Secure schools and prison abolition in the UK: During Covid-19 and beyond

By Zoe Luba

A largely residential suburb in southeast England, located an hour-and-a-half train ride from London, houses three different prisons for children and youth from across the United Kingdom: HMP Cookham Wood, HMP Rochester, and Medway Secure Training Centre. Barbed wire fences enclose thick concrete walls and stretch domineeringly, well past sight lines, and a fading sign boasts about the historic notion of the site, first established as a prison in 1874, becoming England’s first borstal, (Menis 990) an early form of youth incarceration, in 1902. I visited the site during a monumental rainstorm, and the pelting rain and barren grounds were a sickeningly fitting backdrop. Prison guards soon asked those of us who had made the trip up to Rochester to get a sense of the physical site to vacate the premises. 

Histories of Violence at Medway Secure Training Centre

A group of prison abolitionists from across the UK travelled to Rochester to get a sense of the size and scale of the site of one of the prisons, Medway Secure Training Centre (STC), which is marked to become England’s first Secure School. Historical patterns demonstrate that the names of youth prisons in the UK have changed over the past century, but the violence enacted on the young people inside has remained constant.

A young woman incarcerated at Medway STC has described having her face repeatedly slammed into ice during the winter of her sentence. There have been attempts to draw attention to the violence against incarcerated youth at Medway STC since 2003 and, in 2016, undercover journalism exposed rampant use of force, including staff slapping and punching youth in the face and ribs, which has continued until  today. The most recent Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) report, which examines education institutions in the UK, showed, on average, two incidents per day when force was used against the incarcerated youth at the site.

What are Secure Schools?

Medway STC has now been deemed the first site for a new form of youth prison in the UK, known as a “Secure School”, in a mass incarceration project that aims to re-brand youth incarceration in an attempt to evade further community outrage about the abuse, violence, and death inside UK youth prisons, while still keeping children locked up. This facade is transparent, as government documentation clearly shows the aim of Secure Schools is incarceration not education.

Secure Schools are just one element of racial capitalism, locking up Black and other kids of color at vastly disproportionate rates and using a model that rewards those running the prison with financial compensation based on the number of kids they incarcerate. Most recent UK statistics demonstrate that Black kids are over four times more likely than white kids to be arrested. Furthermore, the Ministry of “Justice” has contracted the first Secure School to mega-charity, Oasis, in what is a continuation of colonial patterns historically perpetuated by missionaries and charities.

Fighting Back

An open letter demanding Medway STC stay closed and not become England’s first Secure School has been signed by academics and institutions, coordinated by Article 39, an organization working to support incarcerated youth. Abolitionist groups such as Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE), No More Exclusions, and Radical Education Forum are working to educate the people about the dangers of Secure Schools, with a public forum in the works, and CAPE recently launched a website as another educational tool, keeping a heavy focus on the overarching need to abolish incarceration in all its forms.

Mass Incarceration in the UK

The over 85,000 people incarcerated in the UK make up the largest prison population in western Europe. The development of Secure Schools coincides with the development of an expansive mass incarceration push in the UK: The Prison Estate Transformation Programme, developed in 2016, which aims to create 10,000 new prison places by building or redeveloping 9 mega-prisons. 

COVID-19 has had a serious impact on the incarcerated population in the UK, and the response from the state has been woefully inadequate, as people with symptoms must share cells with those without symptoms. Most recent data shows 21 deaths from COVID-19 inside UK prisons. In 2018, 325 people died in UK prisons, 92 of the deaths being suicides. The number of deaths in prison has almost doubled over the past decade. Self-harm rates in UK prisons are the highest they have ever been. The conditions of prisons were killing people long before COVID-19. Prisons are the pandemic. 

After weeks of pressure, the state response to COVID-19 was to implement a temporary partial release scheme in April that would have seen up to 4,000 “selected low-risk offenders” who had less than two months left in their sentences released, about 5% of the UK prison population. However, in what was described as an “administrative error”, six people eligible for the partial release scheme were released earlier than mandated, stopping the whole scheme entirely, only a few weeks after it had been implemented. The quickness with which the scheme was stopped makes one question whether there was ever any sincerity about seeing it through at all. 

Moreover, Medway STC’s transition to becoming the first Secure School has continued during the pandemic, as the site was closed at the end of March in preparation for cosmetic refurbishments through a £5 million contribution from the Ministry of “Justice”. All the incarcerated children were moved to different prisons. Temporarily, 70 incarcerated adult men were moved onto the site in what was promoted as an attempt to spread out people in prison to reduce the spread of COVID-19, with only meaningless state action to avoid any further attempts at releasing people. Shuffling people around between prisons will not stop the spread of COVID-19.

White Supremacy and the Prison Industrial Complex

The concept of partial release has and will fundamentally further entrench the white supremacy already embedded in the “criminal” justice system in the UK. Racialized peoples’ overrepresentation in the UK prison system stems from racist sentencing and racist arrest rates. Recent data shows Black and Brown people are 240% more likely to be sentenced with incarceration for drug offenses than white people (Lammy 33). Black men are three times as likely to be arrested than white men in the UK, and it is these racist arrest rates that are largely responsible for the overrepresentation of Black men in the UK prison system, demonstrating the connections between the police and prison industrial complexes (Lammy 17).

Partial release based on length of sentence or level of “risk” involved will leave Black and Brown people disproportionately incarcerated. Black men are over 4 times more likely and Asian men 6 times more likely than white men to be placed in a high security prison for a similar offense (Lammy 46).  A study conducted between 2009 and 2017 found that one in four Black teenage boys convicted of manslaughter were handed sentences over ten years or for life, while not one white teenager convicted of manslaughter was sentenced to more than ten years, over half of them receiving four year sentences.

Any call to leave certain people inside prison intensifies the harms of this disproportionate representation and racist sentencing, because it will be Black and Brown people left inside at disproportionate rates. The white supremacist world order of racial capitalism equates whiteness with vulnerability, while everyone outside of its tight confines is painted as dangerous and deviant — more likely to be placed in high security prison or given a longer sentence for the same offenses, and more likely to be sentenced to incarceration in the first place.

Abolitionist Organizing during COVID-19

Abolitionists immediately demanded full release following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK, and 16 different migrant solidarity, prison abolitionist, and anti-racist grassroots organizations came together to make clear collective demands, including the full release of everyone from prisons and detention centres. Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) organized a week of online action to demand full release, and Blue Bag Life and Prisoner Solidarity Network (formally IWOC) amplified voices from the inside and continue to provide support to incarcerated people.

As COVID-19 rates declined slightly, a few people organized a distanced demonstration outside the home of the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, who remains a primary stakeholder in upholding the prison industrial complex in the UK.

 Ultimately, abolitionist organizers in the UK will continue to fight for the entirety of the world we need — not only a portion of it. Carceral colonialism and capitalism would have us believe that it is impossible to liberate every single person in this world, but this is a lie. To demand partial freedom is to let these systems win, and to admit defeat. In a world where hopelessness and despondency are already suffocating our revolutionary imaginations, admitting defeat is simply not an option. 

Zoe Luba is an organizer who has moved between the UK and turtle island on unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh territories and on the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. 

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