Interview with Empty Cages Collective (UK)

At the 2018 International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) held in London, Critical Resistance was introduced to the UK based prison abolitionist organization Empty Cages Collective. We are grateful to share with our readers their solid analysis and actions aimed at bringing down the PIC.

The Abolitionist: Can you explain how the Empty Cages Collective got started?

Empty Cages Collective: The Empty Cages Collective was started in 2014 by two people, one who had not been long out of prison, and the other who had been doing ABC (Anarchist Black Cross) work for many years. At the time, we knew people who were actively supporting political prisoners and others doing detainee support (in immigration detention centres), but there was not a seemingly visible organized anti-prison movement in the UK. One of the things we did before launching was interview older organizers who had historically been involved in anti-prison work in England and Wales, including folks who tried to resist prison expansion over 10 years ago, those who had organized against prison labour back in the early 2000s, and people who had protested at deaths in prisons and police custody. They all said similar things about the lack of interest in prisoner support or anti-prison work, that it was hard to mobilize people which was very discouraging. However, overwhelmingly people thought the best groups to organize with were prisoner families.

And so we mapped all the people and projects that we could potentially build relationships with. We toured England, Wales, and Scotland doing workshops as part of our first ‘Tear Down the Walls’ tour. We howled for our pack and we found them, finally! It’s now grown into a much larger group and project, and many people finally have a point of contact if they are interested in abolitionist struggles here on our Prison Island. It’s taken a huge amount of work but we have a burgeoning movement here now with several active campaigns, solid local groups doing great work, and a prisoner union that is slowly growing.

The Abolitionist: Most of our readers are based in the US. Can you provide context on the development and current state of the prison industrial complex in the UK as well as resistance to it?

Empty Cages Collective: Compared to the United States, our prison system probably comes across as tiny. However, in a European context, we have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. The prison population is around 85,000 at any one time. However, across the broader incarcerating estate (detention centres, secure children’s homes, etc) we are locking up more than 110,000 people, and there are more than 70 deaths per month.

Just under one-fifth of prisoners are held in private prisons run by three companies: G4S Justice Services, Sodexo Justice Services and Serco Custodial Services. However, many prisons have ‘facilities’ management contracts with large multi-nationals who are responsible for maintaining the prisons. One of these, Carillion, was awarded a £500 million contract in 2015 and recently went bankrupt. ‘Custodial services’ therefore are big money in the UK and this is a large factor influencing why our prison population has risen by 82% in the last 30 years. (Editor’s note : Critical Resistance takes the stance that private prison companies and contractors are entities that benefit from the prison industrial complex and feed off its growth, but are not a major force driving its growth in the United States. The context of the PIC in the UK is different and these companies play a more pivotal role in the landscape.)

In 2016, the British government announced plans for one of the biggest prison building programs in generations: the construction of six new mega-prisons plus five new ‘community prisons’ for women. The Prison Estates Transformation Programme (PETP) aims to create 10,000 new prison places by 2020. Thankfully, the women’s prisons have now been scrapped, and three of the mega- prisons have been delayed or rejected partly due to active resistance. Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) have been resisting prison expansion since 2015 when the state was building one of the largest prisons in Europe in North Wales. Over the last three years, it has mostly focused on raising awareness about the PETP and supporting local groups to form and organize against prison expansion in their communities. CAPE has toured the breadth of the UK to inspire people to fight, as well as organized the No More Prisons conference in 2017 and multiple weeks of action and a large action camp in 2015 in collaboration with Reclaim the Fields, a constellation of anti-capitalist food growers from across Europe.

Other grassroots campaigns and struggles include those against the IPP sentence (explored in more detail below) and Joint Enterprise laws, which both target working-class communities, young people, and people of color and subject them to indeterminate and often life sentences. A group called Reclaim Holloway have also been fighting to prevent the capitalist development of a recently closed prison in London, demanding the site is used instead to build a Women’s Centre in reparation for all of those harmed by HMP Holloway. The prison itself was occupied by Sisters Uncut, a feminist organization fighting cuts to domestic violence services. Queer communities have also been actively organizing and supporting trans prisoners following the deaths of three trans women in close succession in recent years.

We also have a branch of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) established in Wales, Ireland, and England thanks to help from fellow workers in the United States. Extreme censorship has greatly impacted the group’s ability to communicate with prisoners. However, union membership is growing slowly, and many support campaigns have been initiated for individual prisoners held in solitary confinement or facing parole, for example. There are also other local groups doing a mixture of organizing in solidarity with national campaigns, as well as local prisoner support by, for example, Bristol, Brighton, and London Anarchist Black Cross.

The UK also has an active movement against detention centres and the wider border regime, including a campaign to Shut Down Morton Hall, a women’s detention centre in the Midlands, and to end deportations. As with the prison industrial complex on a whole, the UK’s prison system is predicated on racial, class-based, and gendered violence. Black and minority ethnic groups make up 26% of the prison population, and around 18% are also foreign national prisoners. Britain’s colonial past and neo-colonial present continues to influence who ends up behind bars. The state recently announced plans to build a prison wing in Nigeria to enable the deportation of prisoners. This comes two years after attempts to fund a new prison in Jamaica for the same purpose were rejected. The UK increasingly leverages ‘aid’ funding towards other governments to enable them to develop their repressive apparatuses such as by training police, developing criminal justice systems, and more. The British State is an expert in repression, policing, and imprisonment, and shares these skills with governments around the world. Prison abolition, to us in the heart of the empire, is an essential part of decolonization struggles.

We also want to honor that in the terrain of resistance in the UK are the prisoners who are fighting back every single day of the week, whether that is writing complaints or rioting behind bars. There is a long history of rebellion in British prisons, from hunger strikes to rooftop protests, and we want to make that as visible as possible and provide practical solidarity whenever we can.

The Abolitionist: What has been the primary function of the group? How does your group understand itself within the broader terrain of progressive-to-radical anti-carceral movements?

Empty Cages Collective: The primary function of the Empty Cages Collective has been movement building. We try to offer support and resources to new groups that are wanting to resist the PIC so that they can build their own autonomous groups and campaigns. We don’t want to be some kind of group or vanguardist project that is organizing all these different campaigns with us at the centre. It’s all about building this ecology of resistance.

We try to work in a horizontal and fairly informal way as a grassroots collective without staff, registration, or some of the other entanglements of the not for profit industrial complex. We share an affinity with each other and are dedicated to our goals and making things happen. A lot of people believe that resistance arises spontaneously or organically. However, for us and our friends in prison, we don’t have time to wait. We know a strong, effective anti-prison movement isn’t going to arise overnight nor by itself so we are dedicated to doing the best we can to make this happen. In terms of the broader terrain, we act as some kind of node in the bigger network: we help to radicalize people and move them in certain anti-prison and anti-state directions, we connect people to groups and projects, we support people to start new things, and we also act as a wider bridge to international movements by sharing global news on prison issues and trying to be present at international gatherings and events wherever possible.

We are definitely one of the most explicit anarchist and abolitionist collectives here. Many other groups operate within some kind statist paradigm by articulating the desire to downsize the criminal justice system but somehow keep the power relationship of the state intact. For us, prison abolition means destroying the state. It means destroying the society where prisons can exist. Compared to other groups, we are probably more strongly connected to these kinds of struggles across the world, and we like to create resources that are generative of these positions, asking these critical questions, and amplifying prisoner voices that are calling for revolutionary struggle.

The Abolitionist: What is IPP and how has it been resisted? What are the challenges of this resistance? Why is this resistance important?

Empty Cages Collective: IPP stands for indeterminate sentence for public protection—these sentences were introduced in 2005 as a way to keep people in prison indefinitely. The idea was that people would serve a set tariff and that after serving this, they would have a parole hearing every two years to determine if they could get out. Th e sentence comes with a life-long license which basically means if you put a foot wrong, you get recalled back to prison. The impact of this sentence has been catastrophic. It was given out like sweets to working class people by Judges, and has effectively created a life sentence for minor crimes. More than 8,000 people were given the sentence and over 3,000 of them remain in prison years later. To give you a tangible example, we have known IPPs that got a 7 month sentence or making threats to kill when drunk who have been in prison for over 12 years, or another stole a mobile phone on a high street and was trapped in prison for more than 10 years.

Politicians admitted they had made a mistake, and the sentence was abolished in 2012. However, it was abolished retroactively which meant the thousands of people who were given an IPP are still suffering from its implementation. The UK has the highest prisoner suicide rate in the world, and this can greatly be attributed to this sentence. Many IPPs lose all hope and take their own lives, others abandon themselves to drugs, and a small few try to resist through whatever means possible. One collective that emerged in response to this brutal sentence is Smash IPP. It was started when a mother of an IPP prisoner asked a group of anarchists for help in South Wales—together they campaigned as hard as they could to free him (and were successful). The Empty Cages Collective have done their best to support Smash IPP and helped to organize a massive year of action in 2017 that embraced lots of different tactics. The group organized pressure campaigns for individual prisoners who were due parole, helping access better legal support and put pressure on certain state agencies such as Probation and the Parole Board. They took to the streets picketing probation offices and targeting the Justice Secretary and more. Many new people got involved through letter writing, demos, and other events that tried to illuminate this deadly sentence.

Resisting the IPP is important because it’s one of the ‘non-reformist reforms’ that is essential to abolitionist struggle. It is a sentence affecting thousands of people and brings us in contact with both those in prison and those families whose lives are being ripped apart because of it. It is a way to highlight conditions in prison, the power dynamics of the state, and wider patterns of oppression in how the IPP was implemented on a structural level (in terms of targeting working class people and people of color). We recognise that there are many forms of indeterminate sentence and that getting legal reforms is a limited strategy. However, we know that we can also make demands of the state in a way that is anti-authoritarian and be empowering to prisoners and families impacted by the sentence, many of whom have never engaged in organized resistance before or accessed collective support to help cope with this daily hardship of the prison system.

The Abolitionist: One of the goals for the Empty Cages Collective is to “Continue to generate solidarity and mutual aid for individual prisoners through sharing their call-outs for support on our growing networks.” Why does Empty Cages Collective see this as important? What tactics have been used to work toward this goal?

Empty Cages Collective: The Empty Cages Collective sees prisoner support as an essential part of all anti-state, anti-prison, and anarchist struggle. It’s the heartbeat. For us having been in prison, and having people we love still behind bars, prisoner support is part of our collective survival. No matter how bigger-picture you go, or how much you want to focus on movement building or a grassroots campaign, prisoners need to be at the centre. It is all meaningless without actively building relationships with people behind the walls. Individual call-outs for support are always necessary, and we want to be able to leverage the power that is growing to support people when they need it most, whether this is getting them out of segregation or fighting for cancer treatment, for example.

We gain so much inspiration and ideas for strategy from reading publications written by so many incredible prison intellectuals from history. We can see from people’s experiences in prison that the IPP sentence, for example, is killing people and also sustaining the PIC by having so many long-termers in the system, so we know this needs to be a necessary focus for our organizing work. Our connection to people behind the walls means we can actually help initiate campaigns and projects that are really needed.

In terms of tactics, this might look like the equivalent of “phone zaps” whereby we ask people to contact a certain prison with a demand (such as getting the water fixed for a wing without drinking water, or getting someone out of segregation) or it might be a fundraising call, a day of action for a particular group, or simply asking people to write to someone that we know is struggling with their mental health and we want people to send them some TLC.

The other important aspect of prisoner support is that it creates a tangible impact—like you win someone’s parole with them and they are reunited with their family or they get the life-saving health care they need, for example. When you are doing incredibly long-term organizing, having these small ‘victories’ are essential to help you keep going. We hope that one day we can destroy this whole system overnight as part of a larger revolutionary moment. However, we also know that creating radical change can’t be some kind of delayed gratification. We need to take an offensive, we need to have liberating relationships and projects right now because freedom cannot wait for some magic conditions to appear.

The Abolitionist: Is there anything else you would like to share about your organizing?

Empty Cages Collective: We just want to honor one of our recently fallen comrades who contributed so much to the Empty Cages Collective—Anna Campbell. She left the collective to go to Kurdistan to help defend and learn from the revolution there. She was killed by a missile strike by the Turkish State in March this year. She would write to prisoners all over the world, she’d drive up and down the UK for actions and demos, and she’d constantly contribute ideas of how to increase our impact. We miss her every day.

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