Monday, May 28, 2018

Outsourcing torture and execution

Member of an American prison gang (Wikicommons: Border Brothers). A jail sentence is no longer just a jail sentence.

When my scholarship was cancelled I began looking for short-term contracts to support myself. At that time Quebec City offered little in the way of long-term employment, but demand was strong for bilingual contractuels who knew software packages like WordPerfect (which was not at all user-friendly in the late 1980s). 

One day I got a call from a maximum security prison west of Quebec City. A renewable six-month clerical position. Good pay. But I'd have to get vaccinated for hepatitis B. "You never know. There's always a risk of rape in these places." I politely declined. Later someone else phoned to reassure me that the risk was "minimal" and nothing to worry about. I still declined.

Rape and assault are frequent in prisons. This is no surprise. More surprisingly, prison violence is becoming a deliberate form of punishment—a way to make the original sentence a lot worse. This punitive function has been discussed in a recent paper:

To what extent are rapes, beatings, and other assaults essential to the punitive function of the modern prison? Officially, violence of this sort is unlawful and clearly outside the bounds of legitimate punishment. The United States Supreme Court has declared more than once that being assaulted is not "part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society."

[...] In reality, violence thoroughly defines the prison experience. Prisoners face a substantial risk of being beaten, raped, and even killed at the hands of their fellow inmates or keepers. In a way that is sometimes difficult for those who are unfamiliar with prison to appreciate, prisoners inhabit a world comprehensively defined by this kind of violence. Such violence is the dominant arbiter of social status in prison. It is the means by which authority, hierarchy, and privilege are articulated among prisoners and between prisoners and their keepers. And it is, paradoxically, the most reliable protection against being the victim of violence. (White 2008, pp. 737-738)

When did this punitive function come to be? To some extent it has always existed, but it began to gain much more importance during the "demographic shift" of the 1960s and 1970s (White 2008, pp. 745-746). The baby boom was invading all spheres of life, and this dramatic growth in the number of young people coincided with a weakening of informal social controls by family and church. People were also moving from rural communities (where these informal controls were strong) to big cities (where they were weak). All of these factors facilitated an explosion of criminal behavior, especially the violent sort that young males specialize in. American prisons were overwhelmed, "and by the mid 1970s the correctional model had totally collapsed, superseded by a very different regime" (White 2008, p. 745).

Male violence: pathological in some societies, normal in others

This surge of violent crime happened in all racial groups, but much more in African Americans. Why? The usual explanation is social deprivation. Young men turn to violence when denied full access to education, employment, and social acceptance. Such behavior is abnormal and will disappear in normal circumstances.

That view of “normal” behavior applies only to some societies. Elsewhere, young men are supposed to fight. And not simply as a last resort. They're expected to fight proactively, as a means to gain status, to impress women, and to strike terror in potential enemies (Frost 2010; Frost and Harpending 2015). 

This is in contrast to pacified societies, where the State has imposed a monopoly on violence, and where even self-defense is not always a sufficient excuse. In such societies, violent behavior is criminalized and pathologized. The ideal young man goes to "school" and "work" without ever using violence to defend himself and his family, or even to impress women. Sheesh!

Pacified societies exist throughout much of Europe and East Asia, with interesting exceptions. The strong arm of the State has historically been weak in mountainous regions, like Albania and the Caucasus, and this is also where men are most willing to act violently on their own behalf. In England, endemic violence persisted until the 18th century in the northern border regions, where any encounter with non-kin, however innocent, could turn violent. Disputes would grow into long-running feuds if not settled through payment of blood money (Fischer 1989, pp. 621-632).

These two kinds of society can work fairly well ... if kept apart. In non-pacified societies, the level of personal violence is not as high as one might expect. A sort of dynamic equilibrium makes young men think twice before acting violently, since any violence will be repaid in kind by the victim, his brothers, and his male kin. So violence tends to target people who cannot retaliate, either because they're physically weak or because they have no kinfolk to stand up for them. 

Problems begin when these two kinds of society co-exist on the same territory. When the non-pacified society becomes sufficiently numerous, but not necessarily the majority, it can impose its rules, and everyone will have to play by them. If you cannot fight back and have no "brothers" to defend you, there remains only one option: submit. This is now the case in American prisons and, increasingly, in prisons throughout the Western world.

Indeed, the demographic profile of prisons has changed a lot even in Western Europe, where native Europeans make up fewer and fewer of the inmates. More and more are from societies where State control of personal violence is recent and widely perceived as being illegitimate. They come mostly from North Africa, West Africa, Somalia, Southwest Asia, and South Asia. They are predominantly Muslim, and the Muslim proportion of the prison population gives a rough idea of the demographic shift. This proportion is 60 to 70% in France (Moore 2008), 45% in Belgium ( 2013), and 15% in the United Kingdom (Allen and Watson 2017, p. 14). Furthermore, Muslim inmates have power beyond their numbers because they are willing to fight for each other. This is a recurring theme in interviews with prisoners:

“there's no gangs in Rochester it's just Muslims stick together”, Muslims “walk around the wings in tens” and 'people will say that the only gang in here are the Muslims they always stick up for each other”. For many Muslim prisoners the solidarity engendered by sharing a faith was viewed as presenting certain obligations just as area allegiances required mutual defensive protection for prisoners: “I see Muslims will stay closer together so ...obviously you have to look out for your brother, help his brother, it's a Muslim's duty. And it's like whatever, whatever I want for myself I should want for my brother.” (Phillips 2012, p. 60)

Some prisoners even convert to Islam as a way to get protection (Phillips 2012, p. 62).

Prison violence as an instrument of law enforcement

Beginning in the 1970s, American law-enforcement began to turn this situation to its own advantage, initially to assert control over prisoners:

In some circumstances, it is clear that rape is used by prison officials as a means of control in its own right—as a means of punishing inmates who are (by the officials' reckoning) especially troublesome, of breaking the will of defiant inmates, and of rewarding (by accommodating their victimization of others) inmates who are in some way helpful to the institution's interests. Where rape is sanctioned in this fashion, a victimized inmate has little hope of gaining the institution's protection from further abuse. Even where it is not so sanctioned, victims of rape often encounter considerable indifference on the part of administrators and staff who would rather not antagonize powerful rapists, who anticipate difficulties with successful investigation, or who for some other reason cannot be bothered. Many staff simply may take the position that defense against rapes and other assaults are an inmate's own obligation. (White 2008, p. 757)

This punitive function has since been extended to people currently outside prison. Initially, it helped to keep juvenile delinquents in line by sending them a crude but simple message: if you're not careful, we'll send you to a place where you'll be raped, assaulted, and perhaps killed. 

Today, that message is no longer aimed solely at juvenile delinquents. Every American knows that a prison sentence is a lot more than time behind bars. In theory, the State no longer maims or tortures. In practice, it does … and on a scale not seen since medieval times:

That such violence is so thoroughly unlawful allows it to serve the state as a mode of punishment without the state ever confessing the true extent of its resort to such barbarity and without thereby surrendering much in the way of its legal and political legitimacy. Indeed, by deeming prison violence illegal, the state in its various manifestations can actually condemn the phenomenon, while yet relying on it as part of [the] regime of control. (White 2008, p. 740)

Toward a new regime of control

This regime of control has developed in an atmosphere of "They’ve got it coming to them anyway!" Prison sentences are normally handed down for serious crimes, like murder or gang rape, and there is still a widespread feeling that such people are not being punished enough. In recent years, however, prison sentences have begun to be imposed for minor offenses, especially in the United Kingdom. 

Last year, an English man was found guilty of placing two bacon sandwiches outside the door of a mosque. He was sentenced to a year in jail, and halfway through the sentence he was found dead in his cell (Curtis 2018). The prison sentence is itself incredible. This was a first-time offense that would have been considered a misdemeanor scarcely a decade ago.

A similar sentence was handed down to Tommy Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League. Not long into his sentence, the inevitable happened:

"They gave him a pasting. He was being taken for a legal visit and was then put in a room with these guys. The door was locked and the warders all disappeared. He has quite a few injuries to his face and neck and needed two visits to the medical wing." The source said his attackers were Muslim prisoners but that could not be verified. Robinson suspects the situation was engineered by the warders because of the obvious threat posed to him by opponents of the EDL. He fears he is a marked man inside the category A prison. (Gover 2014)

The official reason for the sentence? Making an incorrect statement on a mortgage application—a misdemeanor normally punished by a fine. And for this Tommy Robinson was sent to a category A prison. 

This past week, he was again sentenced to jail:

At 14h00 on 25 May 2018 Judge Denise Marson QC summarily sentenced Robinson and issued a notice under Section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 banning any reporting of the hearing, sentence, evidence offered or any other matter relating to the proceedings against Robinson indefinitely until the conclusion of a series of child grooming trials in Leeds Crown Court. (Wikipedia 2018)

This time, Tommy Robinson was sentenced to jail for broadcasting information that might influence the outcome of a rape gang trial (he was livestreaming outside the courthouse). Yet that information had already been published in a local newspaper. Even more strangely, the judge extended the reporting ban to the outcome of Robinson’s trial. That trial had no jurors to influence. It was a trial by judge and was completed in four hours. One final point: some reports state that the judge simply reactivated an existing suspended sentence, hence the speedy trial. But only a few months remained on that sentence, and this one seems to be much longer. For a new sentence a defendant is normally given time to prepare a defense, find witnesses, and choose a lawyer, rather than having a court-appointed one (as was actually the case).

Because of the reporting ban, news reports on this story have either been pulled or modified. Fox News states that he was sentenced to 13 months in prison despite protests from his lawyer, who said this measure would be tantamount to a death sentence, “given his profile and previous credible threats” (Fox News 2018).

One might wonder about these jail sentences for misdemeanors that hardly justify such punishment. And is the punishment really the time spent behind bars? Or is it something else? Like something in the prison environment that can “finish the job”? A strange collusion seems to be developing between the UK justice system and the vilest elements of prison society.


Allen, G. and C. Watson (2017). UK Prison Population Statistics. Briefing Paper. House of Commons Library.

Fischer, D.H. (1989). Albion's Seed. Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, pp. 621-632.

Curtis, J. (2018). Man jailed for leaving a bacon sandwich outside a mosque is found dead in prison halfway through his 12-month sentence. Daily Mail, May 27, 2018

Fox News (2018). Right-wing activist Tommy Robinson reportedly jailed after filming outside child grooming trial.

Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology 8(3): 376-389.  

Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology 13: 230-243.

Gover, D. (2014). Fear of Muslim Attack Beaten up in Woodhill Prison. International Business Times, February 5

Moore, M. (2008). In France, prisons filled with Muslims, The Washington Post, April 29

Phillips, C. (2012). 'It ain't nothing like America with the Bloods and the Crips': Gang narratives inside two English prisons. Punishment & Society 14(1): 51-68. (2013). 45% des détenus des prisons belges sont de confession musulmane,, May 23

White, A.A. (2008). The Concept of "Less Eligibility" and the Social Function of Prison Violence in Class Society. Buffalo Law Review 56: 737-820.

Wikipedia. (2018). Tommy Robinson (activist).


Anonymous said...

For Robinson to have been convicted of contempt of court, it probably means a failure to comply with a court order. That is, he broke it knowingly - I don't know what kind of a court order it was, but it must have involved the court case in question.

Anonymous said...

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 also is used to lengthen a sentence. Because Robinson does not behave very bright, mouthing off openly about Islam, instead of thinking first. Whatever someone thinks about Islam, you can't pretend either Robinson or bacon butties guy didn't break the law on religious aggravation, if we go by the book. Especially Robinson, who did provoke Moslems and therefore previous encounters with the law.

In the UK, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 requires a court to consider (a) relevant previous convictions, (b) racial or religious aggravation, and (c) hostility towards the victim or to persons generally based on sexual orientation (or presumed sexual orientation) or disability (or presumed disability) when determining sentence for a conviction.

I'm not saying this is ethical or not open to abuse, but a) and b) are obviously what caused the harsh verdict. Had Robinson opted for other channels of activism instead, he would not receive such treatment. For example, the cartoonist 'Mohammed Jones' has not been unmasked and jailed just for writing or drawing anti-Moslem materials.

Peter Frost said...

He was accused and convicted (in the space of 4 hours) of broadcasting information that might influence the jurors at the rape gang trial. The "information" was a list of the defendants, and that list had already been broadcast by the BBC and published in a local newspaper.

"The Criminal Justice Act 2003 also is used to lengthen a sentence."

if a court wishes to lengthen a sentence, and not simply re-activate a suspended sentence, it has to give the defendant sufficient time to prepare a defence, find witnesses, and choose a lawyer (and not a court-appointed one). I understand that you dislike Tommy Robinson and the man who left bacon sandwiches at the door of a mosque, but we live under the rule of law. Justice is supposed to be blind, and your animosity or the animosity of the political/judicial class shouldn't be a factor.

The irony here is that the UK political class did nothing for years about the rape gangs, while speedily prosecuting those people who did speak out.

Anonymous said...

All I know is that, very recently, Robinson was convicted for a specific crime - contempt of court. Maybe you are talking about something else, but I don't know about it.

For the record, I have no real hatred of Robinson, not personally: just the social tendency he became a public face of. First of all I don't like petulent censorship, of which ban-the-burqa thinking must count as an example, at least as much as banning Mohammed cartoons. Secondly the Moslems are often blamed in a way that excuses our own culpability in the fates of our daughters.

Peter Frost said...

You're telling me you don't know about his current conviction? Is this because of the gag order?

In May 2017, Robinson was convicted of contempt of court for using a camera inside a courthouse. He was given a 3-month suspended sentence. That's a reasonable sentence, and it was handed down after a trial where he had time to prepare his defence and bring his own lawyer.

The current conviction is a 13-month sentence that was handed down only four hours after he had been grabbed by the police. This was a new sentence and not an activation of the old suspended sentence. And where was the "contempt of court"? He was livestreaming outside the courthouse, and the information in that livestream came from the BBC. It was already public knowledge.

I understand that you dislike Tommy Robinson. Other people have other opinions, and it's not the function of the judiciary to decide which opinions are valid and which are not. The judiciary is supposed to be above politics.

Sean said...

You are living in a fantasy world if you think it is a social tendency. The law on religious aggravation is not actually being used for anything except action against the anti immigration sentiment from Britain's indigenous population, and the "book" is not being "gone by", but rather thrown at people of certain political views. The bacon fellow's act was described by Judge Julian* Lambert as an 'attack on England' and 'the principles of freedom of religion'. *Most Lawyers (and the vast majority of Judges I expect) were privately educated.

The message that the lesser orders of the population gets is: if you join or help or interact in any way with an anti-immigration party, your attitude will be noted, and at the very least you risk public degradation. So everyone who does not already have a criminal record will play safe and the nationalist party's activists are those with little in the way of employment or position in society to lose.

The Brexit vote was all about Poles ect affecting the labour market, lots of people were and still are grumbling about them. Very few dare complain in the same way that there are too many Pakistanis and other non Europeans, because court cases like Robinson's and the prosecution of BNP leader Nick Griffin, and the police cautioning (and in the past even arrests of the fathers of the abused girls for going to the brothel-houses where their daughters were) ect, make it clear the police are going to look very carefully to see if they can charge you with an offence-- preferably an aggravated one-- for anything you say or do. Such things are an important part of their training and examinations nowadays. Of course, the more intelligent do not like to think they have been intimidated out of any perception they would otherwise espouse, and prefer to think they are not affected mentally by what happens to people like Robinson.

Anonymous said...

"You are living in a fantasy world if you think it is a social tendency. The law on religious aggravation is not actually being used for anything except action against the anti immigration sentiment from Britain's indigenous population, and the "book" is not being "gone by", but rather thrown at people of certain political views."

Maybe, but people who express themselves in alternative ways, avoid the shitstorm surrounding Tommy Robinson. I agree with you there is classism in this, but people CAN criticise Islam freely in the UK.

Sean said...

No one with anything to lose can express them self about the real issue, buy that I mean criticism of Islam is not what it is about, making an example of Robinson ect is intended to inhibit the masses from talking about stopping and perhaps reversing non- European immigration. What was going on in Rotherham and many other places was well known but the local news media, politicians and police kept it quiet for decades until a documentary collaterally revealed it.
Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Review: Edge of the City
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter
Edge of the CityEge of the City, a documentary on Bradford's social services, has been screened by Channel 4 after being dropped in May after police warned it could inflame racial tensions at local election time.

Translation: they thought it would help the anti-immigration party. Anyone who is an activist for those parties is targeted for arrest or internecine conflict as soon as they have the slightest success. You don't have to go to prison to be beaten up for it either. The EDL does not even stand in elections, it just does marches. People like Robinson are usually proteges of Special Branch, but he is used to warn off the wider population.

Anonymous said...

This is why one of the corporal works of mercy is visiting the imprisoned. It puts a check on bad behaviour and convicts the conscience of some.