Editorial: ‘Jokewood’ burns whilst barristers strike

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The bourgeoisie’s eagerness, on the one hand, to privatise every lucrative nook and cranny of what previously passed for public service and, on the other, to force less juicy areas of public provision to run on a shoestring is, as it intensifies, further undermining the public credibility of the justice system.

The government has delivered prisons, asylum detention centres and electronic tagging into the grasping hands of G4S, Serco and the like. Both G4S and Serco have owned up to grossly overcharging for their services – between them offering to pay back nearly £100m to avert prosecution. Meanwhile, since Capita took over the provision of court interpreters, some £17m has been lost in delays, whilst everything grinds to a halt waiting for an interpreter to show up.

Then in the first week of 2014, two more blows to the system’s credibility were struck: the eruption of violence at the private jail run by G4S in Staffordshire, and the unprecedented strike by criminal barristers.

When it opened in 2012, HMP Oakwood, the largest jail in England and Wales, was hailed as the cut-price model for all new prisons. Justice minister Chris Grayling exulted that the average cost per prisoner at the massive 1,600-place human warehouse was less than half that in other prisons. But right from the start the prison, dubbed ‘Jokewood’ by inmates, has experienced numerous problems, including rooftop protests and other disturbances.

A report by the prison inspectorate last October reported inexperienced staff and mounting levels of violence and self-harm, noting that it was easier for prisoners to lay their hands on drugs than a bar of soap. Then in November, G4S staff in riot gear violently suppressed a revolt by about 18 prisoners. Official documents claimed that the prisoners were drunk, had armed themselves with pool cues and lit fires. A week later there were five further clashes.

Yet despite October’s damning judgements and November’s escalating revolts, G4S was left in charge of this imploding experiment in outsourced human engineering all through Christmas. It is not to be wondered at that New Year celebrations at ‘Jokewood’ took an unconventional form on 5 January, as up to 20 prisoners reportedly smashed up their cells and clashed with wardens in disturbances that lasted a full nine hours. G4S denied reports that prisoners were drunk on homebrew and had taken staff hostage.

The day after the prison revolt witnessed the more genteel revolt of the aggrieved criminal barristers.

When push comes to shove, the capitalist justice system has always been loaded against the working class. Workers caught in the claws of bourgeois justice have no guarantee of securing a fair outcome – as the grieving family of Mark Duggan will testify.

But now that Grayling has announced deep cuts in the fees that the state pays to barristers in legal-aid cases within the criminal justice system – part of a more general onslaught on the whole system of legal aid – even the remote possibility of a properly conducted prosecution or defence for those without funds is under threat.

The primary purpose of bourgeois law – the defence of capitalist property rights – is already reflected in the much higher fees earned by barristers working in commercial law, compared with whom criminal law barristers are but poor relations. With the further reduction in earnings for the latter, more and more barristers will flee the criminal bar, leaving but a skeleton service of lawyers unable to find any other work and the odd altruist to patch up whatever kind of service they can muster.

The criminal barristers who downed tools (or wigs?) in the new year in protest at the legal aid cuts may have been motivated primarily by the desire to maintain the kind of income to which the expensive years of training they have undergone, together with the long and stressful hours they work, would have in the past entitled them, but they also served as an index of the disquiet felt even by the professional middle strata at the accelerating decay in public-service provision right across the board. These cuts are now directly calling into question all those deep-rooted petty-bourgeois assumptions about ‘fair play’ upon which our rulers rely to tranquillise the general public.

The day that workers en masse cease to believe in even the chance of getting justice at the hands of the bourgeois courts, the bourgeoisie will be in big trouble. Grayling’s announcement perhaps brings that day a step closer.