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Love’s labours lost

Prison labour appears to be the Coalition’s current criminological flavour of the month. It seems the answer to all their problems: financial – the potential to generate a vast income from the hiring out prisoners to private companies; rehabilitation – helping indoctrinate its iconic feral underclass into the benefits of real wage slavery, cutting the recidivism rate and creating eager new drones to fill all the dull drudge jobs that are currently occupied by all those nasty foreign workers that the Tories wish to see banished from Blighty’s shores.

Unlike countries such as China, with its classical fascist model of corporate state Laogai prison industries and which operates a myriad of enterprises – everything from packing China tea and making joss sticks all the way up to commercial vehicle manufacture and uranium mining; or Germany, where prisoners are expected to work in order to ‘pay for their keep’; prison labour in the UK has never really been about generating capital from a captive workforce, other than on a small haphazard scale, or even about prisoners having to work for their supper.

Instead it has largely been about keeping a restive population occupied – a hangover from the Victorian era when hard labour was transformed from merely being a punishment to fulfilling the role of keeping idle hands busy, providing meaningless activity, a la crank and treadmill, to tire out the prison population so they had no energy left to cause their keepers any problems. This role has largely mutated, under the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, into a fully-fledged system of order and control; one where a limited number of jobs are farmed out to prisoners, alongside a graded levels of wages and perks (access to a rented TV, enhanced visits, more private cash, etc.), all earned on the basis of one’s compliance with the prison regime’s rules and codes of conduct. Keep your nose clean, tug your forelock and you will get ahead.

Many of these jobs are also essential to the everyday running of prisons: cooking and cleaning for the prisoners and the manufacture of almost everything that is consumed within a prison on a daily basis – from socks and y-fronts to cell furniture and the very prison bars themselves (all except locks and keys of course). [NB. Prison is the only public sector arena where the cleaning contract has never been privatised.] All this provides an essential subsidy that has helped maintain an ever-growing prison population, but one that the Coalition has decided needs extra income: hence the so-called Rehabilitation Revolution with its ‘real working prisons’ and the decision to finally enable the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996.

Yet what exactly is the reality, what great strides has the Coalition actually made in its criminological crusade? Well, next to none – they have increased the hours worked in HMP Bristol from 20 to 33 hours a week and introduced a 40% Victim Support levy from prisoners wages. Except the first only covers 30 prisoners in the prison’s recycling workshop and the latter effects just 450 in open prisons, unfortunately those nearing the end of long sentences working day release jobs and least able to resist the changes.

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This article originally appeared in the November edition of Freedom newspaper see here
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