Opinion //

The true violence of prisons

The teargassing of the neighbourhood surrounding Long Bay Correction Centre unmasks the true violence of prisons.

Long Bay Gaol prisoners spell out "BLM". Source: ABC News.

Inmates at Long Bay Correctional Centre in Malabar were tear gassed at midday today by the prison’s Immediate Action Team (IAT) and Riot Squad police, who were called to the scene of a fight between inmates. Members of the local Malabar community took to social media to report tear gas coming from the gaol and into the surrounding suburbs. The public Maroubra Community Facebook page posted that “a bunch of people [were] running from the beach and playground, lots of kids crying. All of a sudden there’s this pungent smell, eyes and throat burning…” It was later confirmed by a Corrective Services NSW spokeswomen that the tear gas was used to “control disruptive inmates”. 

Aerial footage taken by the ABC shows prison guards releasing multiple tear gas canisters in the prison yard. It has also been reported that one man has been hospitalised with severe dog bite injuries after attack dogs were used by guards. The ABC footageshows several inmates using material found in the prison to spell out “BLM” in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has seen protests across the world after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Prisons are often viewed as a necessary mechanism to keep violence from our communities; an inevitable and permanent feature of society, prisons are assumed, often totally uncritically,  to be effective in stopping violence. As violence continues within our societies it is clear that prisons do not achieve their goal of ending violence. Many argue that prisons only serve to make people more violent and increase crime. These understandings of prisons as a tool to stop violence also fails to consider the violence prisons themselves produce. Prisons are a constant site of state violence, and today’s tear gassing at Long Bay Gaol is just one example of this.

In December 2015, Long Bay Gaol was the site of the murder of David Dungay Junr. David is one of the more than 400 Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. While cities across Australia and the world were protesting on Friday and Saturday as part of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, a 40 year old Aboriginal man died at Acacia Prison in Perth. When the weekend of protesting had ended, an Aboriginal woman was hospitalised and remains in critical condition after allegedly being “body-slammed” by a prison guard at Bandyup Women’s Prison in Perth. This violence is not out of the ordinary but rather, an ongoing and inherent feature of the prison system.

Dominant perceptions of violence as an interpersonal act hides the more dangerous and insidious violence that is sanctioned and perpetrated by the state. Today’s tear gassing and prison lockdown was said to have occurred because of violence between two inmates, a physical fight. The reporting of this incident as interpersonal violence allows the state to justify its violence against those in prison. Prisons supposedly employ violence to protect, yet how can a system built upon violence protect from violence itself and seek to end it?

The violence prisons produce is not just physical, and it is not always tear gas that will flow into the wider community and be noticed by those outside. It is often much more discreet, yet insidious. Prisoners are forced to endure deprivation and isolation to such an extent it can cause (and reinforce) trauma. The restrictive and controlling nature of life in prison means you are at the whim of a system you have no power in. The constant threat of violence controls people and forces them to surrender themselves to the will of the guards. Mandatory strip searches, sensory deprivation and physical and social isolation are all violent tactics that we are supposed to believe will rehabilitate people. While the violence of those entering prison and their “crimes” are televised and reported on, too often the violence inside prisons is hidden from the world. I wonder if the violence and lockdown seen today at Long Bay would have been reported on at all if it hadn’t affected the outside community as much as it did. The common societal perception that prisoners are deserving of their punishment allows society to turn a blind eye to their treatment, considering it a necessary part of their punishment. As a society we must move beyond this punitive and carceral logic that allows for this violence against prisoners to continue.

Because of the fact that we understand violence as an innate part of prisons, we must consider alternatives to carceral systems. Across the world Black Lives Matter protesters are calling for the dismantling of police and the abolition of prisons. This demand understands that there is no “better” or “kinder” prison system — the only option is to abolish prisons and the capitalist and colonial systems in which such systemic violence is rooted.