of an unnamed woman who died from self-harm in her cell at Silverwater Women’s Prison in NSW. Another was that of a 36-year-old Barkindji man named Anzac Sullivan, who was killed in a road accident due to police pursuit in Broken Hill.(10)

The leading cause of death for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in custody is said to be ‘medical issues’ or ‘natural causes’, which is typically a result of negligence and adequate urgent medical attention not being sought by the police or prison officer in charge. Indigenous people who die in custody are reported to be three times more likely to not receive needed medical care and less than half of all imprisoned Indigenous women receive this necessary care. The second leading cause of death in custody is self-harm — a fact that highlights how detrimental prisons are to one's mental well-being. Other causes include road accidents and falling from high places due to police pursuit, medical episodes or injuries from police brutality, and police shootings. These numbers do not even account for those who survive the beatings and other mistreatment that police and prison officials inflict on them, with many killing themselves soon after release.

Reform or Revolution?

It is quite ironic that according to bourgeois ideology prisons and police are supposed to prevent crime but in reality police merely show up after a crime is committed and some of the most violent offences in society are individually committed by cops whose actions are simply swept under the rug. In prison, the cycle of violence and trauma continues to be perpetuated by select prisoners and correctional officers whose actions are also typically overlooked. Such violent, repressive and exploitative institutions are incapable of putting an end to violence and exploitation in society.

The English Evangelical Christians and penal reformers John Howard and Elizabeth Fry set out to “save prisoners' souls” from the “morally corrupting” chaos of prisons and argued for a disciplined regime and the creation of an ordered institution so that prisoners can “reflect on their sins” and “find their way back to God”. It was the actions of these reformists and others like them who played a central role in the development, growth and legitimisation of the modern prison system.(11) Today in Australia, reformist demands tend to revolve around raising the criminal age from 10 to 14 and abolishing or tinkering with bourgeois laws such as those for public drunkenness and unpaid fines. Although these changes may help keep some people out of prison, these demands will never put an end to deaths in custody and police brutality.(12) If prison reform accomplished anything then surely there would have been some sort of noticeable improvement in the system over the past 250 years.

As a proportion of the total population, Indigenous people are at an increased risk of dying in prison. But as a proportion of people who are in custody, they do not die at a higher rate. This is largely because much of the Indigenous prison population have had their lives torn apart by the system at an early age. With around 71 percent of people imprisoned by the state and approximately 82 percent of deaths in custody being non-Indigenous people, it is quite clear that workers of all backgrounds are oppressed and exploited by the prison system. We need a re-emergence of class struggle both inside of the prisons and outside of them if we hope to see any real change to the world we live in. We all have something to gain by abolishing prisons and the police, but we can only accomplish this through an international communist revolution overthrowing the capitalist state and ending the system of wage labour.

Internationalist Communists Oceania

12 May 2021

(1) Why the Working Class is Key? By CWO

(2) More than $3 million for new dairy complex at Cadell Training Centre Low Security Prison Farm

(3) Mount Gambier Prison Jobs Changing Lives

(4) Bed Linen and Boomerangs: The Surprising Products Made by Prisoners

(5) New US Prison Strike Takes us to the Dark Heart of Capitalism by Ergosum

(6) Although the Federal Budget announcement this month included $2.3 billion in funding for mental health, this is still too little and too late after years of funding cuts. Not to mention the toll that capitalism takes on people’s mental health cannot truly be combatted while the capitalist system continues to exist. We will speak more specifically on mental health and capitalism in a separate article.

(7) Prisoners More Likely to be Homeless, Unemployed and Suffer Poor Mental and Physical

The Health and Welfare of Women in Australia’s Prisons

(8) Corrective Services Statistics

The Conversation Fact Check

(9) On An Island Watch House Bed, A Black Man’s Lying Dead

(10) Deaths Inside

(11) Penal Reform: A History of Failure by J.M. Moore

(12) Against Police Reform for the Abolition of Capitalism by IWG

Tuesday, May 18, 2021