Laurie Penny: I’ve turned 25, but the world won’t let me be a grown-up

We are old enough and ugly enough to build a better future for ourselves.

It happens without warning. At some point between the first time you hear an ironic remix of the cartoon theme tunes of your childhood and the expiration of your Young Person's Railcard, you wake up one morning and something has changed. Under the puppy fat and pimples, your face has begun to emerge, and so has your future. You have become, however inadvertently, an adult.

By the time I finish this column, I will be 25 years old. Growing up is always an odd process, but since I graduated from university, it has become more convoluted than usual. For many people my age -- including most of my friends -- secure, meaningful employment, marriage and home ownership all seem as distant and unimaginable as they were when we sat our GCSEs.

While we've been finding our first wrinkles and filling out our first dole forms, all the normal things that were supposed to make up for theuncomfortable position of suddenly having to take care of oneself have been confiscated by the forces of world finance. Little lifelines like the Future Jobs Fund and the Education Maintenance Allowance have been cut to save costs, just as university fees have been trebled by an administration happy to hand billions in subsidies to the investment banks that created the crisis.

The impetus behind this year's uprisings in Egypt has been partly ascribed to the frustration of young adults unable to afford the transition into work, marriage and independence.

It's tempting to frame all this as a generation war, an immense and predictable kick-off between the baby boomers, who enjoyed every benefit that the postwar consensus brought its fortunate children, and Generation Y, the ragtag, loosely defined group of late-cold-war babies who are old enough to have been promised a future of permanent growth and young enough to have been shafted when that future failed to emerge. This interpretation is madly convenient for many who would prefer not to engage with the realities of geopolitics. It is also wrong.

It is wrong because it allows the enormous crisis of capital and democracy sweeping Europe, the US and the Middle East to be reconfigured as an intercontinental temper tantrum. With a bit of imagination, it's easy to see all the strikes, protests, riots and revolutions accompanying the disintegration of late capitalism as merely the international equivalent of a bedroom door slammed in fury -- a worldwide whine of: "It's not fair!"

In fact, it's a little more complicated than that. Property, privilege and profit are not the sole preserve of the "power generation" now easing its way into precarious retirement.

Disaster capitalism

There are baby boomers who have lived all their lives in poverty, and baby boomers who were marching, striking and fighting against the numbing tide of disaster capitalism when today's activists were still in nappies; just as there are members of Generation Y who'd take a Jack Wills hoodie and a job at Goldman Sachs over global revolution any day.

Something larger and far more frightening is going on. The struggle going on across the world is not between old and young, but between the possessed and the dispossessed -- most of whom just happen, like 52 per cent of the world's population, to be under the age of 30.

Three years ago, I turned 22 just as the world's stock markets were tumbling. Watching the news, I realised, like so many other middle-class young people in the west, that the future we had been promised would not be delivered after all, at least not without a fight that would finish far too late.

For many of us, it is already too late. Denied the trappings of adulthood, we grew up anyway, into unemployment, anger and disillusion, into a world that didn't want us.

When I was 22, I was angry. Now that I've been 25 for a whole ten minutes, I'm still angry, but I'm also hopeful. All around me, and across the world, people are organising, educating themselves, building new, alternative communities, joining resistance movements, and starting to talk about the possibility of a future that our parents never expected.

Fed up with waiting for a better future to be delivered, we have realised that we are old enough and ugly enough to build one for ourselves. It's not a generation war -- but the power generation has every reason to be frightened.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

Show Hide image

Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.