Sunday, 18 April 2010

20 years ago: the Strangeways prison riot

from this weeks issue of the Socialist

On 1 April it was 20 years since the start of the Strangeways prison 'riot'. The riot was a protest by prisoners against their appalling conditions. They initially barricaded themselves in the prison chapel, then took to the roof to raise the profile of their demands.

Iain Dalton

At the time conditions in prisons were bad. Strangeways had a certified capacity of 970, yet at the time of the riot the prison was holding 1,647 prisoners.

Prisoners on remand were in their cells 18 hours a day. Category A prisoners were in their cells 22 hours a day, only being allowed out to slop out - empty their chamber pots - for an hour's exercise and for a weekly shower. There was no change of kit for most prisoners after showers, and young prisoners had no work and few activities to keep them occupied.

The prisoners put these demands through the Manchester Evening News:

* Improved visiting facilities, including the right to physical contact with visitors and a children's play area.
* Category A prisoners to be allowed to wear their own clothes and be able to receive food parcels.
* Longer exercise periods.
* An end to the 23-hour-a-day lock-up.

Over a period of a few weeks, prisoners surrendered or were recaptured. Eventually the last five were taken off the roof in a cherry-picker.

The riot led to the setting up of a public inquiry under Lord Woolf which concluded that prison conditions were 'intolerable' and urged reform.

But a scurrilous article in the Society Guardian on 3 March this year attempted to put the responsibility for the riot onto violence-seeking prisoners and lazy prison officers who couldn't see the vision of the newly installed reforming prison governor Brendan O'Friel.

Yet the Woolf report noted that his reforms hadn't done much to alleviate the standards of prison life and called the conditions 'still wholly intolerable'.

Prisons had been understaffed for years, resulting in prisoners being locked up for longer and longer periods.

As part of the government's Fresh Start scheme for prison staffing, prisons had been reducing the number of hours overtime worked by prison officers as well as making other 'efficiency savings' whilst not making up for this by increasing staffing levels.

This also led to the increasing use of sedatives to keep control of the prison population.

After the Woolf report there was a slowdown in the growth of the prison population. Many prisons were improved so that they contained integrated sanitation and Strangeways itself was rebuilt at a cost of £55 million after the damage it had suffered during the riot. It was re-opened as Manchester prison.

But since then the prison population has shot up again. It is now over the 80,000 mark, which necessitated the use of police and court cells to hold prisoners during 2007. Although slopping out is supposed to have been phased out, it is still present in a few prisons such as Peterhead.

Some right-wing media portray prison conditions as luxury accommodation, yet as the Strangeways riot showed, it is far from the 'holiday camp' they wish to portray.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Contract Killers

Review from the February 2010 issue of Socialism Today

Blackwater: the rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army
By Jeremy Scahill
Nation Books, 2008, £8.99
Reviewed by
Iain Dalton

THE NEW year began with a US court throwing out a case against five Blackwater guards accused of killing between 14 and 17 Iraqis in the infamous 14 September 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad. Witnesses allege that they fired indiscriminately when the convoy they were guarding approached a crowded intersection. Thrown out on a procedural technicality, the case highlights the use of private contractors in warzones, and the way in which they can act with impunity as they go about their business of doing the dirty work of US imperialism, and other major powers. A number of claimants had reached out-of-court settlements with Blackwater.

Blackwater is a name which has become associated with the brutality of the US ‘security’ operation in Iraq. So infamous has the organisation become that it has seeped into culture. The Anti-Flag song, The Ink and The Quill, is dedicated to it, describing its forces as "the hidden fist of the free market". In the popular RPG computer game, Oblivion, ‘Blackwood Company’ mercenaries massacre a village of civilians they are informed are bandits. Several films feature Blackwater-esque companies. So much so that, in January 2009, it rebranded itself as Xe in an attempt to escape that association.

Blackwater was initially set up in 1998 as a ‘one-stop shop’ training facility by former armed forces personnel on the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, the company named for the colour of the water there. From creating a mock-up high school facility for training after the Columbine massacre to landing central government training contracts, Blackwater went from strength to strength. But it was only after the 9/11 attacks and invasion of Afghanistan that Blackwater Security Consulting was incorporated, and the company began supplying ‘security contractors’ to various wings of the military and US government, starting with providing 20 guards for the CIA’s Kabul station.

The biggest contract that Blackwater managed to land in this period was the one to guard the US viceroy in Iraq, ambassador L Paul Bremer III. The corruption and self-serving nature of the regime Bremer presided over is detailed well, from the $9 billion in unaccounted for Iraqi reconstruction funds, the ‘de-Baathification’ which threw hundreds of thousands out of work, lowering corporation tax from 40% to 15% and, crucially for Blackwater and others, Order 17, which granted immunity from prosecution to contractors in Iraq.

Jeremy Scahill does not just describe Blackwater’s rise to prominence, but that of the security contracting industry as a whole. Other mercenary outfits, such as DynCorp, Aegis, Eirlys, the Steele Foundation and others, have all benefited from the Iraq war privatisation, sending thousands of armed troops between them. Indeed, by the time Donald Rumsfeld left office in 2006, there was almost a one-to-one ratio of contractors to US armed forces personnel. (This includes other tasks, such as catering, as well as mercenary fighters.)

As with other traditional state functions, such as policing and imprisonment, privatisation has mostly proceeded from taking over peripheral functions, such as catering, transport and guard duties. It was while escorting a convoy of kitchen supplies that four under-equipped Blackwater personnel were killed in Fallujah. US forces responded by inflicting collective punishment on the city. Blackwater has its own air force, run under the name Presidential Airways, and has created its own armoured personnel carrier. As well as its original training facility, it has developed several others, including a jungle training complex in the Philippines.

It is not just from the Iraq and Afghan wars that Blackwater has made its profits. Much closer to home, it moved into New Orleans to provide security for the Department of Homeland Security and other private facilities in the city after hurricane Katrina. The company has also been involved with training elite units in the armed forces of US allies in the so-called ‘war on terror’, such as in Azerbaijan, and has suggested that it could deploy a force as peacekeepers in Sudan!

The latest edition of this book contains an extra chapter examining where Blackwater will go after the end of the Bush administration whose wars have proved so pivotal to the company’s growth. Scahill discusses how Blackwater is pulling its focus from Iraq, particularly after having landed a contract for counter-narcotics work in Latin America. It is also moving into supplying US forces with its own vehicles, such as a mine-proof SUV and surveillance blimps. Using ex-CIA operatives, it has also created Total Intelligence Solutions to bring ‘CIA-style services’ to the open market for Fortune 500 companies. But, as Scahill notes, while for Blackwater the Iraq occupation may not be its priority anymore, as long as US troops are deployed abroad, it is likely they will be accompanied by private contractors for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, as Blackwater departs, there are actually more contractors entering Iraq, the total increasing by around 2,500 over the first half of 2009. One of the main companies that the US government is replacing them with is DynCorp. Not only has this company overbilled the US government by around $13 billion for services in Iraq, it has been involved in equally or even more unwholesome activities as Blackwater. For example, there have been two separate allegations from former company employees that DynCorp was running a sex-trafficking business during the Bosnian war in 1990s. Teenage girls were brought in from Romania and Russia, with the help of the Serbian mafia, and were also traded as slaves between some DynCorp contractors. A recent Senate committee hearing heard that in 2003 a DynCorp subcontractor was killed when a bullet penetrated the car he was travelling in. The armoured car that he should have had was being used to ferry prostitutes between hotels used by DynCorp in Kuwait and Baghdad.

The extent of the privatisation of warfare and security throws up several interesting questions. Recruiting troops as mercenaries could allow countries such as the US the ability to deploy more troops without a draft or, more likely, Scahill argues, to make the troop count deployed in warzones a much more palatable level. Potentially, US security corporations may also come into conflict with the US government if they or their subsidiaries supply training or forces to regimes hostile to it. When US armed forces helped overthrow Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he was being guarded by security forces from US-based Steele Foundation.

Unfortunately, throughout the book you find yourself grappling with what point Scahill is attempting to make, apart from the generalised harm that companies such as Blackwater are inflicting on the world. Where he details the background of Blackwater’s main founder, Erik Prince, a right-wing Christian neo-con, it reads in part as if he is some sort of conspiracy nut, as if outing links between Blackwater, the White House and the Christian right will somehow stop them. At other points, you feel as if Scahill wants privatisation surgically removed from the military so it can fight wars better. While offering very informative quotations, facts and figures – there is a wealth of other events that there is not space to go into here – these are presented in chapters that sometimes do not seem to have a logical succession and can be overwhelming.

But Scahill is a journalist who is simply exposing facts for our understanding. It is up to active Marxists to take the information supplied and weave it into our analysis of modern day warfare and the perspectives in war-torn areas, such as Iraq, to give such material a practical application

Friday, 22 January 2010

Capitalist Fraudsters

Letter from this weeks Socialist

In January last year when reporting the Madoff scandal the socialist posed the question of how many more fraudsters like him were going to be exposed like him. Since then we've seen the downfall of England Cricket Board backer Alan Stanford, and a report by accountancy firm, BDO, a massive increase in reported fraud.

This year reported fraud has reached £2bn a year, the financial sector alone accounting for £1.34bn a 70% increase on last year - but around 90% of the largest frauds aren't even reported at all. The fraudsters, have been using the wealth they've been able to con from greedy bankers to emulate their opulent lifestyles.

We need to take over the banks and run them democratically under workers control to use the wealth to benefit the majority of the population, not just the opulent lifestyles of a few.

Iain Dalton

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Note on the Approach of Marxists to the Police

Some time ago now, there was a short polemic published on the Socialist Party in relation to the police and the state (Marxism and the State: An Exchange). The protagonist of the debate, a by then ex member of the Socialist Party had criticised the Socialist Party for its position in relation to the police, regarding that he believed the police were reactionary through and through and therefore Marxists shouldn't make appeals to them.
As the reply admitted, the police are often used to crush the workers movement and are used by the state as a tool for repression. Thus some people come to a position that the police are 'one reactionary mass'. But this is only one side of the situation. Any institution is made of human material and such peoples opinions, beliefs etc change over time. Of course, the impact of their day to day activities is important, but so is the wider world.
As people may be aware, the 1918-19 British Police Strikes were led by Socialists within the police force - now it may be objected that this was a unusual situation - but the reply in the polemic gives several others - such as Emil Eichorn taking over the Berlin police without arguement and the paralysis of the police during the May 1968 events in France. (Also, the 1917 overthrow of the Tsar was conveyed by a very excited Kharkov police chief, as Trotsky notes in The History of the Russian Revolution, chapter 8)
I'd like to add one more, in his book German Revolution 1917-1923, Pierre Broue points out that "... the Communists stepped up their propaganda work towards non-proletarian layers affected by the crisis, in particular officers and policeman."(pg729)
This was in 1923, during the hyper-inflation crisis, when if anything people were turning towards the nationalists in Germany (the Communists experienced growth too, but at a somewhat slower pace). Why approach the police? Because they aren't seperate from the class contradictions that tear through societies.