ABC Bristol about the prison units of Close Supervision Centres in UK, the notorious and brutal equivalent of the F.I.E.S. units in Spain – the so-called “Prison within the Prison” of “Maximum Security”. Known as punishment and brutalisation units, the CSC’s are the subject of this new publication by the Anarchist Black Cross to bring to light first hand accounts of life inside these annihilation cells, where numerous methods of psychological and physical destruction are applied against rebellious prisoners, those who have been taken from the general prison population to try to break their minds and bodies. The forthcoming publication will be available soon in electronic versions for reading and printing, and also as a paper format zine available from ABC Bristol. In the text below, anarchist comrade and ex-prisoner Mark Barnsley of ABC Leeds provides an introduction to the publication, which is aimed to give fire to the anti-prison struggle and bring to light the terrible situation in the hellholes of the CSCs, by the voices of those inside them.
Prison has little or nothing to do with ‘crime’; the greatest crimes
are committed by the rich against the poor, yet prisons are full of poor
people. It’s primary purpose, in reality, is as a ‘big stick’ held over
our heads in case we decide to step out of line and challenge the
rotten system that allows a few to live lives of gluttony while the vast
majority of the world’s people live in abject poverty. As those
arrested in the protests and uprisings last year are seeing, prison is a
‘big stick’ our masters are not slow to use. Once behind bars, these
hostages of the State, will hear the phrase ‘carrot and stick’ an awful
lot; it is supposedly the way jails are run. Most of them however, will
see far more ‘stick’ than ‘carrot’. Not that the latter amounts to much
anyway; maybe the chance to play ping-pong with some grovellers and
grasses while everyone else is locked-up under the ‘Incentives and
Earned Privileges Scheme’1. Or perhaps the opportunity
to get ripped-off renting a portable ‘idiot box’ you can watch when
you’re not slaving away in some mind-numbing ‘noddy shop’2 to afford you the ‘privilege’. If you’re really lucky, or kiss enough arse, maybe you might even get a few months’ ‘jam-roll’3 where you live by the leave of a Little Hitler
from Probation, or else early-release on an electronic ball and chain,
locking yourself up every night. Since they’re not offering much of a
‘carrot’, and some cons are quite happy to tell them where to shove it,
there’s been a need for a bigger and bigger stick in order to try and
achieve the complete compliance the quasi-fascist system demands.
Prison systems have always had ‘dungeons’ of one kind or another,
where they could ‘quarantine’ those who threatened to spread the
infection of resistance. The banishment of these prisoners to brutal
hell-holes few others witnessed first-hand, was held up as a deterrent
in much the same way as the heads of executed enemies of the State were
displayed on spikes. In the early days of Parkhurst prison, small boys
who refused to comply absolutely were forced into a hole in the ground
as punishment. If you know where to look, you can still see the hole,
but later (as at many other jails) Parkhurst had its notorious ‘silent’
strong-box cells where men were deprived of all human contact apart from
the brutality of their jailers. Two of these cells were located in the
infamous ‘F2’ unit (located in the prison hospital) John Bowden reminds
us about, where prisoners were subjected to sustained psychological
abuse and ‘liquid cosh’4 treatment.
The Wakefield Special Control Unit became notorious in the 1970’s,
both inside the prison system, and eventually beyond it, as a torture
unit with the calculated aim of destroying prison-resisters both
physically and mentally. It held many of those involved in the PROP5
protests of the day and in the 1976 prison uprising at Hull (including
one-time Anarchist and Angry Brigade member Jake Prescott). While the
control unit undoubtedly damaged many of its internees psychologically,
it completely failed to destroy prisoner resistance, and following its
widespread public exposure, in particular a high-profile legal action
brought by the National Council for Civil Liberties, it was officially
closed. The notorious segregation unit at Wakefield, named ‘F Wing’,
however remained, and over the years has always existed as a primary
punishment location for prison-resisters (in 1982 two semi-subterranean
‘cages’ were added where prisoners could be completely confined on a
long-term basis6). Bearing in mind its history and the
function the screws there have always fulfilled, it is no surprise that
the site now houses the so-called ‘Exceptional Risk Unit’, which forms
part of the CSC system this pamphlet is about.
Like the original Wakefield control unit, the establishment of the
CSC system needs to be placed in the historical context in which it
originally occurred. When the Wakefield SCU was set up (in 1974), the
System were engaged in fighting unprecedented prisoner resistance, with
the Wakefield unit being part of the System’s response and of their
attempt to crush it. Likewise, when the CSC system was introduced, the
System were engaged in introducing a programme of repression across the
prison estate, and in ‘taking back’ the dispersals and long-term nicks
(in particular) which they regarded as having to a large extent lost
control of. The repression included such things as ‘volumetric control’,
which restricted prisoners’ property and possessions, mandatory
drug-testing, the ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme’, a reduction
in visiting hours, the closing of sports facilities, worsening
‘canteen’ facilities, the butchering of prison education budgets coupled
with forcing prisoners into ‘noddy shops’, the introduction of more and
more bang-up, and a general rapid worsening of conditions. Obviously
there was considerable opposition to the wave of repression, and
removing a number of individuals the System undoubtedly regarded as
troublesome in terms of achieving their aims, was part and parcel of the
establishment of the Woodhill ‘Big Stick’.
Of course there is a whole gulag of blocks and units through which
prisoners are shunted on ‘lay-downs’ (usually of 28 days duration); the
so-called ‘Ghost-train’, ‘Roundabout’ or ‘Merry-go-round’7.
This system has been used for many years as a way of trying to isolate
and disorientate prisoners, and officially existed, prior to the
establishment of the CSC system, as the ‘Continuous Assessment Scheme’.
The practice continues and like the brutal CSC system, prisoners have in
reality to do very little (if anything at all) to be subjected to it.
Almost all of the time I spent in different blocks and units was
justified on the grounds of ‘suspicion’ of some form of ‘subversive’
activity rather than actually being ‘nicked’8.
Claire Hodson, the former Gruppenfuhrer of the Woodhill Torture Unit, refers (in her reply to John Bowden … ) to the involvement, “or alleged involvement”
(my emphasis), of prisoners in “serious acts of violence”, but I know
of one case where a prisoner was banished to Woodhill simply for telling
a joke about screws getting cancer! For anyone who knows the Kafkaesque
British penal gulag, where truth means nothing and lies are everywhere,
Hodson’s words will have a familiar tone. My own prolonged segregation
and confinement in the maximum security system was justified by various
heads of the prison service, and even by a prisons minister, on the
grounds that I had supposedly been involved in arson, riot, serious
violence against screws and threats to kill them, etc. In reality, I had
never been charged with any of these things, let alone convicted of
Though I was held in many blocks and units (including the blocks at
Woodhill, Wakefield, and Long Lartin, and the Durham unit, which are all
referred to in this pamphlet), sometimes alongside CSC prisoners, I was
never put into the CSC system itself. Nor, (though he has been in more
blocks and units than I could count – including the notorious Wakefield
‘Cages’ referred to above) was John Bowden. Nor, for example, were any
of the Irish Republican prisoners that were held in the English jail
system at the time the Woodhill Torture Unit was set up. The System
seems to have been reluctant to take on avowedly political prisoners
with strong support networks. They made some serious miscalculations
though, and the first group of CSC prisoners included some sterling
prison rebels who fought them tooth and nail, and with whose combined
resistance Woodhill were unable to cope. Because of this the System have
become even more cowardly in their choice of targets. In particular,
prisoners with pre-existing mental health problems have been cruelly
targeted for further abuse. Few human-beings, if any, could survive the
grossly abusive conditions of the CSC system without suffering mental
trauma, something which was recognised very early on at Woodhill.
Indeed, from the earliest days of its existence, such was the level
of brutality, that even the screws who worked there began cracking-up.
To subject those who already have a degree of mental illness to the
calculated and systematic psychological mistreatment of the CSC system
is a colossal abuse.
Despite bouncing me round the entire English prison estate,
everywhere from Durham to Cardiff to Parkhurst, the System never
succeeded in isolating me from friends and supporters outside. Few
prisoners, however, are able to rely on that breadth of support, and are
relatively easy to isolate from any friends and family they have. It is
only thanks to John Bowden and a few others, who have often suffered
prolonged reprisals as a result, that we know anything about what is
happening within the walls of Woodhill and the CSC gulag. When I first
knew John, having met him at Full Sutton in 1998, and we began to
organise together, our very first initiative was focussed on Woodhill to
try and expose the torture that prisoners were being subjected to and
to generate support for them. We hoped that a combination of prisoner
solidarity and outside support, coupled with the spirited resistance of
some of Woodhill’s victims, might bring the vicious regime to an end.
John and I wrote a joint article about Woodhill, which was published in the paper Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!9,
one of the few radical journals that gets into prisons, and a long-time
champion of prisoners’ rights. I also wrote a statement calling on
supporters outside to focus their attention on Woodhill on International
Prisoners’ Justice Day10(something which the Anarchist
Black Cross and others organised around at the time). We had planned a
national prisoners’ work-strike for the day, but had to rely on outside
help to spread news about it to other prisons, particularly those
outside the closed Dispersal System11. The old national
ABC network was in a sorry state at the time, but we relied on them to
help do this. It was a mistake; instead of using my statement in support
of the work-strike we were organising, they arrogantly called for a
hunger-strike, and dishonestly used my statement (which for reasons of
prison censorship simply called for support for the “solidarity
activities being organised”) in support of this. As a result of the
inept propaganda the ABC mailed into prisons, the only place there was a
solid prisoners work-strike was at Full Sutton itself12,
where I had managed to print leaflets of my own, (John having by this
point been shipped-out). The planned protest outside Woodhill itself was
thinly attended, and for me this was the last straw in terms of the old
ABC network, which collapsed shortly afterwards. With better outside
support things could have been very different.
Even before the work-strike at Full Sutton, John had been ‘ghosted’13
out of the nick, and it wasn’t long before I was myself subject to
similar treatment, being in and out of the block for the rest of my
sentence14. It should never be forgotten that those who
speak out against injustice from within prison are at risk of paying a
heavy price in terms of their own treatment at the hands of Prison
Service scum. When they were originally published, the articles
contained in this pamphlet will not have gone unnoticed by those who
hold their brave authors captive, nor will they now. John Bowden, who
has been in prison for three decades, is no longer being held because it
is claimed he poses any ‘risk’ to the public, but specifically because
of these articles and others like them, something which is quite
explicitly stated in the latest Prison Service reports opposing his
It is good to see this pamphlet produced, and I am sure that every
prisoner who finds themselves isolated and brutalised in the nightmare
world of the Woodhill Torture Unit will welcome it also.
From its pages the reader will learn much about what is going on
inside the closed world of the CSC system, but it is so far divorced
from everyday life for most people, that an empathetic imagination will
be required to relate to it directly. Kyle Major, for example, talks
about being on a “six officer riot unlock”. That means that every time
his door is unlocked for any reason, he will first have orders barked at
him to stand at the back of his cell, perhaps to face the wall or even
to kneel and place his hands behind his head. Then his door will be
opened by six burly block screws in full riot gear, all itching to show
how brave they can be with their clubs and shields. Kevin Thakrar
mentions taking a shower, his reality is that he will occasionally be
frog-marched to an open shower by similar sour-faced bastards to the
ones above. Here he will stand in full view, under water which is either
freezing cold or absurdly hot, while the screws stand around making
‘jokes’ until they get bored and march him back to his cell.
Once again I am brought back to Gruppenfuhrer Hodson’s
letter and her reference to “single serious acts of violence”. Prison is
ALL about violence, concerted violence not single acts, from the basic
act of holding another individual against their will, to the naked
brutality few prisoners do not witness first-hand. But the violence at
Woodhill Torture Unit is endemic, part of every regulation and
procedure, of its very raison d’être. From the very beginning,
it was conceived as a way of crushing and breaking the humanity of
individual prisoners, and the longer this sick experiment has gone on,
the crueller it has become.
As John Bowden says, in his article ‘Abuse Of Prisoners With Mental
Health Issues In Close Supervision Centres’: “It is not just prison
guards but the whole web of prison psychiatrists, doctors, managers,
supervisors …and ultimately the entire prison system…that also
perpetrate the abuses meted out on those held in the CSCs.” We should
expect no act of conscience or contrition from those who designed and
run this loathsome system, in an earlier time they would have happily
run Auschwitz. They have the same moral equivalence, and they deserve to
be held similarly accountable.
On a lesser level, we must also hold to account our own movement, who
along with the wider movement of supposed radicals, have through sheer
apathy allowed Woodhill Torture Unit to function, largely unchallenged,
for well over a decade, and who for the most part do not give a stuff
about what goes on behind prison walls. We need to expose and challenge
prison abuses such as the CSC system, not as reformists, but as part and
parcel of opposing the human rights abuse that prison ALWAYS
Lastly, prisoners themselves must wake up to the fact that, as Kevin
Thakrar makes clear, the CSC system functions as one extreme of the
arselickers’ charter known as the ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges’
scheme, and that every time one of them actively participates in this
scheme, by signing a ‘compact’15 or grovelling their way onto ‘Enhanced’16,
they validate the scheme and thus what is happening to those at
Woodhill and its satellites. Perhaps with the support and encouragement
of a strong prisoner solidarity movement more of them would find the
integrity and courage to resist. We outside need to build that movement
and actively challenge what is happening to those from our class who
fall into the hands of The Enemy. As the Anarchist Black Cross slogan
goes: “No-one forgotten! Nothing forgiven!”
Burn every prison to the ground!
(Leeds Anarchist Black Cross)
1. A prison class system introduced in 1995, which
splits prisoners into three basic ‘privilege’ categories ‘according to
their behaviour and overall compliance’. Everything from the number of
visits to ‘time out of cell’ is determined according to the ‘privilege
2. A prison workshop, where prisoners are typically required to
perform some highly repetitive, boring task, which would ordinarily be
automated if the (usually) private company running the place wasn’t
allowed to exploit forced prison labour.
4. The forced injection of psychotropic drugs such
as largactyl. The doping of prisoners was pioneered at Parkhurst by the
notoriously abusive prison psychiatrist Dr B D Cooper.
5. The national movement for the Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners.
6. These became known as ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ or simply as ‘The Cages’.
7. Prisoners are continually moved from block to
block, sometimes for years, with no notice being given of transfer and
their property (including legal papers) often only arriving after they
are already on their way to their next location. Through this process a
prisoner’s visits, both legal (ie with their lawyer) and social, are
disrupted, as is their incoming mail, access to funds, ‘canteen’ (the
prison shop), medical treatment, and their ability to do legal work.
8. To be ‘nicked’ in prison is ‘to be placed on
report’ and required to attend an internal kangaroo court for ‘offences
against prison discipline’. One of the range of punishments meted out is
segregation for a set number of days. However, most prisoners who are
held in segregation units are not ‘serving sentences of cellular
confinement’; they are segregated under the notorious prison GOAD rule,
which effectively allows the System to segregate prisoners indefinitely
for the ‘Good order and discipline’ of the prison.
9. Issue 149 – June/July 1999.
10. 10th August.
11. The so-called Dispersal System is made up of a
small number of maximum security prisons designed to hold prisoners
deemed to be of the highest security risk. Despite heavy censorship and
monitoring of phone-calls, networks of friends and relatives, and
prisoners being transferred, make passing news around the dispersals
relatively simple and fast. Spreading news to the wider prison system
beyond is less easy however.
12. It was almost 100% solid.
13. To be ‘ghosted’ is to be taken from your cell
(or sometimes from another part of the prison you have been tricked into
going to) while everyone else is locked-up, and transferred to another
prison, usually via the block.
14. Being released from Whitemoor, a maximum security prison, in 2002.
15. A type of ‘good behaviour contract’, with no
legal validity, which the Prison Service have been trying to peddle to
prisoners since the early 1990’s.
16. The top tier of the IEP scheme, known to prisoners as ‘The Enchanted’.