Lessons from the Iraq war

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Brita

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Britain.

By any stretch of imagination it has been an intense twelve months; the Arab Spring may-well feature as the defining moment of the decade to come, the 'Occupy' movement perseveres and we have seen large scale public sector strikes for the first time in a generation. Yet when we seek to uncover the birth of this current discontentment we need to look further. I believe it started nine years ago - and the Iraq war has in fact shaped the political attitude of my generation. So as Obama marked the end to the failed Iraq war, with at least a million dead, we need to start connecting the dots.

Marching in 2003 against the war, and coming to organise demonstrations in Manchester was certainly a significant moment towards my serving today as Vice-President Higher Education for NUS.

But whilst it was certainly a politicizing moment for many, it is also the case that for a generation constantly asked to participate in mainstream democracy, the system failed us - it simply didn't listen. And today as I travel across the country speaking with young people, the same anecdotes are presented on campus - "things are already decided and you can't do anything about it, so why bother?", "nobody listens in Parliament!" Surprisingly, the war, despite disappearing from public discourse, is rarely far from this conversation. Iraq presented a politicizing moment for some whilst also encouraging feelings of apathy in many others.

We have come to speak of a 'lost generation'. This is often, correctly, expressed as an economic and a social phenomenon - but it is also a real risk politically. My generation have engaged through the political structures - we marched in record numbers against Iraq, students were turned away from polling stations in student-heavy constituencies as they turned out to vote in 2010, and last year 50,000 of us marched against the trebling of tuition fees and tuition fees in the largest student demonstration in a generation. With little tangible to show for this - the war went on, the Liberal Democrats broke their pledge to students and tuition fees were trebled - the political class taught a generation that no matter how strong your argument or how many you are, your political participation is pointless.

As we look ahead, though governments have changed and enquiries have played out in the public eye, lessons do not seem to have been learnt. Barbaric intervention - against the will of a nation - not only killed a million but crippled generation's quality of life (including as we are seeing through the results of nuclear waste). Yet frighteningly, our own government officials have noted that should the US plan to strike at Iran, it would "seek, and receive, UK military help". David Miliband has already warned against "sleepwalking into a war with Iran" - the student movement must be ready to challenge what would be a further monumental miscalculation.

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Britain. We rose strongly against the government's changes reform of higher education funding. The temperature of our global political climate is rising and priorities are changing - Occupy is a very real and new social movement, the Arab spring provides us confidence, and students have featured at the heart of both. Whilst others are powerfully claiming their role in democracy abroad, it is a time like no other for us to think about how to utilize our politicization that is gathering apace - and bring it into the mainstream.

Our student leadership has rightly spearheaded the fight against cuts to higher education, student quality and championed widening participation - and we will continue to do so as a priority. I was reminded that the National Union of Students was formed in 1922 - on the back of World War I, set up to fight for world peace. Ninety years on from then, and nine years on from the Iraq war, we must too reconnect with those striving for justice. In the same way that I shared the hurt of my colleagues at University who cried as members of their families were killed in Iraq, today we must take from the students in Egypt and Tunisia who organised beyond differences; indeed we must move beyond slogans and be pragmatic.

At a Conference I attended on Tuesday on the government's heavily-criticised and anti-dissent Prevent strategy in Leicester, Jesse Jackson rebuked that "radical rejection leads to radical reactions". The lost generation is finding itself again - it found me, not in Tahrir Square, but in Manchester. Let now the radical reaction of students in Britain transform apathy into activism, as the global movement to recapture our democracy comes home.

Usman Ali is the Vice President (Higher Education) of the National Union of Students

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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.