On the Prison System

John Bowden On The Prison System (30/09/03)

Is there any legitimacy or political significance in the protests of prisoners? When they riot, climb onto rooftops, take prison staff hostage and engage in collective acts of defiance is there any true justification for such apparent delinquent actions?
As a group, prisoners are the most oppressed and demonised in our society and, probably uniquely, the one group of people who possess absolutely no rights in their relationship with the state. In fact, the legal status, of prisoners is something akin to the completely disempowered condition of the slave in ancient Rome. The prisoner for the duration of his or her sentence (and some are in for life) exists as the exclusive property of the state for it to do with as it pleases. No other group in society is subject to the same degree of state control and ownership, and no other group exists in such conditions of civil death.
The struggle of the movement for Prisoner’ rights has always been a formidable one due to the fact that few other groups in society are as hated and feared to the extent where the state believes it can torture, brutalize and even murder prisoners with virtual impunity.
When prisoners at New York’s Attica prison staged a political protest and occupation of the jail in September 1971 in order to highlight their ill treatment, the National Guard and armed prison guards stormed the jail and shot dead 37 prisoners. The state considered such murderous force wholly appropriate against a group of people who possessed no rights and whom the ordinary population would care nothing for.
To exist as a prisoner it to exist in a condition of absolute powerlessness, and consequently absolute vulnerability. Here in the mini-totalitarian society of prison the state and its uniformed representatives, the guards, hold an omniscient degree of power over their captives and will use whatever amount of violence and force is deemed necessary to keep prisoners in line. When so few of these guards recognise any common humanity in those over whom they wield such enormous power, abuse and ill treatment becomes commonplace and institutionalised, and when, as rarely happens, the extent of that abuse is exposed, the system inevitably and immediately closes ranks and bends the rules to protect the perpetrators.
When the lid was blown off the torture and abuse of prisoners in the segregation unit at London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison in the late 90′s it was revealed that apart from the uniformed guards involved in actual violence, the entire administrative workforce of the jail – Governors, doctors, chaplains, social workers, probation officers – were all involved to varying degrees in the conspiracy of silence that allowed the abuse and violence to continue unchecked for years. In the case of Wormwood Srubs, it was the prisoners themselves who succeeded in blowing the whistle on their treatment by managing to contact lawyers who in turn persuaded the police to conduct an investigation. Predictably, following the police investigation only a handful of guards were arrested and subsequently convicted of minor assault. The government flatly refused demands for a full public inquiry into the extent of staff violence at Wormwood Scrubs.
It was also the actions of prisoners at Strangeways jail in Manchester in 1990 when they rioted and climbed onto the roof of the jail that resulted in the biggest and most far reaching inquiry ever into prison conditions in England and Wales.
Because of their completely hidden and concealed suffering it’s always been the case that prisoners themselves have had to act to draw public attention to their situation when the state inflicts conditions on them that contravenes their most basic and elemental human rights.
There is much wider significance to the treatment of prisoners and the protests they periodically stage against it and it is this: if the state or servants of the state are allowed without fear of consequences to abuse, torture and ill treat any group hidden behind prison walls, then the implications for the whole of society, for the rights of everyone are enormous.
Viewed as a microcosm of society generally, prisons are the one place where the state is able without scrutiny and interference to experiment in methods of group control and manipulation without any reference whatsoever to human rights considerations. When in August 1971 the British army carried out ‘Sensory Deprivation’ techniques, which amounted to torture of Political detainees in the North of Ireland, the methods used had already been tested on ordinary prisoners confined in control units that operated ‘Behaviour Modification’ regimes within English jails. A legal action brought by a prisoner, Michael Williams, who had been held in such a unit at Wakefield Prison in 1974 was dismissed by the judiciary who basically maintained that a prison governor was entitled to keep a prisoner in whatever conditions and under whatever regime he considered appropriate.
If the state is able to get away with violating the human rights of prisoners it will eventually feel confident enough to do the same with the human rights of and disadvantaged or ‘subversive’ group in society.
When prisoners protest therefore in defence of their rights they are in a sense protesting on all our behalf – when the state is allowed to treat any group in society as something less than human, when it is not held accountable for dehumanizing even a single individual, then the civil rights and liberties of everyone is made significantly more fragile and brittle.
Fascism as a system always gets its initial foothold by persecuting and abusing those groups in society with the least public sympathy. The public threshold to its methods are raised by the abuse of unpopular minorities, until finally methods become generalized and all pervading.
Once the inalienable human rights of any person or group in society is removed and eradicated by the state, the overall consequence of this removal becomes enormous and terrifying.
Angela Davies, the black American civil rights activist and one time prisoner once said “If they come for me tonight, they will come for you tomorrow”, and the reality is that one of the first lines of resistance to state violence is within the prisons of this country. If that line is crossed then it will eventually and inevitably be crossed elsewhere.
John Bowden
September 2003
When is a Prison Reformer Not a Prison Reformer?
By John Bowden B41173
HMP Bristol 22nd November 2002
On the twenty sixth September, Mark Leech, ex-prisoner and prison reform entrepreneur was interviewed by the media concering the transfer of Jeffrey Archer from North Sea Camp open prison to inner city Lincoln jail. Asked about the sort of prisoner held at Lincoln, Leech described them as the ‘Riffraff of the Prison system’, which seemed rather incongruous a remark to make by someone who has built a fairly lucrative career as a self-proclaimed supporter and representative of prisoners. In fact, so intrigued was I by Mr Leech’s remark that I asked Insidetime, a prison wide newspaper produced by the prison reform charity Newbridge to investigate exactly why Mr Leech had apparently been so ken to please news editors with reactionary sound bites instead of aligning himself with the prisoners at Lincoln and using the opportunity to communicate their experience of life in Ana overcrowded hellhole such as Lincoln. What the brief investigation revealed, caused me to seriously worry about Mark Leech’s integrity and honesty.
Leech has, since his release from prison in 1995, metamorphosed from a small-time criminal and litigious prisoner into a resourceful and media-savvy penal reform operator whom the Prison Service now endorse as one of their most significant success stories.
Since 1995, Leech has compiled and edited The Prisoners’ Handbook, now considered within prison circles as a standard text on British Prisons and their regimes. He has also founded two organisations or companies – Unlock – of which he was Chief Executive until 2002, describes itself as an organisation ‘run by ex-offenders for ex-offenders’ and seeks to assist them to ‘successfully rebuild their lives’. Towards this end, it claims to work in partnership with the prison system itself, though maintains that it will ‘not get under the covers with anyone’. Infact Unlock was launched at a prison service event at Pentonville Prison during which the Director General of the Prison Service publicly endorsed the organisation and Judge Stephen Tumin was made its Present. The organisation’s slogan ‘Working in Partnership to leave crime behind’ suggested that maybe crime reduction was its motivating purpose as opposed to supporting prisoners’ rights and the rights of those freshly released from prison.
Unlock’s mission statement claimed that an important part of its work should involve ‘Informing political debate’ and ‘Educating the public’ about the need to reintegrate e-offenders back into the community; one wonders ho Leech’s characterisation of Lincoln prisoners as ‘riffraff’ possibly equates with that.
The Prisoners’ Handbook describes its editors as having ‘taken a journey from the strip cells and punishment blocks of prisons to the point today where he meets every six weeks with the Home Secretary and Director General of Prisons to discuss policy’.
Leech formed a second organisation, or more precisely, a Limited Company called ‘Mark Leech Associates’, although this seems more geared towards accumulating capital from the publication of literature and media interviews. It’s obvious that ‘helping prisoners’ has become an occupation and career for Mark Leech, and consequently self-interest and aggrandisement now characterise much of his behaviour.
Insidetime, after persistent writing, telephoning and faxing, eventually managed to elicit a response from Mr Leech concerning his ‘riffraff’ remark. He flatly denied making it and in a letter to Insidetime claimed ‘that this would be completely out of character for me and its is not what I said. In explaining the difference between North Sea Camp and Lincoln I expressed the view that in Lincoln, Jeffrey Archer would me with the mish mash – not riffraff – of the prison system; meaning Lincoln Prison contains remands, convicted, short and long term prisoners’. This was an incredible denial to make considering that his remark was filmed by the BBC and published in the Times.
Unfortunately Insidetime, who depend on the co-operation and goodwill of the Director General of Prisons to have its paper distributed to prisoners decided to give Leech ‘the benefit of the doubt’ and say no more.
I was understandably vexed so decided to write to Mark Leech myself. I received by way of reply a short, terse letter from his ‘Practice Manger’, Jenny Berry , who informed me that I what got it wrong and that it was the press Association who had misquoted Leech. No explanation was offered regarding the film evidence.
To have made the remark in the first place, Leech revealed much about his view of working class prisoners; to then deny that he ever made the remark poses serious questions about his integrity.
People involved in prison reform should be cautious of individuals like Mark Leech and understand that much of what he does, he does so out of self-interest and a desire for celebrity. He has yet to explain or apologise for the description of the prisoners at Lincoln and will obviously continue to speak in their name an further his career on their behalf.
Scottish Prisons – Inhumane and Degrading
The commitment of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) to the eradication of inhumane physical conditions in some of Scotland’s oldest and most squalid prisons is seriously open to question, even despite censure from the courts.
Following the 1990 Strangeways prison uprising, the prison system in England and Wales completed a comprehensive refurbishment, that eventually saw virtually all cells equipped with toilets and sinks. The SPS pursued no such programme and even today hundreds of prisoners in places such as Saughton in Edinburgh and Barlinnie in Glasgow, the two largest remand jails in Scotland, exist in conditions that have barely changed in over 100 years.
The new Scottish Executive, with a Justice Ministry that now possesses substantial powers to improve prison conditions, has turned its back on the issue of prisoners’ human rights, and the so-called Scottish Prisons Commissioner has yet to openly criticise conditions at Barlinnie or Saughton.
Inevitably, it is prisoners themselves who have been at the forefront of the struggle to challenge inhumane conditions. On 26 June 2001, Robert Napier, then on remand in Barlinnie, brought a legal action in the Edinburgh Court of Sessions, arguing that the conditions of his detention contravened his human rights.
Napier described being held in a cell that was small, badly ventilated, inadequately lit, contained no toilet or sink, and was in a dilapidated condition. He was forced to share the cell with another prisoner and was allowed few periods of exercise or recreation outside the cell.
Judge Lord MacFadyen upheld Napier’s complaint and said a prima facie case of human rights abuse had been made. He gave prison ministers 72 hours to transfer Napier from Barlinnie to accommodation which complied with human rights legislation. Fearing that the ruling would encourage hundreds of other prisoners to seek a similar remedy in law, the Scottish Executive immediately appealed. The appeal was due to be held immediately, but was then adjourned, while the SPS ‘reviewed’ its policy.
Justice Minister Jim Wallace claimed that the Executive is committed to ending slopping out, but refused to give any deadline or timetable for doing so.
Meanwhile, in places like Saughton, bad conditions are deliberately used as a tool of control and punishment. Of the four main wings, two are designated ‘downgraded’ wings, or punishment units, for prisoners who have failed drug testing or in other ways been deemed undeserving of accommodation that meets minimum standards of human decency. Conditions in one of the ‘downgraded’ wings, A Hall, almost defy description in terms of the squalor and filth. The message to the prisoners there is clear: conform or you will be denied humane conditions. Acquiescence to authority is rewarded by transfer to an ‘upgraded’ wing with in-cell TV and sanitation; non-acquiescence is punished by confinement to stinking cells with slop buckets, broken cell call buttons, decrepit beds and the risk of body vermin. Conditions in A Hall are kept deliberately bad as a negative inducement to conform.
On 5 June 2002, unconvicted prisoners at Saughton rose up and tore the wing to pieces, forcing staff to retreat for about 16 hours. Eventually riot squads retook the wing with maximum violence, beating some of the ‘ringleaders’ all the way to the segregation unit. Around a dozen prisoners have now been charged with prison mutiny and face ten year sentences. The SPS is allowed to breach the human rights of prisoners by forcing them to endure deliberately created squalor and the risk of ill-health, while prisoners who protest at such conditions are prosecuted.
Uprising At Shotts Prison
On 2 January 2003 at least 80 long term prisoners at Shotts maximum security prison in Scotland staged a mass protest by seizing control of two wings of the gaol for 19 hours. A negotiated end to the ‘disturbance’ eventually took place, indicating a recognition by the authorities that the use of physical force to end the prisoners’ protest would encounter fierce resistance, although the source of the prisoners’ rage remains unresolved.
Throughout the protest the Scottish Prison Service(SPS) maintained a conspicuous silence on exactly on what had fueled the prisoners’ action, while the media’s reporting of the protest focused almost solely on the alleged injuries received by two prison officers, it was claimed, had been hurt while trying to intervene and stop a fight between rival prisoner gangs. This was a total lie as it turned out, and eventually the prisoners hung a banner from a window, saying ‘Leave our visitors alone’, indicating that the protest had been sparked by the treatment of prisoners’ families. An earlier uprising at Shotts in the late 1980s was provoked by the strip searching of prisoners’ families, including old people and small children.
Less than a week after the protest on 2 January, a second ‘disturbance’ broke out at Shotts. This time in a special unit for ‘difficult’ prisoners, and again the media focused only on the injuries allegedly sustained by prison officers, while the SPS maintained its usual silence on exactly why Shotts was so clearly in a state of turmoil and open revolt. The impression deliberately created was one of violent and unmanageable prisoners attacking and injuring prison staff without reason or cause.
In reality, Shotts as an institution is intrinsically designed to provoke bitterness and confrontation, and since its creation in the early 1980s, its regime has been based on the principle of completely disempowering prisoners and denying them any opportunity or right to peacefully resolve their differences with the administration. It is a gaol purpose built for repression and brutality.
Since 1987 there have been at least five major uprisings at Shotts, and for much of the gaol’s
history prisoners there have experienced a virtual lockdown regime. In 1995 prisoner John Brannan described to FRFI something of the atmosphere prevailing at Shotts: ‘Each Hall is divided up into six sections, each containing 20 prisoners who are caged as a group into a tiny self-contained area that is sealed almost the whole time by locked grille gates. The screws remain beyond the gates, entering the sections only to lock us in our cells. We only leave the cells for work and are made to walk in strict single file to and from the work sheds. The atmosphere of intimidation is something that you’re up against here day and night. Tension within the living sections is really bad and prisoners just pace up and down all the time, full of anger and paranoia. The screws obviously feel safe and in control with everyone locked up on the sections and have dished out so much shit that they’re now too frightened to open up the gates and deal with us as a larger group, face to face. People here are being seriously damaged mentally and I think that few of us will ever be able to readjust to normal life again.’
John Brannan’s description clearly illustrates how the administration at Shotts was and is itself responsible for creating the conditions for revolt and rebellion.
In 1995 the Scottish Inspectorate for Prisons strongly criticized the SPS for its treatment of prisoners at Shotts. In 2002 the inspectorate again criticized conditions at Shotts. Unfortunately, the SPS has never been particularly receptive to even official criticism of its methods, and the continuously repressive and confrontational nature of the Shotts regime is indicative of this.
The protests and disturbances will therefore, continue at shotts because of two related factors: the unwillingness of the administration there to treat prisoners with human dignity, and the proven ability and determination of long-term prisoners in Scotland to organize, resist and fight back with courage and tenacity.
Close Dartmoor Prison Once And For All!
‘Dartmoor has a large segregation unit (46 cells) in a forbidding granite-walled wing, described by the present governor as “medieval”…[Prisoners] are exercised one at a time in what all staff referred to as “pens”. At the time we were there, if they were distressed or suicidal and needed to see a Listener (a Samaritan-trained prisoner)…they were locked in a “Listeners’ suite”, which was in fact a cage: a wire enclosure with a Perspex square through which they could communicate their problems. Both the pens and the cage were degrading and more appropriate for dangerous animals than for potentially suicidal medium to low prisoners. When we reported our concerns about the cage, we were told that the Governor had instructed that it be closed some weeks previously…
‘There was frequent use of control and restraint and special cells…We followed a particular incident[in which a] mentally ill prisoner who had threatened an officer was being moved within the segregation unit to a special cell…Other prisoners in the unit were clearly shaken and frightened…We believe that there may have been excessive use of Control and Restraint in this incident,and that more officers than necessary had been directly involved. Among them were seven officers wearing Control and Restraint equipment. A Health Care officer and a Governor had been in attendance…After all staff had left the cell the prisoner was left lying naked on the floor’. Report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons into an Unannounced Follow-up Investigation of Dartmoor Prison, published November 2001.
The recent Chief Inspector’s report reveals the shocking conditions at Dartmoor Prison, but its publication and the response to it follow a familiar and almost choreographed pattern. Highly critical reports are followed by feigned concern from senior Prison Service bureaucrats, which is followed by standard denials from the Prison Officers Association, which is followed by nothing changing.
Two questions raised by the Dartmoor report: the role of the prison senior medical officer in allowing disturbed and suicidal prisoners to be caged like animals, and the responsibility of the prison governor for allowing such an inhumane practice to prevail. The governor’s claim that he had instructed that the cage be permanently removed long before the inspector’s visit, yet had been ignored by his staff, raises an even more fundamental question about who was running Dartmoor and who had the final say in how prisoners were treated. It was obviously a question that didn’t particularly perturb the governor who, prior to the publication of the report, hadn’t felt compelled to inform Prison Service headquarters about a crisis of management.
The reality is, of course, that everyone at Dartmoor was aware of what prisoners were being subjected to, and no-one spoke out or went against the grain.
There are obvious parallels here with Wormwood Scrubs, where prisoners were routinely beaten in the segregation unit, and all levels of staff conspired and colluded to keep the lid on it.
Dartmoor has always been designated as a punishment prison for ‘difficult’ and ‘awkward’ prisoners, as well as for a disproportionate number of black prisoners. It is a stick wielded by the prison system and everyone at Dartmoor knows what is expected of them. The prison has a long established culture of brutality, which is so prevalent that officers didn’t even bother hiding it from the inspectors: ‘This attitude on the part of some staff continued throughout the week with prisoners being variously described to us as the “shit” or “rubbish” of the prison system, or as “these people” or “coloureds”…Prisoners were told that this was “the end of the line”.’
Whenever it is confronted with such unambiguous, unequivocal evidence of a denial of human rights in prisons like Dartmoor and the Scrubs, the Prison Service inevitably attempts to push the blame onto a small minority of ‘rogue officers’, who operate clandestinely. The truth is that where such a minority does operate, it does so in the confident knowledge that it has the tacit support of the system which will never blow the whistle on them. In a gaol such as Dartmoor, all levels of staff collude in the brutalization of prisoners, and in a wider political climate of retribution and revenge, all feel confident that the very top.
Dartmoor was built by and housed French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic War in 1809. It was first used as a civilian prison in 1851. In 1959 a government White Paper declared that it was near the ‘end of its serviceable life’, and when Albany prison on the Isle of Wight was commissioned in 1961, it was intended as a replacement, however Dartmoor remained open. In 1979 the May Committee again recommended closure, describing the isolated, insanitary, cold buildings as ‘nowadays simply against nature’.
Following the wave of revolt which swept through British prisons in 1990, the Woolf Report said that Dartmoor should be given a ‘last chance’. A year later a Chief Inspector’s report called Dartmoor a ‘dustbin’, but again said that it should be given a ‘final chance’. As that report was issued, police were investigating a racket whereby desperate prisoners were paying £250 to prison officers to arrange transfers to other prisons.
In 1991 the Prison Reform Trust, usually known for the mildness of its criticisms, called for Dartmoor to be closed: ‘It is isolated and rundown and for 200 years has been dominated by a culture of barbarity and punishment. That culture is all-pervasive and repeated attempts to change it have produced nothing but failure’.
It is now 2001, and the new Chief Inspector, Anne Owers, does not even enter the ‘final chance’ territory. Instead, her conclusion is even more pathetic: ‘Dartmoor needs to find a positive role supported by a new culture…It needs to be part of a regional and national strategy for the dignified and decent treatment and resettlement of prisoners’. What makes her think that after two centuries as the punishment block for the prison system and copious reports into its failings, last chances, final chances, recategorization and reclassifications, Dartmoor and the staff who run it will change now?
In the final analysis there is no liberal reformist solution to the existence of brutality and maltreatment in prisons, no piecemeal way of changing something that is so intrinsic to the system. The bottom line is that prisoners only ever achieve a significant improvement in treatment and conditions when they themselves organize and fight for it.
Instead of meaningless debates about how prisons might be made ‘better’ and thereby more legitimate, the focus should instead be on how prisoners can be supported and empowered in their struggle for human rights. There is no middle ground in the struggle for prisoners’ rights: either we campaign and fight for the complete abolition of prisons as instruments of state terror and social control, or we accept their existence and the power of the state to dehumanize a certain section of the working class population.
Prison Ombudsman Sows Whose Side He Is On
The appointment of Stephen Shaw as Prisons Ombudsman was greeted by prison reform pundits and the liberal press as an indication that the independence and integrity of that body was assured. In fact, as head of the PRT, Shaw had cultivated an extremely close working relationship with the Prison Service that bordered on a partnership and in the eyes of many prisoners transformed the PRT into little more than a liberal arm of the Prison Service.
Having been suitably rewarded with his latest career move, Shaw clearly intends to continue in the same vein and prisoners should have absolutely no illusions about his inclination to pursue their interests and rights at the risk of alienating his friends within the prison system.
In September 1999 two other prisoners and I staged a dirty protest in the segregation unit of Long Lartin in an attempt to resist and highlight the brutalisation of prisoners in the unit. For almost a month we were isolated in purpose built ‘anti-dirty-protest’ cells and subjected to constant psychological abuse and occasional physical brutality. We were fed through small cat-flaps in the cell doors and our food was regularly adulterated and water withheld. Each day staff would silently approach our cell doors and suddenly hammer on them with truncheons, usually every half hour or so, so keeping us in a constant state of anxiety and stress.
Throughout the night powerful cell lights would be turned on and off for interminable periods, preventing sustained sleep. Dog handlers would approach our windows during the very early hours of each morning and provoke their Alsatians to bark incessantly.
At no time were we seen by a doctor, member of the Board of Visitors, or even a governor. We were simply left to the mercy of sadistic prison officers whose intention was to break our resolve and destroy our psychological resistance.
A vital part of the torture was that we were deliberately and completely cut off from any possible source of support or outside influence, especially the intervention of lawyers. For the duration of our protest we were prevented from sending out any letters or making any telephone calls. This is in direct contravention of Prison Rule 39, which allows for correspondence with legal representatives, and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which upholds the right to correspond with one’s family. It was only through the support of other prisoners at the gaol that lawyers were alerted to our situation and that we managed to breach the secrecy around our treatment.
In subsequent correspondence with solicitor Vicky King, Governor Gary Nicholls claimed that the decision had been made on ‘Health and Safety’ grounds and that letters written by prisoners on dirty protests would be ‘contaminated’ and therefore pose a health risk to postal workers. In fact, this has never been an issue before and elsewhere in the prison system correspondence from dirty protesters is sent out in plastic envelopes. Vicky King made the point that: ‘There are degrees of dirty protest and letters from dirty protest prisoners are (without exception in my experience) not necessarily contaminated. Every single cell in the prison system could be described as a toilet. Thus, if one were to adopt the arrangement that mail should never be sent from a confined space in which someone has defecated, then all prisoners would lose the right to correspond.’
In a complaint to the Prison Ombudsman on my behalf, she wrote that: ‘The major concerns in this case are that prisoners have a right to instruct solicitors of their choice at any stage during their sentence and that prisons have a duty to facilitate such correspondence. Whilst the manner in which such communication is carried out may change depending on the circumstances, the prison cannot place a veto on such communication. This means that the fact that Mr Bowden was not allowed to write letters and the process by which he was stopped from doing so should be subjected to independent scrutiny.’ Such independent scrutiny is the task for which the Ombudsman’s post was created.
Incredibly Stephen Shaws response was brief: ‘I have decided that no worthwhile outcome would ensue were I to take on Mr Bowden’s complaint’.
So, a breach of a fundamental legal right is considered by the Prisons Ombudsman to be unworthy of investigation and he therefore concurs with the decision to hold prisoners incommunicado when it suits the system to do so.
The creation of a Prison Ombudsman was one of the central recommendations to emerge from the Woolf Inquiry into the 1990 Strangeways prison rebellion and was considered the most effective means by which the prison system could be made publicly accountable in the way the prisoners’ complaints of maltreatment are investigated. I can still recall, with some distaste now, Stephen Shaw attending a forum organized by prisoners at Long Lartin shortly after the publication of the Woolf Report. At the time he gleefully waved the report at us and said: ‘This will make a difference!’ It certainly made a difference to his career and the Home Office can rest assured that, once again, a potentially important means of challenging its power has been neutralised and rendered harmless.

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