Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Unemployment Benefits

The political Spin of the Week award goes again to the Tories, who are sweeping the board in this pre-election endeavour. Ably assisting them in this effort is the ubiquitous Tory-front group, the Taxpayers Alliance. This is a self-appointed campaign group with a never ending supply of outrage and quotes for every prison story, whose volume is only matched by its complete ignorance of the subject.

It seems that I and my peers are receiving 'benefits'. Or that is the headline. Needless to say, we don't, we are ineligible to receive state benefits. One result is an enduring scandal that older prisoners who have paid into National Insurance all their lives are denied the State pension.

This story is actually about the £2.50 a week that the prison pays us if we are unemployed due to no fault of our own. People unable to work through long term illness or past retirement age receive £3.50 a week.

As state generosity goes, this is hardly an illustration of taxpayers’ largess. According to the usual un-named prison sources (i.e. lying screws), we spend this vast sum on luxuries such as tobacco. As the smallest packet of tobacco costs £3, this reveals just how ignorant our keepers are of our lives.

Prisoners who are willing to work but who haven't been given a job by the prison have always been given a small allowance. When I began my sentence thirty years ago, this amounted to £1.10. That it has increased to only £2.50 shows how irrelevant it is to our keepers.

This money is a concrete recognition that, whilst the prison officially supplies all our necessities, there are personal costs we need to cover ourselves. It is also part of the behavioural incentives scheme, encouraging and rewarding good behaviour.

Of this £2.50, a whole £1 is promptly grabbed back by the prison to pay for our TV rental. My TV cost about £50, brand new, and so far I've paid about £520 for the privilege.

There really isn't much that can be done with £1.50 a week but a lot is expected. Whilst the prison has a duty of care to provide us with necessities, this is a very restricted definition. The prison pays for one second class letter per week; any more letters we wish to send have to be at our expense. We have to pay for phone calls. And buy the Biro to write the letter.

Prison isn't a free ride, as is perpetually implied in these types of stories. The reason we receive this unemployment pay of £2.50 is that it then absolves the prison from supplying items which are needed, such as more stamps, phone calls, stationery, pens. As the prison with the oldest average population, the money needed to be spent on items such as denture cleaner and fixative all has to come out of our pockets.

This £2.50 signals not largess, but failure. There is only work for about a third of the prison population; the prison service is incapable of providing universal employment. And when we do work, often for outside companies, the prison takes the money. Minimum wage legislation does not apply to prisons and so our labour is sold cheaply to companies, and we are still robbed by the prison.

When we come to spend our money - either prison wages or that sent it by friends or family - then we are charged high prices for the goods we buy. Both our supplier, DHL and Booker, along with the prison service makes a healthy profit from this money.

Ditto with our phone calls. Charged at 7 times the standard payphone rate, a nice living is made by BT and the prison service again.

The Tories want to make this a story about the failure of having so many prisoners unemployed, the Labour governments fault. That is quite cheeky, considering that under their government the situation was exactly the same.

And it was their last Prime Minister, John Major, who set this œ2.50 unemployment rate back in 1995 and Labour who refuses to increase it. Playing party politics is a messy business, and spinning facts in ignorance of history is a hostage to fortune.

The prison service gets a nice fat profit from prisoners’ moneys. In making us dependent on them as the source of goods we must by, in keeping us unemployed and underpaid so that we survive on donations from outside, which we then spend through the prison, they take their cut coming and going.

Here is a simple sum. Pay 80,000 cons £2.50 a week. Then add up how much money is sent in to us by friends and spent through the prison shop and on their telephones. Add up the profit they make from that - and I'll eat my hat if what they rob of us and our families fails to far exceed this £2.50.

Interestingly, whilst generating vast heat and indignation, please make a careful note of the fact that the Tories are not themselves promising to supply sufficient work to employ all prisoners, nor promising to take this £2.50 away from us.

Prison does cost money but as this is society's chosen response to crime then I'm not willing to listen to their bitching about that. But when it comes to the incidentals, the money spent on non-essential matters, the prison service screws far more out of us and our families than it throws our way.

Remember - the dumber the story, the closer the election must be. And the more he opens his mouth, the more ignorant Dominic Grieve MP reveals himself to be.

Which brings me to an incidental point. When we prisoners do get our voting rights returned, will we also be allowed to stand as candidates? "Vote for Ben as Minister of Justice"...?!


  1. I'd vote ;)

    Frustrating and infuriating as ever, Ben :/

  2. Thanks for the information Ben, what I know about prison life could be written on the back of a stamp and leave room to lick and stick, I knew that prisoners received some money but I'd no idea it was such a tiny amount. Nor did I know that you have rent your tv off the prison. You're right about the crap that emerges from politicians as an election grows near, if they spent as much time explaining their policies to us as they do making meaningless soundbite noises and swiping at the opposition we'd all be extraordinarily well informed. And it's only going to get worse as the election draws closer....

  3. Agree 100%, i annoys me that i could phone free after 6, or at weekends form my home phone, but because i can't phone in, i have to recive a paid call form an inmate, i bet the prison get free calls too. Everyday there is a story in the papers about how the government waste money, bleeting on about £2.50 is hardly gonna save us from the mess the bankers/ government have got this country into. See Campaign against prison slavery for more info, that's my rant over!

  4. Yay! Bring it on. Vote for Ben!

  5. I'd vote for you - it would be the first time a minister actually knew what the bloody hell they were on about because they'd experienced it for themselves.

  6. Gaina, ministers don't experience anything, they are zombified schizoids who like us to think that they are intelligent. In reality they have spin doctors to experience things for them, write speeches for them and then drip feed them with crap. They know nuffing but hot air, that is why they resort to using force instead of listening and debating with those who voted for them to resolve conflict; with the exception of a few who no one takes any notice of. The nearest I ever became a minister of anything was in religion, until I found out that religion confused me more, being a minister in politics will just drive me to insanity - all those lies, thieving and killing. I don't think SophieJ is cut for it either. Maybe Ben can because he has got all those years of fighting against the system until he was listen to.

    I too vote for Ben! He finished his PhD whilst behind bars. I jumped out of a PhD because teachers were feeding me the wrong information which was imposible to put in practice. The knowledge was to turn me from a realist into a spin doctor.

  7. Thank goodness to see it written what it is really like in prison. I visit a prison regularly and knew some of the details and get sick of reading in the press what a wonderful life prisoners have! I think the fact that prisoners pay so hevily for phone calls is disgusting and if a 'private' person did this to others they would be in trouble.

    I'm not sure if Ben would stand up at present to being an MP but he certainly could be an adviser to any government, and they could pay him for his services! When yo come out Ben, take some time to adapt to this cracy world and then I will vote for you.

  8. Ben, remember Bobby Sands was elected as an MP. I do not know if the law has been changed since then.

  9. Just checked, they changed the law soon after as a result of Bobby Sands election. Prisoners who have been sentenced for under one year can still stand but presumably not vote at present.