The Battle of Dunkirk–the 1940 allied evacuation of 338,226 Belgian, British, and French troops from the beaches of Northern France–has been continually accentuated as a critical moment of the World War II. In “a miracle of deliverance,” as Winston Churchill, the then-prime Minister called it, hundreds of thousands of soldiers came together in a resourceful feeling of togetherness. Today, Dunkirk remains a symbol of determination against adversity.
Seven decades later, the country has to weather another battle, albeit against a different enemy. In May 2010, after a series of financial failures in the United States and Europe–such as the insolvency of the Northern Rock Bank, collapse of Lehman Brothers, financial deceit in the US mortgage market, and large-scale bank bailouts–the coalition government adopted austerity measures. It did so in an effort to both reduce the public sector deficit in the short term and to maintain confidence in the country’s financial stability in the long term.
Yet, the politics of austerity, however deeply entrenched in the popular national memory, has failed to reignite the spirit of Dunkirk. The dramatic impact of austerity on those who are acutely reliant upon public services–those who are poor, marginalised, and excluded–is too visible to ignore. Regrettably, this phenomenon remains to be under articulated. This harmful effect of austerity on prisoners—a cohort that, to a greater extent than the general population, suffers from physical and mental ailments, as well as from rampant poverty and deprivation, should not be ignored.
Austerity is a political choice, rather than an economic imperative. Severe cuts to national ﬁnances of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal were part of their recovery plans. In the UK case, however, while the country was not a member of the Eurozone, our politicians went ahead with the stringent bailout conditions that were similarly imposed on Greece, Ireland, and Portugal by the Europe Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (the Troika).
Large spending cuts across public programmes were didactically introduced to cover the burgeoning deficits without raising taxes. The prison budget was reduced by 22%–£0.8 billion–leading to a 30% reduction in the number of frontline prison officers—even as incarceration rates plateaued. This has seriously compromised the resilience of prison health agenda, as its delivery is largely depending on a stable prison regime.
Getting no direct benefits from financial bailouts, prisoners have to bear the disproportionate brunt of austerity. With 155 prisoners per 100,000 population, England and Wales have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. This record imprisonment rate, despite the abated crime rates, remains broadly consistent, dovetailing the tough stance on crime and longer sentences. Moreover, contrary to the government cost-saving ambition during the time of recession, the hefty price tags of prisons–£38,042 per person–have not explicitly featured in any political debates.
While prisons are often the last bastion for prisoners to address their health and welfare needs, they are no longer able to withstand austerity with fortitude. Fragmented access to prison healthcare, exacerbated poor living conditions, hindered participation in purposeful activities, and increased level of violence have become the norm. In 2018, mere 17% prisoners—fewer than two out of ten—were released from their cells for at least 10 hours a day to participate in education, employment, and training sessions. Between 2010 and 2018, suicide, self-harm, and assault rates in English prisons increased by 23%, 47%, and 52% respectively.
These statistics contradict the election pledge that prisons should be “places where people are helped to turn their lives around.” The current prison conditions not only progressively harm physical and mental health, but also create inhumane conditions to live in, making prisons places of double punishment where detainees are unable to articulate their needs, make decisions, and or advocate for their rights.
The first step towards reviving the Dunkirk spirit of solidarity that once emerged in the national consciousness is challenging the misnomers of austerity and imprisonment. The path forward shall be paved by using alternatives to imprisonment, revisiting sentencing practices, using a more informed economic recovery approach, introducing intergovernmental and non-governmental monitoring of the compliance that health standards should not be breached, as well as by naming and shaming human rights violators. To come back to our roots of humanity and unity embodied by Dunkirk, and to springboard honest conversations about the right of prisoners to have better lives, we will need to critically challenge the use of austerity in imprisonment.
Featured image credit: “corridor” by Matthew Ansley. Public domain via Unsplash.