We rob you. That's what criminals do. We steal your money, your possessions, your peace of mind, your dignity, even your life. We are then thrown in prison. What you hardly expected then was that the Government would itself pick up our thieving ways and enlist our help to steal from you all over again.
To ask, "what is the purpose of prison work?" is to ask a profound question about the purpose of the 21 century prison. The answers are neither simple, consistent, nor necessarily reflected in the daily reality of life on the prison landings.
This confusion is rooted in the broad range of demands, sometimes conflicting, that are made of imprisonment. Is prison merely a tool to inflict punishment? Is rehabilitation an aspiration? What of reducing the incidence of re-offending? Imprisonment is expected to at least attempt to deliver some measure of all of these things, and this fragmentation of purpose has undermined the formulation of any consistent and long term view of a central part of prison life - work.
The result of this confused inconsistency is a patchwork of practice across the prison estate which shares only one characteristic - that it takes taxpayers' monies and squanders them. The Prison Service has created and sustained a regime of work that neither produces a profit, nor reduces offending, nor equips prisoners with skills for their future employment.
Prison managers fully understand the limitations of their regime and yet they are forced to forge ahead with rather pointless work by the need to achieve internal targets for "purposeful activity". This requires prisoners to be out of their cells for several hours a day, and in employment. These targets, however, have no requirement for this employment to meet any standards of either usefulness or punitiveness. Individual Governors, then, have every incentive to avoid developing work regimes that have any greater purpose than simple existence.
The lack of public understanding of the prison work regime, coupled with the clashing of punitive and rehabilitative currents in the public mood, ensures that neither prisoners nor society make any gains from this activity. This is not a new realisation. It is just a failure that is not paraded for the taxpayers gaze.
To say that prison work is unskilled and devoid of any redeeming features is to bathe the reader with wordy sophistry. We need to retreat to the landings themselves to see the physical reality. Let us examine a standard prison.
Workers can be split into several groups: cleaners, orderlies, industries, education, works, stores. Each of these groups has its own benefits and pains, and the adept prisoner will attempt to gain a job in the area that best suits his temperament and finances.
Cleaners maintain the wings, and traditionally is a job which pays an average wage (£7 to £10 per week) and allows large amounts of leisure time. They stagger out of bed at breakfast time, shove a broom around the floor, then retire to their leisure. Some of their jobs can be completed in less than an hour, leaving the cleaner the rest of the day to fill with only his imagination as a limit. Being a cleaner carries the two major advantages of being left unlocked during the day, and being benignly ignored by staff. As they also help serve the meals there are certain perks as well. No one becomes a cleaner to work, nor to get rich.
Orderlies are rather posh cleaners. Instead of scrubbing the wings they fit into a smaller niche. The Library has them, as does Education, and Reception, the Works, Visits...most activities come with an orderly attached. Not only do they clean, but they are often given a measure of trust or responsibility. Library orderlies man the counter and deal with book orders, for instance, while Reception orderlies are trusted not to steal our stored property. These jobs are often quite popular because they are out of the main flow, they allow a more human relationship with their immediate bosses, and tend to come with perks attached.
Industries are the mainstay of prison work. On any given day there are tens of thousands of men sitting behind rows of sewing machines, or at workbenches, producing everything from oven gloves to bed sheets, packing screws and bolts. This is piecework. Where most of this output was once intended for internal use, it is now increasingly common for work to be subcontracted from private companies. The advantages for these companies is obvious: 35 hours work for a £15 wage is a commercial edge that cannot be gained elsewhere. The taxpayer is subsidising these firms, solely in order to get prisoners out of their cells for a few hours. Industries is the dullest work, though tends to be amongst the best paid.
Education counts as work, and is semi-popular because it doesn't involve mindless repetition but tends to be the lowest paid job in any prison. Only in the modern prison can there be an in-built disincentive to dissuade people from increasing their life chances and lower their chances of reoffending. Education used to provide a refuge of sorts, where the attitude of teachers allowed a more human approach. You could leave your prisoner status at the door. Today it is an extension of the prison, not only physically but in temperament and in its need to exercise perpetual and mindless control.
Miscellaneous Support Services. Being, essentially, a small community then there are a range of activities that must take place in order for the days to be morphed from one into the next. Someone has to cook the food, fix the electrics, mend the plumbing, sweep the yards, water the gardens...These are cared for by small departments - the Works, Gardens, Kitchens, etc, who rely on prisoner labour. The kitchens traditionally work the longest hours and receive the highest pay, plus all you can steal. The work that requires skill, such as Works services, is conducted by staff although each has a prisoner to carry the tools.
None of this work is, in itself, objectionable. Someone has to do it. But year after year? For decades? And with the only purpose being to get a man out of his cell. When the State takes a person into its care, at a cost of £35,000 a year to the public purse, it might be expected that they make the best efforts to make effective use of that money. If your child returned from Eton with that bill you would expect to see some tangible benefit for your money.
It is prisons' dirty little secret that they take in broken people with broken lives, strip them of the resources and support of their previous life, hold them for years and then release them back into the world. Not only are they in no way improved, but the lack of social support and employment means that they are far more likely than not to commit further crimes.
Prison work is the most obvious sign of this expensive neglect. You can serve decades and not learn a single useful skill. Year after year the only people who are pleased by this result are the Prison Service managers who have met their targets to get prisoners out of their cells. Once these men are released, these managers are neither interested nor accountable for the consequences of their neglect.
There are two options. You could put a man in prison and help him to repair his broken life, equip him to find his place in the modern economy. Or you can take away what little he has and send him into the world with crime being his best option for success. That people are happy for the latter situation to continue, at huge costs, is a mark of social disinterest and the ability of the Prison Service to deceive the taxpayer. If I paid taxes, I'd be livid.