International - Prisons are part of the system

Autumn 2021

[This article is a translation from French - it first appeared in the journal Lutte de Class No. 216, May-June 2021, the journal of our sister organisation, Lutte Ouvriere]

Depriving workers and the poor of their liberty and imprisoning them has always been a weapon used to defend the privileges of the ruling classes and above all to maintain bourgeois social order. In many ways, prisons and prison conditions are a microcosm of the brutality of the relationships between social classes. But the populist posturing and authoritarian policies that are gaining hold in most countries against a background of economic crisis also reflect the rise in reactionary ideas.

Lock up and terrorise the poor

In Marx’s Capital, the chapter “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” describes how violent and barbaric legislation was set up against the poor and against anyone who was an obstacle to capital’s domination. The phase of primitive accumulation of capital was essential to the growth of capitalist relations of production. It was done by pillaging the planet and through the slave trade, but was also accompanied by the introduction of legislation and class justice that were particularly brutal. This was a necessary condition “to hasten, hot-house fashion the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode” and “to shorten the transition”. How could it have been otherwise at a time when the bourgeoisie was expropriating the peasant masses and submitting them to limitless exploitation in its “dark satanic mills”? Those who could not or would not accept this exploitation were treated like criminals. In order to discipline the poor and instil in them the new religion of profit and private property, the slightest violation, even as derisory as killing game in order to eat, could bring about corporal punishment, even death. The food riots due to the increase of fl our and wheat prices were considered criminal. 

    The legal system, the laws made to protect the bourgeoisie’s domination based on the exploitation of workers, could only ever be fundamentally unjust and iniquitous. Sending away or locking up individuals labelled as dangerous to society, i.e. to the privileges of the ruling class, became a vital necessity. Their fear of the working class was such that they had to terrorise it by setting up a prison system with unendurable conditions. Until then, imprisonment had occupied a relatively marginal place in the repressive policy of states. 

    The industrialisation of Europe was also accompanied by a policy of imprisoning thousands of orphans and poor people in places where work was mandatory and inhumane, for instance in workhouses like those described by Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist. In France and Belgium, workhouses were named “general workshops” and “force houses”. There was not much to distinguish them from actual prisons. 

    Maintaining social order was also the reason why hundreds of thousands of convicts - condemned for debt, common-law offences and political activities - were deported to the colonies. The British bourgeoisie applied this policy throughout its vast empire, particularly in America and then in Australia. 

    Once the bourgeoisie was firmly established as the ruling class, it instituted the obligation for prisoners to work, as a means of “redeeming themselves”. Religious morals and bourgeois morals reinforced one another in a common vilification of “idlers”. This was applied, as early as 1596, at the Rasphuis prison in Amsterdam into which beggars and young “offenders” were thrown. In France, the “general hospitals” were created in the mid-17th century. In Paris, this included several places, notably Pitié, Salpêtrière and Bicêtre. Beggars, vagabonds, the insane and so-called depraved females, runaway children and women whose fathers or husbands wanted to get rid of them were all shut away there.

    From 1748 onwards, people sentenced to enforced labour were transferred to one of three military arsenals - in Toulon, Brest and Rochefort. Over the course of just one century, 100,000 convicts worked in the Toulon arsenal and 25,000 in Rochefort, of which 20,000 died before their liberation. In this way, imprisonment, forced labour, deportation and the fear that they inspired were simultaneously a product of a class-based society and a necessary condition of its continuance. But until 1789, the average period of incarceration remained relatively short.

    This did not apply to political prisoners who, if they were not executed, were thrown into jail in the Bastille, in Vincennes or in the Château d’If. It is hardly surprising that the Paris population stormed the Bastille and demolished it stone by stone in the early hours of the French Revolution. But even if the revolution overthrew the monarchy’s domination, plenty of other prisons were built after the bourgeoisie’s political victory and its legal “enshrinement” in the Napoleonic period. In France, as in a large part of Europe, imprisonment became widespread. Bourgeois law was applied zealously by magistrates, and prison would haunt generations of poor people. It would also inspire many writers, most notably, Victor Hugo. They quite rightly saw bourgeois law and its judges, who condemned people in droves, as the most barbaric expression of a society that was incapable of feeding everyone and that would throw someone who stole a loaf of bread into the same cell as an assassin. In 1815, French prisons held between 40,000 and 43,000 prisoners, i.e. one prisoner per 600 inhabitants. That is twice the ratio of today, despite France being one of the European countries with the highest number of prisoners. [Britain’s incarceration in 2019 was even higher at 140 per 100,000 compared to France at 102 per 100,000 - WF].

    Private companies, known as “les renfermées” (“The Shut-ins”), ran prisons through a “general enterprise” system until the end of the 19th century. It was the same thing in Britain where prisons were considered companies. Until the opening of the first national prison in Millbank in 1816, the state simply supplied the buildings and took on some of the maintenance work. If prisoners did not wish to be reduced to nothing more than penned animals, they had to satisfy their own needs by handing over a sum of money at the time of their imprisonment and, quite often, after their liberation. The state only took over running the prisons in 1877… until they were (again!) impartially privatised less than a century later.

    A vast prison system, mainly to the detriment of the black population, was set up in the United States at the end of the Civil War between the North and the secessionist states in the South. The 13th amendment to the Constitution, adopted in October 1865, abolished slavery. But it stipulated “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”. This clause, which pretty much maintained slavery behind bars, made the forced labour of millions of black prisoners possible, depriving them of their elementary rights and submitting them to the most brutal exploitation, often for the benefit of private companies. As Angela Davis put it, blacks went from “the prison of slavery to the slavery of prison”.

The United States shows the way

At the end of the 1960s, the policy of incarceration had once more become a major weapon of the ruling classes. In the United States, it was a political response to the revolt of the black population, particularly those of the major urban areas in the North. During the 1980s, when mass unemployment was hitting the most exploited fractions of the working class, this reactionary policy of criminalising any law breaking was extended, in the name of the war on drugs. It turned young blacks into potential criminals and, within ten years, turned the United States into a vast system of concentration camps and record-keeping.

    More than 3,000 prisons were built, including floating barges in New York City. Hundreds of thousands of youths and immigrants were herded into them, often for ridiculously minor crimes, particularly after the adoption in forty states of the Three Strike rule, which allowed a life sentence to be applied to any person who committed three offences, whatever those offences might be.”Lock ‘em up and throw away the key” became an election campaign slogan for more than a few politicians. 

    The number of prisoners exploded from 1975 on: it increased sixfold to reach 2.3 million today, i.e. a quarter of the world’s prison population. Several million should be added to that number for the people who are under surveillance by the legal system - on suspended sentence, on probation or wearing an electronic tag.

    The vast majority are young black or Hispanic men, uneducated and unemployed. Once they are freed, their ordeal is not over. They are often excluded from social housing, they are deprived of any public welfare and of their parental rights and they are denied the possibility of applying for any job in the public sector.

    It was in this ideological context, which owes as much to the Republican Party as it does to its Democratic counterpart, that Joe Arpaio, who proclaimed himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff”, opened a public prison in Phoenix (Arizona) in 1997, and proudly presented it as a “concentration camp”. Built mainly to hold Hispanic immigrants, he boasted that its construction had saved taxpayer money: it cost $150,000 (£111,000) compared with $41 million (£30m) for a traditional structure. Up to 2,000 prisoners were held there in army tents from the Korean War! They were also forced to work in chains - a practice that the US had abandoned in 1955. Like other similar slavers, he was condemned for abuse and corruption in 2017 and the prison was closed. But Arpaio was not sent to prison and Trump, who considered him a hero, granted him a pardon during his last days in the White House. 

    In terms of privatisation and putting prisoners to work for companies, the United States was also the forerunner, starting with the opening of the first private prison in 1983 (a practice that had been banned since 1925). There is a real prison-industrial complex. Companies such as the Geo Group and CoreCivic, who manage hundreds of prison facilities, have imposed contractual occupancy rates of more than 80% and even 100% in certain states. The prisoners with major health problems are often excluded from these contracts or are transferred to state prisons when medical bills are too high for the company’s profitability level. But ill-treatment and corruption scandals have multiplied. The most resounding scandal, known as “Kids for cash”, hit a Pennsylvania institution for minors in 2009. Over a ten-year period, it had paid bribes of $2.8 million to two judges for the conviction of at least 2,000 juveniles for misdemeanours. Privatisation has been presented as a way of reducing public spending but has in fact increased it. The annual cost is estimated at around $80 billion (£58bn), a colossal amount, even if it is less than the budget for various police and army forces. That is the financial cost of maintaining the social order of the bourgeoisie. 

    For some private companies, exploiting prison populations as a work force can be good business. Almost two thirds of prisoners work without any working rights or minimum wage (which can be 0 dollars, as it is in Texas, Georgia and Alabama). In 2017, the average hourly rate for prisoners was 86 cents (62p). The same year, some of the firefighters engaged in fighting the fi es in California were prisoners paid an hourly rate of one dollar! Several strikes broke out in American prisons to put an end to this appalling situation.

Public safety policies applied without limits but not without profits

If a policy of incarceration has been pursued so hard in the United States, it is mainly due to the fact that the bourgeoisie had seen its power strongly challenged by the black movement and because of the institutionalised racism on which the bourgeoisie’s domination was built. But a move towards the same policy has been observed in most rich and so-called democratic countries, including Britain, Germany, France, Japan and Australia. This has led to a tightening of public safety and incarceration policies and to an opening of the market to private companies. 

    Governments have made the war on drugs, crime and organised crime the be-all and end-all of their propaganda, claiming to rid society of all those jeopardising its stability and the tranquility of law-abiding citizens. This stance was developed and then imposed as the crisis of the capitalist economy grew. And all the more so, as the decay of working-class areas increased and the state withdrew its support for public services essential to the poorest section of the population, starting with education and health. In all developed countries, prisons are filled above all with the unemployed, those who have few or no educational qualifications, including numerous minors, in other words all those who are marginalised, crushed or rejected by the system. 

    In France, so-called public safety policies flourished under Sarkozy, who arrogantly and with much political posturing made it his trademark. Backward and regressive measures were taken t, like the creation of so-called closed “educational centres” (CEFs) in 2002. These centres hold hundreds of juveniles and were supposed to be an alternative to prisons but they are far more often a precursor to prison. Similar to the juvenile sections of jails, the centres are devoid of anything educational. Macron, who has made even more authoritarian speeches and has set up measures that give even more power to the police, has promised to build another twenty or so. 

    The policy of incarceration has a rising financial cost. And it only makes the problems that it is supposed to solve even worse, often condemning released inmates to fall back into minor or major criminal networks that thrive on social decay. 

    Another aspect of the policy in the United States is the use of the private sector. In Britain, the majority of the market share in prisons (between 10 and 20% of prisoners) is held by two large multinationals. One is G4S, a major security provider, present in 125 countries, employing around 550,000 people.

    The other is Serco, a group established in 1929, which has long featured on the FTSE 250 share index of the 250 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange with the highest market capitalisation. 

    Private companies in France, as in other countries, have always had access to the market linked to the building and upkeep of prisons, or to the supply of meals for prisoners and guards. But it was in the mid- 1980s that the the government came up with the idea of having them construct prisons directly. In 1987, the minister of justice, Albin Chalandon, announced that private companies would be responsible for the creation of 13,000 additional prison places. Public-private partnerships meant that Bouygues, the world’s largest construction company for public buildings, could take over, along with other companies, the construction, management and upkeep of several institutions. The building of thousands more places was promised to them, and partly accomplished by the governments that followed, both right-wing and leftwing, whether they were closed facilities or semi-open prisons.

Locking up migrants and foreigners

During the recent US election campaign, the European media focused primarily on the wall between the US and Mexico that Trump had promised to build and on the locking up of migrants and their children. They concealed the fact that Trump did not initiate building the wall and kept quiet about Obama’s policy of mass expulsions.

     Nor do they often say anything about the vast majority of European leaders who also enforce a policy of locking up migrants, when they are not paying Turkey to do it for them! 

    The hunting down of foreigners has become widespread in Europe, with the notable exception of the policy that Merkel imposed in 2015 and which was relatively open. Hunting foreigners has given rise to a whole new business of surveillance and imprisonment run by groups specialised in security. 

    There is a dual imprisonment of migrants: they are being locked up in both prisons and detention centres. 

    In France, since the 1990s, the number of foreigners detained in prisons has increased twice as fast as the number of nationals. Today, a foreigner is three times more likely to be placed in pre-trial detention and tried immediately and is eight times more likely to receive a prison sentence. Once in prison and with their residence permit revoked, it is almost impossible for them to even begin the process of obtaining a reduced sentence, being reintegrated or of completing simple administrative formalities which can be prohibited if a prefect [1] considers a person to be a threat to public order. And, in addition to foreigners locked up in prison, there are all those held in police custody. 

    Thousands of foreigners have been locked up in the European Union for having infringed the laws that have transformed Europe into a fortress and turned the Mediterranean into a cemetery. They are to be found in holding areas and administrative detention centres for foreigners in France, alien internment centres in Spain, illegal migrant centres in Belgium, identification and expulsion centres in Italy, etc.

    In Britain, migrants can be detained in this type of centre for an unlimited amount of time and some may remain locked up for years with no possibility to appeal. Almost all of these centres are controlled by multinational security companies like G4S, GEO Group, Serco, Mitie and Tascor. For ten years, hundreds of people arriving on British soil were detained in high security facilities through an accelerated procedure and 99% were denied asylum. This procedure was only suspended in 2015 under pressure from activists who defend the rights of asylum-seekers.

Overcrowding and atrocious conditions

Prison overcrowding is an established fact and prisoners’ families and activists for prisoners’ rights have spoken out against it for many years. The number of prisoners in France has increased by 25% in the last 15 years to reach 62,673 as of January 1, 2021 [2] - this is about 4,000 more prisoners than at the start of the pandemic. On that same date, sixty-two prisons had an occupancy rate of more than 120% and 19 of them had an occupancy rate of over 150%. Overcrowding is also a problem in prisons for women (who make up 4% of the total prison population) and in certain juvenile detention centres. Although the law provides for individual jail cells since 1875, it is far from being enforced. Despite some progress thanks to the battles fought in the 1960s and 1970s which led to the abolition of high security units, in reality,prisoners’ rights have hardly changed since the 19th century. And family and friends continue to pay the price.

All prisons and detention centres are unsanitary

The insanitary and crowded conditions that reign in detention facilities are also clear. This has caused number of lawsuits to be brought against the French state, including with the European Court of Human Rights, for its inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners. In 2017, Macron admitted before the courts that the conditions in prisons were an “endemic” problem and on the same occasion he spoke of the “unsustainable occupancy levels in some facilities”. Even the Council of State [3] ruled that there had been “a serious infringement” of fundamental rights and freedoms in Fresnes prison (it had an occupancy rate of 214%). But, for the umpteenth time, nothing was done about it. Thousands of prisoners continue to sleep on mattresses on the floor and are crammed into a few square metres all day long despite Covid.

    Prisons are filled with people, from the poorest classes. One out of every two homeless people tried in a criminal court is now sentenced to prison. The vast majority of female prisoners were victims of domestic violence. Half of all prisoners were unemployed before being locked up, 80% don’t have a high school diploma and 10% of them are illiterate. And they will not get the training they need behind bars because prisons are notorious for not having enough funds or resources for education or professional training.

    French prisons are also a disaster in terms of mental illness. Eight out of ten prisoners have at least one psychiatric disorder: 7.3% are schizophrenic, 21% have a psychotic disorder, some of which include hallucinations and 40% suffer from severe depression. More than a third of prisoners suffer from drug and/or alcohol addictions but they receive almost no medical or psychological care. Prisons only serve to have these sick people either temporarily or permanently removed from society, a society which is both the source of their illnesses and incapable of treating them.

Work in French prisons

Roughly 25% of prisoners have access to a job, a number which has dropped by ten points since the year 2000, even though the meagre income is essential to so many. This is all the more so since prisoners lose their unemployment and welfare benefits once they are put in jail. In France, as in many countries, there is no contract or special status for work done by prisoners either in “central services” or in workshops. Prisoners have almost no rights at all. There is no compensation in case of temporary unemployment, no sick leave or time off. There is no real limit to work hours, no guaranteed day of rest or minimum wage and no right to unionise (which exists in some countries like Italy and Germany and existed in the US from 1973 to 1977). Piecework is still common even though the state has condemned it. Private companies often get prisoners to perform simple, repetitive tasks much like the work done in facilities for disabled workers.

    Since the 2009 penitentiary law was passed, prisoners are supposed to be guaranteed an hourly wage indexed on gross minimum wage, although it actually varies from 20 to 45% of minimum wage depending on the type of work. But, since the administration has free rein to classify work tasks, it limits pay as much as it can. In December 2018, 98% of prisoners working in maintenance, kitchens, meal distribution, etc. were paid at the lowest hourly rate even if they also worked on Sundays and holidays. They are, in fact, subjected to slave labour.

    On March 7, 2021, the minister of justice, Dupond-Moretti, mentioned the possibility of changing legislation and establishing labour laws in prisons. But it will probably be no more than an unfulfilled promise, just like so many others, and the upcoming presidential election campaign will probably be oriented towards issues of public safety.

A political weapon that protects the bourgeoisie

Even in the US, where prisoners constitute a significant part of the manual labour pool which allows a fraction of the bourgeoisie to do lucrative business, prisons only have a marginal productive function. Their function remains primarily political. Social decay and the real or imagined rise in crime and trafficking produced and fuelled by an ailing capitalist economy serve as a pretext for political leaders to wage war on the poor and to threaten all workers with ever more brutal and long-lasting prison sentences.

    Public safety propaganda and policy protect upperclass thieves and murderers, capitalists who are guilty of the worst acts and the state apparatus that serves them. Capitalism is a system based on the almost absolute irresponsibility of shareholders and those in command. How many capitalists have been locked up for their role in the explosion of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, for that of AZF [4] in Toulouse, for the use of lead, PCBs, asbestos, glyphosate, chlordecone and paraquat, the herbicide which was revealed to have caused the death of 100,000 people since it was put on the market in 1960? How many are behind bars for their role in the 360,000 workplace deaths and 2 million deaths due to work-related illnesses each year around the world, for forcing millions of families into poverty or for destroying the planet?

    The only way to rid humanity of crime and insecurity is to stop those who are responsible from doing more harm and to wrench their leadership over the whole of society from them: that is the revolutionary communists’ struggle.

May-June 2021


1 - In France, a prefect is the supreme representative of the state in the administrative regions known as départements.


2 - [In Britain there were 78,743 prisoners as of 10/09/21 and to date 223 have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test - WF]


3 - The Council of State (Conseil d’État) is a governmental body that acts as both legal adviser of the executive branch and as the supreme court of administrative justice.


4 - AZF, short for Azote Fertilisant, was a chemical factory in Toulouse, France which exploded on September 21, 2001. The explosion resulted in 29 deaths and left 2,500 injured.