Monday, October 26, 2009

Prison Work is Criminal

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.


  1. Perhaps it would be possible to league prisons, as has been done to hospitals and schools, on set criteria? One of these (the most obvious, perhaps) could be the re-offending rate of inmates. Could this create a real incentive to provide useful work and existence to prisoners?

  2. Prisons are ranked against a set of targets. Rehabilitation or reoffending is not one of them. The problem is that prisoners rarely stay in one prison, so which prison carries the can? The tories have proposed this idea, revealing a worrying lack of knowledge about how sentences are served across many prisons. But someone should be accountable.

  3. Perhaps the most depressng part of this tale is the obviously low expectation (orderlies apart perhaps) of the capabilities of prisoners. Sounds to me we have hardly progressed from the days of rock breaking and teasing apart rope fibres.

    Since pointless, badly paid employment is one of the incentives for crime it seems rather perverse to subject prisoners to more of the same. Is the aim to make outside work seem somehow better?

  4. The debate about rehabilitation vs punishment has been around all of my life. The classical criminolgist says punishment is a deterrent and the positive one rehabilitation to reduce offending. Each expect a prison to undertake both tasks. All studies indicate that the vast majority of UK citizens support punishment and the government of the day has responded by upping sentence lengths as well as mandatory sentences. However, we straddle both worlds by introducing sentences such as Punishment and Rehabilitative Order. I don't know what that is - but it is meant to persuade us that all things can be achieved.

    I thought that all those responsible for sentencing had joined together to try and ensure a continuous service to people from prison to community? Even if they have not done so it is unrealistic of you to believe that prison staff should remain interested in prisoners on release. Prison staff are not missionaries - they are doing a job on our behalf and that ends when the prisoner leaves custody.

    As to employment in prison. For years we read in the papers about the ghastliness of people languishing in their cells all day which I must assume led to the compulsary requirement to work?

    I also heard on the radio a question about qualifications obtained in Chelmsford Prison to the relevant Minister in the Commons. What was important was that numbers appeared to be on the increase and were in their thousands.

    We cannot afford the system that you claim would be beneficial. If the average cost of imprisonment is £40,000 a year then this amount would increase 6 fold to achieve your aims. It would require huge staffing, a range of specialists etc etc. Experience in the last decade has indicated too that even if we threw large amounts into regimes to provide all the necessary skills you state prisoners need, it does not follow that the prisoner will benefit from the input and not reoffend. We have tried this with education by providing additional support, paying children from poorer backgrounds to remain in school etc etc. Yet major employers state the problems they have with educational standards with truancy and those leaving without qualifications not improving.

    Sadly, we have to do what we are doing with the resources available and do the best we can.

    Finally, as a taxpayer I am not at all livid about prison costs. Indeed the National Audit Office published a report earlier this year which was quite positive about prison management of resources. I am livid about the number of people who commit crime despite the increase in opportunity over past years. Governments have done much to try and assist people to achieve. I am livid about the amount of money spent on legal aid too. No such thing as a public defender service here - same representation that those who have limited wealth and have to pay for receive. I am livid with governments who pander to the dreadful newspapers who have us all frightened about crime and who report all the negative aspects of it. I am livid about how much it costs too when all surveys indicate that crime is falling.

    I know nothing of prisons other than what I read or watch on television, but anyone with common sense would see that the task is impossible. I do not blame them at all and feel quite sorry for Prison Management who felt they had to remove prisoners to attempt to get a glowing inspection report. The poor devils are under pressure from prisoners - they can never do enough and can be sued at the drop of a hat, prison management in meeting targets, government who bring about constant change, and the public who expect prisons to be harsh. Sometimes it is good to put yourself in another person's shoes and wonder just how you would cope with the varying and competing demands.

  5. I'm a Director of a Ngo KORIP, Korean Research Institute for Policing, who is finishing to write a book on prison reform. May I ask you to permit for it to include some of your articles on this blog? If possible, I'd so happy to transtlate them into Korean and publish it. Reply soon to email address :

  6. @Anonymous

    Your eventual admission of ignorance at the end was obvious to me at the start. Criminologists have known for decades that it is not threat of punishment that deters criminals (that only deters honest people). It is their perception of the chances of them being caught and convicted that forms the risk/benefit calculation.

    However many criminals are very bad at the odds and even those that are good neglect to calculate over time.

    This obviously doesn't apply to crimes of passion, like murder. But punishment is no deterrent either. Murder and violence rates have declined since we abolished the death penalty. The US has high rates of both despite the death penalty.

    Why is that people who are happy to both display and admit such absolute ignorance also feel that they have to share it with others, and at length?

  7. Peter

    Criminologists are free to be as wrong as anyone else. However a good econometricist might tell you that statistical evidence shows that even 'crimes of passion' are deterred to some degree by the threat of punishment (the statistical fieldwork of one study was done in the USA, where different states have much in common but very different levels of punishment by execution). Incentives are far more powerful than most people would ever credit, even affecting sexuality and causing pigeons to act as apparently reasoning economic agents.

    Just because it is obvious to you does not mean it is true! In fact any argument relying on being 'obvious' is immediately suspect.

    Certain research has suggested that for every execution in US states there is a reduction of 8 murders, once other factors have been accounted for as best the researchers were able.

    On the other hand any reduction in murders since the abolishment of the death penalty has no statistical significance, as there is no control. It is equivalent to the Pastafarian proof that climate change is caused by the reduction in the number of pirates. You have two statistical changes occurring at the same time, but have not even attempted to give evidence that they are connected in any way.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. "As [cleaners] also help serve the meals there are certain perks as well."

    I hope they wash their hands after cleaning the lavatories!

    Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights excludes prisoners' work from the prohibition against 'forced or compulsory labour'. Does this mean that the governor does not have to pay them at all? You should count yourself lucky, Ben.

    I worked throughout my sentence but I am still a little miffed by the ten-year hole in my National Insurance contributions, which means that my state pension will be smaller.

    Prisoners who work should get a free NI credit.

  10. @DoubtingRichard

    Ah but a society can be its own control. New Zealand back in the '60s abolished the death penalty, reinstated it for a while, then abolished it again. If you look at the murder rates over the period, they fell after the initial abolition, rose during the reintroduction then fell again after the final abolition.

    Unfortunately the numbers involved and the variance mean the stats don't work. Didn't stop me using it in a school debate 30 years ago.

    As for punishment being a deterrent for crimes of passion, only those that are not really crimes of passion. If you are rational enough to think of the consequences then you are not being ruled by your passions are you?

  11. Peter

    So ... by your own admission your stats are not valid. Not the strongest argument I've ever heard.

    As for 'not crime of passion', I think you need to read up on a little psychology and econometrics. Both suggest that human passions are not so irrational as often assumed by people with no real evidence for those assumptions. A basic start would be to read The Armchair Economist for the basics of incentives and Descarte's Error for emotions and decision making. Work from there.

  12. lol @ YagiBird ........hmmmmm ...... i don't think you were being sarcastic there although i really hope you were.

    So let me get this straight you think that you should be given more employment opportunities at a higher level of pay. This in turn would give you poor souls a greater sense of purpose and thus reduce the risk of you reoffending?

    Here's an idea why not consider yourself not as a put upon unfortunate who had no other choice other than to commit crime. Why not look at the myriad of people and all levels of the social scale who work hard to build a brighter future for themselves? And yes learn from them perhaps? People make opportunities, they are not simply a given.

    What i am livid about is that you actually get paid at all. This work should be seen as upkeep for you pure and simple.

  13. Don't fall off your chair, Anonymous! Some years ago I received a similar letter (but not so rude) via my Member of Parliament from a former Minister for Pensions.

    Your sneering attitude towards prisoners is really part of the problem. If prisoners are meant to be in any way reformed by their sentences, so that they lead honest working lives after their release, they ought to be shown some good examples while they are inside.

    Watching prison officers as they grow older day by day staring into space is not a good example. My suggestion is that prisoners be treated honestly as normal employees. This is a model for a proper working life.

  14. Im sat on my chair still.. Although realising, it seems, you have actually complained about your lack of NI contributions whilst serving your sentence...that kind Of makes me sigh like an eygptian corpse.

  15. Anonymous, your approach boils down to this: there can be no injustice done to a prisoner because he broke a law.

    Did you ever do something wrong? Did you commit a minor, or not so minor offence such as assault, for which you were never punished?

    If you are perfect, forget my posts. Let us see details of how you achieved it so that we can be perfect like you.

  16. Hi again YagiBird.

    That is quite a presumtion you made there, a little extreme also. My approach does not boil down to that at all. What I take umbridge with is that somehow you seem to have the mindset that you are entitled to national insurance contributions....whilst serving time for an offence. That to me is deeply offensive.

    Did i ever do anything wrong? Well I'm pretty sure I haven't done anything that would possibly result in a prison sentence, no. Not unless someone was really gunning for me and then im sure there is a law to get anyone..

    And i'm pretty sure that is what the majority of people would feel. Your statement seems to suggest that everyone could have been locked up and mearly evaded detection.

    Do i consider myself perfect? certianly not. All I have done is voice my disgruntlement at what comes across to me as a very selfish attititude.

  17. Prisoners are kept confined as their punishment. Since when did being striped of future state benefits become part of that punishment? You do your time, get out, and decades later find your pension cut due to low contributions. As prisoners are not able to earn enough to make voluntary contributions, it is on the government to carry the can for this injustice.

  18. @anonymous directly above

    Benefit is a good choice of word here. Of course the pension contributions are lower, as there is no contribution....all there is is further expenditure. There is no injustice here at all, simply extreme left idealist pipe dreams and prisoners who EXPECT. This EXPECTATION is the problem, I fully endorse there needs to be greater rehabilitation but this is a bridge way too far.

  19. @ade. Yes, entitlement! It is the deliberate decision of the government to deny prisoners the chance to earn enough to pay contributions. This future poverty is a sly punishment that isnt handed out by the judge. Further, there are those who paid lifelong contributions who only go to prison at a ripe age. The government then refuses to pay their state pension. Tell me that is not an injustice!

  20. i was under the impression it would go without saying that pension contributions would be a no go whilst serving a sentence. I would be suprised if im alone here. Perhaps police men should distribute flyers or wear placards with this little nugget on?

    As for your second point, yes that is a bit rough

  21. oops forgot to add my name the one above. Plus apologies on police MEN that was a slippage

  22. @ade. Why is this a no-brainer for you? Why cant prisoners do real work for real pay and make their pension contributions? How does society gain from the present arrangement, and how does it lose if they are working and contributing?

  23. How does it lose? What would the reality of administering and managing such a model? Resource and therefore cost of this to "entitle" prisoners to make pension contributions?

    The other point is that society gains because this is part of the deterrent.... surely?

  24. Ah yes and the third point which as been made before but should be included. Prisons are a huge cost centre, used by the minority, which the majority pay for. Therefore this should at least be part paid for by the people who utilise it.

  25. @anon, above. No. Society choses to respond to crime by using imprisonment, so society should pick up the bill for that policy choice. You want criminals to pay for their choices, fine, but you can apply that to yours. Restorative justice is far cheaper and more effective but society opts to ignore it.

  26. @anononymous directly above:

    I am fine with applying the same principle of choice to mine. And that is the principle is in place. Commit a crime > sentencing > potential prison sentence > inability to continue contribution to a pension plus other entitlements withdrawn. Works for me.

    For the record, i am not against restorative justice and can see the benefits and effectiveness. What i am against is this expectation of rights that should not be there.


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