The Tories a joke in Washington

Imagine a football match in which your team is performing formidably. It leads 3-0, then, inexplicably, it slows down, allowing the adversary to advance despite a weak, unconvincing performance and a desperate shortage of star players. Welcome to the match of your lifetime: Team Labour v Team Tory.

Though based in Washington, DC, where I am a Master’s student, I follow British politics closely. It seems to me that during more than a decade of leadership, Labour has delivered Britain into the 21st century. Sustained investment in state education has yielded demonstrable results. The risk of being a victim of crime is at historically low levels. The effectiveness of the British health-care system is envied in the US, and again the improvement is undeniable. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is potently orchestrating domestic and global economic strategies.

Yet, for reasons I find increasingly hard to understand, the Labour Party has been hesitant about defending its own policy record. This is surprising because Labour’s decade-long policy output is so superior to the Conservatives’ platform for the future that the latter does not stand up to serious analysis. On education, for instance, the Conservative vision is to divert funding to building new independent schools. This will incur unnecessary costs for taxpayers. Additionally, some of their proposed schools are to be funded based on the number of children they attract. The Tories are ignorant of, or unconcerned by, the severe distributional implications of this competitive system.

Wealthier parents will have an incentive to invest more in their children’s education in the same way they invest in luxury cars. Inevitably, schools in poorer areas will fall behind. The imperative for education should transcend the obsession with individual success conditioned by market competition and the profit motive.

Equally questionable is the Conservatives’ evaluation of education, which resembles

an engineer’s assessment of road construction. Using percentages of “poor discipline” and “truancy” to punish teachers and state schools is nonsense. It conjures up America’s No Child Left Behind programme, whose assembly-line approach consigned students to a vicious cycle of inequality. Education is a complex co-productive process, in which students, parents and teachers are all responsible for the outcome.

Tory policy on crime rests on a false causality between law enforcement and criminal behaviour. Overall, their objective is punishment at all costs to deter criminals,

but with no guarantee of subsequent social integration. They assume that punishment will generate fear and reduce criminal intent. But criminals do not act because of an absence of fear. Crime rates may be simultaneously a function of the economy, health, deprivation or family. Isolating enforcement from the rest is imprudent. This demonstrates a failure to distinguish between “law enforcement” as procedure and “increasing personal and public safety” as a policy goal.

Also unreasonable is the Tory rejection

of programmes such as early release. They shape their response to fit transient public fear, and call for more prisons and more severe sentencing, irrespective of crime type. Yet here, again, the Conservatives refuse to consider that the costs of building additional prisons and extending incarceration stretch out into the future, multiplied by the costs to society when inmates are released without proper rehabilitation. Cost-benefit analyses overwhelmingly show that enforcement tailored to the degree of criminality is more cost-effective than generic long sentencing, and transitional programmes are twice as cost-effective as longer sentences.

On health, the Conservatives introduce profit motives, exposing the NHS to the uncertainty of the free market. They believe that health providers must have financial incentives to deliver a better service, which implies an infusion of government funds into greedy competition among doctors and hospitals. Inevitably, rewarding providers for success will transform health care into a supply-driven system at the expense of the taxpayer. You can expect the NHS to overflow with unnecessary medical procedures that will increase costs.

Finally, the Tories’ overall economic policy is inconsistent with their spending pledges for education, health and crime. First, they commit to interventionist funding at all costs, especially as they promise corporations seats at the table. Next, they pledge fiscal conservatism by lowering business taxes and raising the inheritance tax threshold to £2m. This is oblivious to long-term negative consequences, including an imbalanced national budget.

The immaturity of the Tories’ platform reveals itself again as they intend to interfere with the demand-and-supply dynamic of the jobs market. They promise to ensure work for everyone, which is noble indeed. However, their actions would disregard sensitive aspects of the economy such as elasticity of demand for certain jobs. Failure to consider these will hurt British workers in the long run and could unleash endemic unemployment.

When we discuss the Conservatives’ policies here in Washington, DC, we are often reduced to laughter that a political party seeking to govern a country as important as Britain could publish such plans as it has. But it has. It is time that they were subjected to proper attack.

Alina Palimaru is a student in advanced public policy analysis at American University in Washington, DC

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit