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September 13, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Burn all prisons

Britain’s prison population hit an all-time high earlier this year, prompting the national media to declare the situation a crisis: with 141 people per 100,000 in prison, Britain leads Western Europe with the highest rates of incarceration. New Zealand, by comparison, has an incarceration rate of around 197 people per 100,000, putting us well ahead of Britain and most other countries in the OECD (falling behind Russia and the USA).

Communities of Resitance (CoRe) is a UK-based initiative fighting the expansion of the prison industrial complex. They define the prison industrial complex as “the network of governmental and private interests that uses prisons as a response to social, political and economic problems. The PIC includes all institutions, government branches, agencies, NGOs and businesses that have a financial, organisational or political interest in maintaining the prison system, such as the Home Office, Border Agency, security corporations, prison construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, etc.” Part of their campaign towards the abolition of the prison system involves fostering solidarity amongst communities most affected by the prison industrial complex by connecting prisoners with people on the outside and highlighting the fact that all forms of oppression are inter-linked. Bent Bars is a letter-writing penpal project they have launched to support queer and trans people in prison.

CoRe recognises that queer, trans and gender-nonconformist people, especially from social groups already oppressed by the status quo (for example, immigrants, sex workers, young people, people of colour, and pot smokers), are more likely to be targeted, criminalised and punished by the state. Although repressive legislation that specifically criminalises queer people has been overturned in most Western capitalist societies, the ongoing conditions of institutionalised homophobia, sexism and racism have been left intact. Transphobia committed by the police, government, education and prison systems is still largely ignored by most of ‘mainstream’ society.

Queer and trans people are still more likely to suffer violence, harrassment, decreased job opportunities and mental illness; factors that make people from our community more vulnerable to confrontations with the state ‘justice’ system. Although violent crime is present within all social and economic groups, sentencing and conviction rates are determined to a large extent by the structuring of the current system and the inequalities that are perpetuated within these structures. The prison system serves the status quo by punishing the poor and marginalised, thereby reinforcing prejudiced concepts of crime as an inherent quality of only certain types of people.

The injustices of New Zealand’s prison industrial complex are becoming increasingly apparent as the government pushes privatisation of prisons and higher sentencing rates, while ignoring the social factors of rising unemployment and systemically reinforced inequality that keep our prison population severely over-represented by Maori, working class and Pacific Island people.

For a long time, the LGBT political agenda has focused exclusively on demanding rights and recognition from the state system, without recognising that, by reforming the system to accept certain categorical identities, the diverse outlooks and experiences of people within the queer community become ignored and even more marginalised. The ‘gay’ rights movement that now rallies behind the right to marriage ignores the reality that the ‘state’ equals oppression for many queers. Why worry about whether or not you will one day walk down the aisle, when queers are being marched off to prison? If queers are to achieve true liberation, we must engage in a movement that is built upon abolishing all forms of social inequality, and not just granting more privileges to a certain few whose inclinations happen to conform to heteronormative ideals of state-validated monogamy.

Initiatives such as Bent Bars provide a starting point to realising that if law changes, such as the right to marry, are to have any relevance they must be fought for in the context of a whole range of other social issues. Prison only supports crime and violence: by fighting for its abolition we can engage in a true battle for queer freedom.

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