Work. One of the few redemptive aspects of prison, that is of course, if you share my view that prison’s core function should be rehabilitation (with a few obvious exceptions). Whether the administration views this as the ultimate goal of prison tends to depend upon who’s in the office at 102 Petty France marked Justice Secretary and the prevailing wind of public opinion at the time. The theoretical tenets of incarceration as a practice in modern society can be discussed elsewhere, but for the sake of argument, let's work from the viewpoint that at the very least it’s a valid concern.
Working from that viewpoint, it’s surprising to see how little traction the idea has in the day to day work in prison. Most of the work I witnessed while in prison was of the menial, low-skill variety, rather than taken as an opportunity to teach prisoners skills which could realistically benefit them in their lives outside of prison. That of course only applies to those inmates doing anything that could faithfully be defined as employment, in many cases the tasks assigned to prisoners are tantamount to human slavery.
First, I’d like to recount my experiences of running a print shop at HMP Stamford Hill, and all the futility that came with it. Before discussing the ways in which other inmates were put to work and how valid that work is.
Upon arrival at HMP Stamford Hill, after xxx months in HMP Thameside, I was quickly assigned a job of relative privilege; manager of the prison print shop. My being selected for the role was down to experience in my previous life, and apparently, my education. I began the job hopefully, with slight guilt at my relief in being offered a job worthy of the word’s definition. While the days of the chain gang have passed, most prison work falls under one or more of three headings; repetitive, dirty or unsafe. So, to be offered something which bore relevance to my career before the prison was something of a boon.
My optimism was to be short-lived. It soon became clear that penal labour is subject to the same levels of bureaucracy and futility as the rest of the prison service. That is levels of institutional incompetence that would make a dystopian state blush and pause for thought.
One of the ongoing struggles of my employment illustrates this perfectly. Due to the nature of some of my “employees” convictions (according to prison legend; the prison had also had an embarrassing incident a few months before, where the network had ground almost to a halt. The reason? An inmate downloading industrial amounts of pornography for distribution amongst his fellows. For a fee naturally.) internet access was limited. There is nothing unreasonable in this, however, it became quickly apparent that running a print shop is extremely difficult without an internet connection. The brand-new computers, printers, and scanners provided for the shop all use software which needs to regularly update itself in order to stay bug-free and work as it should. For which, an internet connection is needed. Without regularly updated software we simply couldn’t complete the work assigned to us; clients would send us files we couldn’t access (because our software was an older version), the software would regularly crash losing work, and when we did complete work we’d send it to the client only for them to have the same issues.
After a few months of this, I decided to speak to the prison authorities about the matter. Having reached the reasonable conclusion that the problem was self-evident, easily rectified and in the prison’s interests to resolve. What followed was a maddening purgatory of complaint and response between the authorities and I. The issue took several months, and four or five complaints, to resolve by which point the prison had lost a considerable amount of revenue from jobs we couldn’t complete.
The idea that the prison would deny itself income during a time of increased cuts, for the sake of allowing access to software with little tangible risk of being abused by more high-risk inmates, is hard to fathom. Unfortunately, it’s symptomatic of the way in which prisons go about even the simplest of tasks. What is it they say about cutting off noses to spite faces?
To further illustrate the point, I’d like to share an incident involving my personal officer, which sums up the futility perfectly. While I was at Stanford Hill, there was one officer, who seemed to be more impertinent than the rest of his colleagues. Unfortunately, they had designated him my ‘Personal Officer (an appellation I still don’t’ understand), which amounted to asking me how I was bi-annually.
Whenever I heard him speak, he sounded glib and indifferent. Perhaps, I thought, he tried to disguise his lack of knowledge and inexperience with quips designed to shut down dialogue. At the time, I remembered asking someone if it was his first day on the job. However, it wasn’t. Most of the new guards feigned knowledge rather than admit or show a convict any degree of ignorance. I soon came to realize that this officer was one of the most sincere, frank and honest officers that I would come across during my stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
On one occasion, he was the only person in the wing office and I needed to know if an incoming payment had appeared in my “spends” account. The officer let out a big sigh that I interpreted, as he couldn’t be bothered to help me. After all, he was tied up peeling an orange.
When he realised that that was how I interpreted his sigh, he smiled and told me not to worry. It wasn’t the request that bothered him. Rather, it was how long the computer would take to boot-up that discouraged him. I replied that I couldn’t believe the government didn’t have the best IT infrastructure possible, due to security issues. He laughed. “Are you serious?” he asked me. “It doesn’t work like that,” he explained. “In Her Majesty’s Prison service if you need a computer in an office they will find a CPU, a monitor and a keyboard.” He paused a few seconds while typing in his password. “Whether or not these individual pieces function together as a computer is irrelevant.” He continued, “the government thinking is this: ‘Do you have a CPU, a monitor, and a keyboard? Yes. Then you have a computer.’ Fit for purpose has nothing to do with anything.”
This attitude was evident in almost every dealing I ever had with the prison authorities while in my role at the print shop. From the issues with software down to the ballpoint pens we were given. Don’t re-read that sentence, your eyes do not deceive you, ballpoint pens were a cause of daily consternation.
We would get a box of standard issue ballpoint pens - pens used by officers and prisoners alike. I tested box after box of these pens; one in forty worked. The other thirty-nine either worked for a few seconds or didn’t work at all. I can think of no better analogy for my own experiences of penal labour.
One of the greatest obstacles to the print shop running as anything that could be described as functional was the difficulty in getting many of the inmates assigned to me to work. I always adopted a laissez-faire attitude to the work ethic of my fellow inmates, if gentle encouragement didn’t work, it simply wasn’t worth battling over.
The prison authorities didn’t fare much better. While there are disciplinary functions in place; solitary confinement and depriving calls to family being the most severe, these don’t always have the desired effect on inmates who refuse to work. It’s worth remembering that these men have already taken the worst western society can throw at them in the loss of their liberty, those on long sentences are generally indifferent to the punishment of solitary confinement, or indeed a few extra months tacked onto the end of their sentences. The inevitable result is that the staff struggle to get many of them to work.
Building on that theme, something which caused major ructions in my workplace and has the potential to turn ugly if left unchecked, is the subject of positive discrimination. According to prison guidelines, inmates are permitted to attend religious services or take time out for religious practices during the working day without incurring a loss in pay (the National Offender Management Service designates these as acceptable absence).
So far, so sensible, however, like most things inside, this system was open to abuse. Several of the inmates who worked for me were practicing Muslims, who would attend Asr (afternoon prayer) during working hours. Not an issue, as a Buddhist I often left work to attend meditation sessions. Yet, what began to cause considerable disquiet among the non-Muslim members of my working party was that after attending afternoon prayer, usually at around 3 pm, the religious inmates often failed to return to work (HMP Stamford’s guide for prisoners’ states that work must continue on weekdays until 16:45). Instead, going back to their cells and relaxing.
Mindful that this had the potential to breed resentment and eventually turn ugly, I made several official complaints to the prison authorities. Pointing out the potential for an escalation of tensions if the matter wasn’t resolved. The responses I received from the grandiosely titled “Head of Reducing Re-offending” were as telling as they were underwhelming; he simply repeated the prison policy verbatim, before assuring me that I was assured by his reply. After several goes on the roundabout, I admitted defeat and accepted that I would lose half my workforce each day at 3 pm and wouldn’t see them until the next morning. At the time of writing, I’m assured by those still on the inside that the issue is yet to be resolved and is still adding to the general malignant air in the prison.
I use this example to demonstrate the empty rhetoric that is behind much of prison service’s policies on penal labour. Something which as well as being all too evident in my own day to day experiences, is typical of the prison service’s stance on work as rehabilitation on a wider scale. My concerns about penal labour can broadly be drawn under two key issues; firstly, the nature of the work being carried out and secondly my uneasiness at the striking resemblance some of it bears to a form of modern slavery.
Beginning with the nature of the work; a high proportion of the jobs allocated to inmates fall on the menial end of the scale, with mind-numbing or metronomic being the defining characteristics. With tasks ranging from cleaning to assembly line style work and even packing boxes.
The National Offender Managements Service’s “One3one Solutions”, a program charged with the task of making prison labour alluring to businesses looking to outsource (or should that be “insource”) labour, describes our prisons as “industrious places of productive work”. Yet, inmate after inmate reveal such rhetoric for what is, one inmate talking to Vice in 2014 described it thus; “Most of the work behind bars is low-skilled, repetitive work, you have grown men putting tea bags into larger plastic bags and getting paid £10 a week; it teaches you nothing about work ethic, just about being exploited.”
“But prison is supposed to punish as well as rehabilitate” I hear the chorus. While this may be so, the labour meted out in our prisons is often straying too far into the punitive, at which point it tends to lose any rehabilitative qualities it may have brought with it. The result of prison labour which strays too far into the punishment of prisoners is inevitable; inmates simply refuse to work at all.
To suggest that inmates don’t understand when they’re being exploited is farcical, during my time in prison many of the worst jobs were notable by the prisoners assigned to them simply not turning up, or demanding payment from other inmates for the service. During my stay in Stanford Hill, the prison faced a near-constant battle to keep the bathrooms in a state fit for use, because the inmates tasked with doing the job simply refused to work. Likewise, I recall being asked for payment (the alternative was outright refusal) from the inmates tasked with painting my cell.
Who can blame prisoners for not buying into the menial tasks expected of them? This is not to suggest that prisoners shouldn’t be expected to maintain their own environment, they should, but to make an inmate’s job the cleaning of wing toilets is counter-productive and unlikely to yield anything other than resistance from the prisoner in question. By the same logic, it’s hard to see how a prisoner packing teabags for 6 hours a day is in any way working towards his rehabilitation or likely to engender anything but resentment towards prison authorities. Such misguided policy is both a waste of time and a gross waste of an opportunity to utilise prison labour for something useful, to both the individuals themselves and society.
More worrying still is the increasing use of penal labour is something akin to a slave workforce for private enterprise. The previously mentioned “One3one Solutions” NOMS program veers dangerously close to this. Part the MOJ’s nauseatingly titled “rehabilitation revolution”, it’s goal upon being launched in 2012 was to drive up the numbers of employed prisoners from 10,000 to 20,000 by 2020. That this ran parallel to the coalition government's target to shave £2 billion off the prison costs by 2012, is apparently a happy coincidence.
With the cost of maintaining the UK’s prison population astronomical (£45,000 per head for some 80,000 prisoners in England & Wales alone), the opportunity to recoup some of this by captilising on a captive labour force has proved an allurement too powerful to resist for the government.
Where things begin to get worrying is the terms of this labour. Prisoners are generally paid between £8.00 and £12.00 per week for their labour for a 40-hour week (the figure is roughly the same in both private and state-run prisons), to put things in perspective it works out at around £250.00 less than minimum wage per week. Throw into the equation that prisoners do not have the benefits of union membership and have little recourse beyond the toothless complaint system outlined earlier and you have something which not only raises the spectre of human rights violation, but also approaches 19th-century terms of employment. In short waged slavery.
The practice also has potential ramifications for civil society. Despite the MOJ’s insistence that “work for offenders in prison must not be used as a direct replacement for existing jobs in the community”, there is a growing body of evidence that this is happening in some cases. The Guardian reported in 2012 that HMP Prescoed, an open prison in Monmouthshire, had been bussing prisoners into a local call centre, on “work experience” for which they were paid just 40p an hour. It later transpired that this work experience, while lasting 2 months at a time, also constituted 15-17% of the firm’s workforce
To give another example, Speedy Hire, as reported by the Campaign Against Prison Slavery (CAPS), announced the closure of 37 depots, slashing some 300 jobs. While simultaneously employing 200 inmates to man their "hire" tools.
These are, at present, isolated examples, and in fairness to the MOJ, are jobs which would likely be outsourced to emerging labour markets in any cost cutting exercise by the firms involved. However, a dangerous precedent has been set, and it’s worth posing the question that if prison labour is cheaper and less likely to be derailed by such “trivialities” as workers’ rights, then what does this say about the working conditions of our prisoners? Who, after all, are likely to be citizens again one day in the future.
Having outlined the issues present in penal labour, it rather poses the question what can be done to build a process that benefits inmates and the society they must one day return to, rather than the interests of private enterprise and little else?
Some commentators, such as CAPS, have called for the abolition of compulsory penal labour altogether. Claiming that the policy is little more than a vote winner for politicians looking to curry favour with the electorate by being “progressive” on prisons. The reality of the situation is that most employers are unlikely to employ ex-cons anyway, throwing inmates straight back into the doom loop of recidivism. Indeed, according to the MOJ’s own figures; three-quarters of those who fail to find a job an accommodation upon release are reconvicted within a year.
Yet this outlook is too bleak. While the current system of penal labour is at best flawed and at worst utterly unfit for purpose (assuming the purpose is rehabilitation). The goal of some form of rehabilitation through work is not.
On this front, much can be learned from the system currently utilised in Norwegian prisons. Some 30% of prisons in Norway are “open”, a moniker with similar connotations to the UK version, with the difference being that Norway’s overall recidivism rate sits at 20%, the UK’s at 46% (as of 2016). So, what is behind Norway’s success?
Without wishing to oversimply, the Norwegian justice system works from the premise that most its prison population will one day be released back into society. This is not to say that this applies to all prisoners, those who pose a real risk to society, Anders Breivik for instance, are unlikely to be released without demonstration of clear rehabilitation. But for those prisoners who are not high risk, prison is geared towards repurposing inmates as productive and useful citizens upon their release.
Norwegian attitudes view the loss of inmate’s liberty as punishment enough. As such, prisoners are often engaged in meaningful work, rather than punitive or low skilled work, in the local community. Which has the double benefit of preparing prisoners for civilian life and dispelling some of the fear of convicted criminals in the general population. Furthermore, real importance is placed upon prisons being self-sustaining, through agriculture and repair programs administered by inmates themselves, keeping Norway’s prison spending relatively low by the standards of most developed countries. Quite a different approach to balancing the books, to selling prisoner labour at third world rates to private enterprise.
While this may all sound a little utopian, it’s clear that the present system of penal labour in the UK doesn’t work. It fails to rehabilitate the vast majority of our prisoners and doesn’t appear to benefit anyone bar a few shady private enterprises. If we are to create a system truly worthy of the 21st century then greater emphasis needs to be placed upon preparing inmates to lead lives as productive citizens upon their release from prison, rather than merely keeping them occupied while inside. Without sweeping change to the way we rehabilitate our prisoners, we risk creating a criminal underclass, who, unable to re-join society, continue on their depressing treadmill of recidivism in perpetuity.
Written by Rob Stafford and Kreg Mills
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