The following is a shortened version of a paper presented at the Howard League for Penal Reform’s annual conference in March 2018 under the title: “Mere Anarchy? or, what Yeats might have told us about colonialism, storytelling and the narrative arc of the British Justice system”. A full version of the paper is due to be published in the Howard Journal later in 2018.


It has been said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. It was Barack Obama who said it, to an audience of steelworkers; and he was paraphrasing Martin Luther King, who was paraphrasing Rabbi Jacob Kohn, who was paraphrasing American abolitionist Theodore Parker. Parker had condemned the ongoing institution of slavery, saying that the arc of the moral universe (not history) is long and bends towards justice.

Sadly for us, the terms ‘history’ and ‘moral universe’ are not synonymous.

The writer and filmmaker Trin Minh Ha wrote in 1989: “When history separated itself from story, it started indulging in accumulation and facts.” The story of the colonised and dispossessed is either erased, or relegated to the category of folk art (or even high art). The story of the coloniser, meanwhile, becomes history spoken in the language of law.

And these systems of power, scaffolded on the illusory opposition between truth and fiction, are deeply embedded within our justice system; a system which both mirrors and presupposes the dynamics of colonialism.

It is not by accident that I begin this paper by alluding to civil rights and the abolition of slavery as we come together over these two days to talk about prison reform in the UK.

We know – or at least, the media tells us – we are in the midst of a ‘prison crisis’. Perhaps it is as much a case of being a ‘justice crisis’, but for now at least my (rhetorical) question for the room is whether the prison crisis in Britain today can be compared to a process of colonial dissolution; whether the prison crisis isn’t, in some ways, a sort of colonial crisis; the colony, in this instance, being not the geographical space of some overseas territory, but the space of prisons themselves and the bodies that are forced to inhabit them, and whose bodies, minds and spirits are owned by the state, subject to Her Majesty’s proprietary will. 



It’s something I’ve been forced to confront, both objectively and within myself, during the past year as I’ve had the opportunity to spend substantial periods of time talking to men in prisons, hearing their stories, listening to their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and coming to see how things actually are in prison. 

But it was only on reading Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart a few months ago that the threads started – perhaps counterintuitively – to come together. The novel was one that had been lying unread on my bookcase for at least a decade; I don’t always get around to reading books immediately; I’d bought To Kill A Mockingbird when I was 14 and finally got around to reading it when I was 25. But somewhat in the spirit of Ecclesiastes I firmly believe there is a time to read, and a time to shelve. 

Achebe’s novel, set in 19th century West Africa sees a warrior culture that begins to come apart at the seams as the well-intentioned English missionaries arrive on the scene. And behind the missionaries comes the law, and with the law the penal system, the soldiers, the governance, the judges, the prisons, and let us not forget the schools… all designed to keep order and which inflict an endless process of order and reordering until… by the end of the book… nothing remains but the pallid indifference of an English brigadier; a brigadier who permits himself, once everything is broken, to contemplate the book he will start writing – his-story which will, we understand, become our history – on the primitives of West Africa.

The title of the novel is of course borrowed from WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, from which I’ve also extracted the title of this paper, Mere Anarchy:

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’

The poem was written in 1919. It was a response to the beginning of the Irish war of independence which marked, not the beginning of the colonial process in Ireland, but one of many flash points in a long process of resistance to violent subjugation by the British. By using the line from Yeats’ poem to frame his novel, Achebe anchors both Ireland and West Africa within the same colonial discourse of not just social, but also historical, dissolution.



But what does this have to do with prisons?

Because prisons here on the British mainland are not colonies. Neither are they colonies on the Isle of Man or even, dare I say, Northern Ireland. A colony by definition is the extension of one territory into another, the process by which a group settles and takes over a geographical space and, depending on circumstances, displaces or assimilates its pre-existing inhabitants. This is not the primary function of prisons as penal instruments; although historically, as well we know, colonialism as a process is as much about control, appropriation and exploitation as it is geography; while penal discipline has formed an integral, even defining component, of Britain’s colonial apparatus.

Historically there has been a well-defined tradition of penal colonies in Britain’s global outposts; through transportation, the nation’s undesirables – the rogues, vagabonds and bread-stealers – were altogether removed from the country, ostensibly to provide labour and ultimately to participate in the settlement of new territories.

At the same time, penal apparatus figured prominently in the strategies of colonialism across Africa, the Americas, Australasia and the Indian subcontinent – and Ireland, lest we forget – where the incontrovertible facts of British justice were forced upon unwilling colonial subjects in order to ensure complete submission to the crown and, by extension, to colonisation itself. 



Colonial penality then had two principal target groups: first, the indigenous British miscreants – the poor, in short – who were exported out of the country; and second the overseas colonial subjects who were controlled and assimilated by and as the British empire through a more-or-less brutal process of penality. It comes as no surprise that these same two groups – the indigenous poor and colonially (or post-colonially) assimilated – are those vastly over-represented in our existing prison system. In fact, between them they have the immense privilege to occupy it almost exclusively



During the past year I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in some of our venerable penal institutions working directly with prisoners and seeing for myself what happens behind the scenes within these, as Foucault terms them, theatres of punishment.

Now the question for me is not about reducing crime and increasing the efficacy of punishment, nor how we manage prison populations or dole out an extra portion of sweetcorn at mealtimes (which was something said to me, cynically, by one of the ‘residents’ while I was at Wandsworth prison).  The question, for me, is about whose truth, whose justice, whose version of history is being served by the penal apparatus as it currently stands.

We have a situation where the world inside our prisons is a world within our world and yet, at the same time, absolutely outside of it. Because, once we are inside the prison, we do not feel we are part of that same land. Despite the best efforts of many of the staff, we are now in a land that is subject to its own customs, bizarre systems of currency, catastrophic inflation, voter disenfranchisement and, dare I say, the potential for unchecked corruption. It is what the novelist Joseph Conrad described as a ‘Heart of Darkness’ – only he was writing about the depredations of colonialism and colonialists in Africa.

I have also seen the kindly Missionaries… the people who, like me, with varying degrees of benevolent concern and condescension, fly into the prison wings on angel-wings of faith, hope and charity – breathing messages of peace and introducing new and ever more ingenious ways of civilising these poor unfortunates who, if only presented with the correct form of edification, and relevant woodworking skills, could emerge from the darkness and into the light with the rest of us civilised people. 

And while the situation may not always be quite as dramatic as that presented by the media, it is at other times infinitely worse; I have seen conditions that, yes, I would absolutely describe as bordering on ‘mere anarchy’: a sort of flaccid, dissolute almost outlawry born of confusion, misdirection and entropy; a malaise, a sickness, a rot.



We know that the prison population disproportionately reflects our collective colonial inheritance in terms of the demographics of those contained by the state; if we were in any doubt about that, the Lammy Review has put the inequities of the system into clear and immediate focus. But there inevitably comes a phase in the history of colonies where, as Yeats puts it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. That does not suggest that until that point the colony has been run in a state of organised perfection; as Foucault again reminds us, ‘the prison institution has always been a focus of concern and debate’.

But inevitably there is a point at which the colony begins to break down, to break away, and can no longer be contained; and as often as not this process is not peaceful.

We are at a stage now where some of our neighbours in Europe are, to some degree, rejecting imprisonment and its associated modalities of codification, classification and control as the default penal mechanism. At the same time, other countries like Britain (and America) double down on inflicting unfreedom on its citizens and subjects as a matter of course, despite there being no evidence of crime reduction – being the stated aim – through such methods.

So, the question that remains is, perhaps: can the centre hold? At what point upon history’s arc, and on which side of the moral universe, will this story end? Prisons are not colonies; and yet, they are strangely like colonies. What, then, is the appropriate response to this falling apart of things, this merest of anarchy?

Could we imagine looking back, at some future stage, from wherever we might temporarily come to rest on our moral curve, to the period not of decolonisation but of depenalisation?

Or, is the answer to build more prisons, better prisons, bigger prisons, send in more missionaries, more basketweaving, extra sweetcorn? 

Or do we simply wait until – to borrow once more from Yeats – a blood-dimmed tide is loosed?