Starred up

Questions around criminal justice are highlighted by the feature film Starred up, which was released in 2014 and is broadcast intermittently on UK television. Its director, David Mackenzie, explores an adult jail from a new perspective, centring on late teenage offender Eric (Jack O’Connell), who has just been transferred – ‘starred up’ – for unspecified transgressions in one of Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institutions (HMYOIs). As the HMYOI portion of the UK prison estate is specifically designed to incarcerate young offenders from 18 to 21 or 22, Eric’s transfer to adult prison is unusual, to say the least.
Brutality in prison dramas is nothing new. But each time it is depicted it should raise fundamental questions or it is mere exploitation. Thankfully, Starred up is unafraid to confront the expressions of brutality of both prisoners and staff, including senior officials. While the visceral moments in the film skilfully skirt the lurid, its dramatic thrust exerts a heavy blow against the very existence of prison. Within a prison whose mix includes social worker Oliver (Rupert Friend), as well as Eric’s long-term prisoner father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), and is stirred punishingly by Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell), the violent premiss of incarceration is all too apparent.
It is not far-fetched to suggest that some prison officers and governors can abuse their power over prisoners. There are too many documented cases to rule it out. After all, deaths in custody continue to occur everywhere in the criminal justice system: in Secure Training Centres, HMYOIs, adult prisons, and in police cells. Numbers of deaths in prison have shown an increase in the last ten years, though those in police custody have diminished markedly.
Inquest, the campaign against deaths in custody, “believes that deaths in prison cannot be looked at separately from examining harsh and impoverished prison conditions, the use of segregation, poor medical care and prison overcrowding – all of which have implications for people’s mental and physical health. Until there is a fundamental review of the overuse of prison for the most vulnerable and marginalised, prison deaths will continue.”[] The organisation quotes figures that show over half of prison deaths are self-inflicted (the rest are apparently due to ‘natural causes’), though the usual fog of Ministry of Justice secrecy conveniently disguises how many, if any, of these might have been cases of ‘assisted suicide’. Starred up has no such qualms.
Despite Eric’s swagger and dangerous bent he nonetheless comes over as a vulnerable young man. His anger and that of other, older offenders can to a degree be tackled with professional assistance, but it takes a bold and brave soul to do so under a sour prison regime. Oliver appears to be just such a one, though the pressures of powerful superiors might be formidable. Whether such dedication and persistence exists throughout the prison estate is moot, assuming there is even the opportunity to exercise it.
At root, there is a need to question whether or not imprisonment has any lasting or effective use when dealing with those who have committed crimes, whether of violence or not. Indeed, what then is the purpose of imprisonment? In essence, many mainstream apologias for prison, even when not reduced to the level of Daily Mail vomit, hark back to a medieval idea that a guilty person must expect to face some form of social death. It is this thread of deeply reactionary, inhuman objection to prisoners merely being deprived of their liberty that motivates slavering, populist anger at them being permitted activities and pursuits that other citizens take for granted. Radio, television, the internet, newspapers, books, telephone, and voting spring to mind as common targets. Without doubt, none of the objectors to rights for prisoners has the slightest experience of incarceration: that being imprisoned is in itself most certainly punishment enough. For if that truth were accepted it would expose the barbarism of prison regimes, including the UK’s, in barring prisoners from activity the rest of us can participate in.
In fact, prison is primarily about punishment. Schemes for providing offenders with training have been cut back. They were never that well funded in the first place and were seen as dispensable and, unbelievably, as a luxury. They did foster the occasional talk of liberal prison critics who saw and see prison as an ideal place to do a bit of social engineering. Others merely want to take an offender ‘off the streets’ for a time, but this cannot be an acceptable solution to criminality; nothing but bitterness at having a prison record is likely to result. No real projects to help offenders in ‘addressing of her/his behaviour’ is effective in prisons, as the recidivism rate shows only too well.
Prison primarily produces hopelessness and despair for the incarcerated; but its corrosive effect also applies to their jailers, whose humanity is eroded as they are reduced to mere turnkeys warehousing people. This is not the way to deal with crime and criminality for the benefit of victims, criminals, or the mass of society. Continuing the illegality of drugs and consequent crimes that are committed to fund drug-taking contribute massively to numbers in prison, continuing to criminalise mainly the young, usually for non-violent offences. Overwhelmingly, crime under capitalism derives from how society functions – theft of social wealth through the profit system and the extreme violence of war and invasion overseas. What kind of examples are these? For the biggest, bourgeois criminals-at-large escape scot-free.

Starred up is directed by David Mackenzie and features  Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, and Rupert Friend.