Saturday 20 March 2021

The Poverty to Prison Pipeline

Threatening to rain terror down on criminals has long been a staple of the Tory offering, but behind it all is class war by other, more populist means. In this guest post Ruth Woolsey sets out the case.

Boris Johnson’s mega-prison will be ready just in time for the children Marcus Rashford has spent the last year campaigning for. It is well known that the majority of young people in prison come from impoverished backgrounds. Some have been abused and neglected by their own parents, but most families care about their loved one in prison and know their children would unlikely be in prison even if they were better off as they grew up. Faulty genes don't cause a life time scarred by crime and prison: structural inequalities do.

The children of the Tory cabinet will never know what poverty is like and will be told how they deserve their privileged positions just as their parents were. Yet, we can see that these children do not come away unscathed. The mental health problems associated with being shipped off to boarding school at a young age are expressed nicely by Tony Gammidge in Norton, Grim and I. Gammidge questions whether it is sensible having people subjected to such trauma should be running the country. As sympathetic as I am to the plight of these children, they will never go hungry and can afford therapy and have the chance to change the course of their lives. As for the lives of their poorer counterparts living on the periphery, they are unlikely to meet except perhaps in court as they hand down sentences to them.

The crimes of the poor, according to Reiman and Leighton in their 1979 classic The rich get richer and the poor get prison, are only a fraction of the harms caused by this ruling elite. When we take away how a crime was committed and look at the impacts of corporate negligence for example, even though someone may not have left their seat in their plush office in the city, thousands of people can be maimed and killed. And the people responsible are unlikely to end up in prison. A fine at worst, protected by an entourage of lawyers, accountants, politicians who pass bills which allow state and corporate violence. The poorer ‘criminals’ are an excellent distraction and are handy scapegoats for hiding the crimes of the wealthy.

How do they get away with it? For decades, thousands of writers have used Gramsci's ideas about how the state and key startegic institutions manufacture consent to the point it becomes unconscious and barely thought about. Economic individualism and neoliberal subjectivation has been pushed from the top since Thatcher assumed office 40 years ago. The public have had it drilled into them that it is up to individuals to look after themselves and their families and it is not state responsibility. Enough of the public accepted austerity being the only option to avoid further economic disaster, and so the Coalition government's tiresome benefits scroungers rhetoric went largely unchallenged. And the rich got richer.

So, the likes of Jacob Rees-Moggs must take sole responsibility for himself and his children (although nanny will obviously do that), which is easy when you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Not as easy for someone born into poverty and already has at least one parent working, whicih is the case for 72% of children. The difficulties of trying to work yourself out of poverty has been written extensively about, including by some who have experienced it. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is some of the biggest load of bollocks anyone can ever say, especially by rich people idling off the back of unearned income.

Parents who work long hours to make ends meet do not have enough time for their children as well as suffering physical and mental health problems associated with poverty themselves. Although every family and child is different, Joshua Dickerson’s poem Cause I ain't got a pencil paints a picture of the challenges a child in poverty has to deal with before reaching the school gates in the morning, let alone then navigating a middle class education system on arrival. Children in poverty have to do without the possessions and advantages enjoyed by their wealthier peers, or even if a school has large numbers of children in poverty they can see those who are living a very comfortable lifestyle compared to them, all of which can lead to feelings of resentment and inferiority. No wonder that children growing up in poverty are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

Children who are told if they work hard enough, they will get themselves out of poverty know this is absolute rubbish for most of them. One lad in prison for dealing drugs tod me how hard he saw his brother work to get through school and eventually graduate with a degree to end up working in McDonald's. Drug dealing is a viable option for many children finding their way out of poverty and who then get caught up in the county lines, of which the media are currently panicking about. It’s a depressingly familiar tale often leading to entry into the criminal justice system for violence. Hackney youth worker Luke Billingham and Keir Irwin-Rogers wrote in their chapter, 'Mattering and the violence in our cities' in the Urban Crisis, Urban Hopes collection that youth violence "is not about individual pathology and violent individuals, rather it is fostered by the societal structures which systematically deny marginalised people recognition, respect and resource" (2020 p.58).

Whether poor children have a parent who cares about them or the state is the parent for those in care, these are already the next generation of "criminals" because they will be criminalised for being vulnerable and poor. Their trauma, stress, and marginalisation will not be cured in prison but is exacerbated, and is clearly visible via high rates of recidivism. The cost per person in prison is significantly higher than what is spent on a child in poverty, but this befits neoliberal commonsense. It is not down to the state to provide for children, and therefore we must build more prisons instead.

Image Credit


Unknown said...

Bang on, fabulous article Ruth

Blissex said...

Middle and upper-middle class mothers usually really dislike competition for the "good jobs" from the children of lower class mothers, as that reduces the value of their "tiger mom" investment in their own children, and so endorse and support a system that handicaps and excludes (via prison in the harder cases) those potential competitors from the lower classes. How do you change that? It is a powerful and primeval instinct, sometimes I think it is more an antropological issues than a political or ideological one.

One way is to make most jobs be "good jobs", but that is expensive, so for example New Labour pumped up "meritocracy" about which (usual quote) R Hattersley (The Guardian, 2001) about middle and upper middle class oriented politics:

«Tony Blair discovered a big idea. His destiny is to create a meritocracy. Unfortunately meritocracy is not the form of society which social democrats want to see. [...] A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority. The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape»

Or this beautiful example of the above from R Sylvester (The Times, 2009):

«A No 10 aide admits that Mr Brown does not have the natural empathy with the middle classes that Mr Blair did. “The moment Tony sent his son to the Oratory those voters thought — ‘he gets it’,” he says. “Gordon wouldn’t understand that. He knows that he has to reassure Middle England but he’s not part of it.”»

(Curiously the latter article seems to have disappeared from search results except in some quotes here and there)

DFTM said...

I always thought draconian law and order policy was a preserve of the right and hysterical overreaction to crime was a preserve of the far right. And when Boffy reacted in this way to the murder of the girl it only confirmed that view.

And wasn't threatening to rain down terror on criminals your position when it came to the overreaction to the the tragic but thankfully rare murder of a girl the other day?

I mean you didn't say cut off their goolies or round them up without a fair trial but I kinda get the impression that is what you were thinking?

It is certainly the impression I get from the wokists, when you point out that the data doesn't match their hysteria they have to go and make data up and pretend it is all unreported. How convenient that when data doesn't match your assertions you can simply create a load of data and then hey presto your argument works!

That is wokism is a nutshell and one reason among many that I detest it.

Also, don't all forms of violence increase when economic conditions are lowered? So isn't the correct response to any increase of violence against women be not a twitter row about how bad men are but instead, should be a campaign to end universal credit?

The least you should get from socialists is a demand to reestablish the welfare state, which at least recognised that in this system people can fall into hardship and despair at any moment.

Blissex said...

«Also, don't all forms of violence increase when economic conditions are lowered? So isn't the correct response to any increase of violence against women be not a twitter row about how bad men are but instead, should be a campaign to end universal credit?»

That seems very naive to me, as especially in the USA, but also in the UK, "woke" politics is based on neoliberal "methodological individualism", and what marxists used to call "bourgeois freedoms", in particular:

* Taking personal responsibility (abuse of women by men, but not by women).
* Absolute property rights to one's body (e.g. abortion, sex reassignment).
* Freedom of contract (sexual revolution, non-binary marriage).

I suspect that one of the reasons why neoliberal media and politicians give such enormous prominence to "woke" politics is to pish the ideology they are based on so it will eventually lead to the return of indentured debt servitude, which is the prize that bankers have sought throughout history.