Friday, October 8, 2010

Ken Faces the Lions

It's not often that I await the moment when one of our leaders takes to a podium to begin waffling, but the speech by Ken Clarke at the Tory conference has been eagerly awaited.

It is not uncommon that a speech at that venue has had direct and harsh effects on the prison landings. Few political speeches have such a powerful and immediate impact. Michael Howard's "prison works" speech heralded the introduction of a daily regime and restrictions which we still endure. Leon Brittain had a similar effect in the very early 1980's. And so what the Home Secretary - now Minister of Justice - has to say is deadly important to us.

This is not a natural home for Ken Clarke, with many of his audience tuning out from any speech that fails to include the words "capital punishment" or "the birch". And our Justice Secretary is a more thoughtful man than Howard, or at least less tempted by cheap populism.

That said, his speech was littered with the word "tough". Thankfully, it wasn't welded to any particular policy or practice and so our daily lives should remain unscathed. Perhaps he took refuge in that mantra, used it as a shield of sophistry to lull the audience into a state of Tory hypnosis...lest they noticed the absence of any real Hush Puppy being placed on our throats.

The central point of Ken Clarke's speech was actually a relaunch of an idea propagated by Ann Widdecombe under John Major (sorry for the image that may provoke...) - the Prisoners' Pay Act. This is law, but has never been activated, laying in the overstuffed draw that contains innumerable policy wishes.

The idea is frighteningly simple and - largely - uncontentious. Prisoners should work a full 40 hour working week, in activities which are productive and which develop our skills and training. For this effort, we would be paid the National Minimum Wage and so pay taxes and National Insurance. It has always been intended that a large chunk of this wage would be removed and handed to victims. It is with some regret and cynicism, then, that I have to declare that this idea is a dead duck. Allow me explain.

The present working regime currently provides work for maybe a third of the prison population, say 30,000 people, for a maximum of eight hours a day - in theory. Only a small minority of these workers are actually engaged in genuine, productive work, that is have some good or service to present at the end of the working week. Most are in Education or ancillary services - cleaners, kitchen, stores, orderlies, and so on. And of those actually producing some tangible product, most will be creating goods for the prisons internal market - furniture, clothing, plastics, etc which have always been the staple of prison industries.

In order to bring to life the policy announced by Ken Clarke, it would require the whole daily regime of each prison to re-jigged around providing an 8 hour working day. Very few prisons are able to do this, largely because the staff working hours and shift patterns do not bend in that direction. And the Prison Officers' Association is unlikely to ever allow it to be so changed. One tiny illustration of the regime barrier to a full working day is the fact that staff lock us up for an hour and a half every lunchtime, in some prisons its two hours - for staff to have their lunch. Any other jobs in life that offer a lunch break of that length?

Assuming the Prison Officers Association can be dragged into the 21st century and a daily regime created that has space for a real working day, there is the matter of infrastructure. Prisons are not all the same. There are local prisons, high security prisons, training prisons, open prisons...and the physical structures in each differs. In local prisons, city centre edifices, where can the land be found to build the workshops to hold up to a thousand men? And who is to pay for these structures, which would need to be built in every one of the 130 odd prisons? This is a huge investment at a time when there is the least amount of cash available.

Assuming we can crack the staff problem and the physical investment problem, we hit the largest difficulty. Most prisoners are not put to work because the work just isn't available, not as a policy decision. And where is this work to be conjured from, when it has been impossible to find for the last fifty years?

Already, the press are complaining that giving prisoners genuine work would deprive the law-abiding of those jobs - as if we would ever be given the work anyone else would do!

Employers would have to be found which would be content to invest in establishing a workshop, possibly in the face of that prison having a highly transient population. Training and skills would be a side issue, over-ridden by some managerial target to get us out of our cells and into work, no matter what. Even so, assuming we could crack the staff problem, the physical infrastructure problem, and the work supply problem...

We then enter the murky world of law, morality and politics. Legally, prison work is forced labour. Slavery. Many companies wouldn't want their image tarnished by that association, even though the European Convention or Human Rights ("the prisoner's friend"!) gives a dispensation from the ban on slavery in respect of prisoners!

This issue is complicated by the fact that thousands of prisoners, such as myself, are no longer held in prison for punishment - we are past our tariff. What is the legal and moral position of forcing us to work on penalty of harsh punishments for refusing?

Again, assuming we can resolve that issue, along with the others, there is the matter of the 'victims tax' on our wages. This has always caused me difficulty. The criminal justice system is impersonal, our offences are against the Crown, not the individual victim. This is why victims are not represented in court.

The judge in any case can order that we pay compensation to our victim, along with any other punishment. In my case, they did not do so. Victims can also sue us in the civil courts for damages, and receive money from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

Why should a politician usurp these judicial functions and try to fine me thirty years down the line? And where is this money to go? The suggestion is, to 'victims groups'. Does this mean the groups who campaign for the likes of me to serve literally life, or be executed, or live a terrible daily existence? I hope you can appreciate my objection to being forced to fund a campaign to kill me??

The final hurdle that this whole policy has to overcome is a social one. Assuming all goes perfectly and hordes of newly skilled prisoners hit the streets. Will employers queue up to take us on, or shun us in perpetuity? And if the expectations of prisoners is raised, to be shattered on release...guess what the re-offending rate may be?

That most prisoners don't work is a situation that has existed since time immemorial, and it is not a situation that any are happy with. Changing the estate into a hive of industry, though, has proved impossible in the past.

Ken Clarke may give this policy an impetus that was previously absent and so force through some significant change. To underestimate the structural, financial and legal barriers, though, is to fall into the error of "the finger pointing at the moon". A declaration isn't reality, and it will be interesting to see if Ken Clarke has the necessary steel toecaps in his Hush Puppies.


  1. The Tories needed an attention grabbing headliner that also made them appear reasonable and radical ... and I am glad for Ben's post here that shows how impractical the implementation of a 40 hour week on minimum wage for prisoners would actually be.

    It shows the shallow and opportunistic nature of politicians.

    They aren't leading the country anywhere, just down the slagheap. All the while pretending to be reasonable and radical. Its galling that they believe their own trumped up ideology.

    I remember about ten years ago when Tory Blair ruled the country, there was a new private enterprise set up which employed ex-prisoners and those on their way out of prison straddling prison life and community to sell household goods.

    They began their sales pitch with their story of how they were newly out of prison and finding it hard to get work etc. Most people had and ear for them at first, some bought the most overpriced household items that they were selling, but mainly as a one off.

    These prisoners not only had to lay out for the grossly overpriced stuff, they went through humiliation around the communities as they tried to sell it coupled with the telling of their story to those who were willing to listen.

    I suspect many of them got a cold shoulder and / or a door slammed in their face one too many times.

    That enterprise didn't last long surprisingly, and I hate to think what if any practical things the Tories might actually come up with.

  2. Don't prisons already service contracts with outside employers?

    If I were such a company I would feel anxious about having my work done by depressed and uncommitted prisoners but, these apart, giving them proper work for normal pay, getting them paying for their accommodation, paying tax and NI, would signal a new modern relationship between prisoner and state.

    Ken Clarke means well, but I think his scheme may just put prisoners into the wider economy where there is now a shortage of work. He must decide how much a prisoner should be paid for being unemployed, being sick or for brushing up his 3Rs in education. There would be a rescaling of money-values from the current lows inside prison towards values that resembled those outside.

    On the positive side, fifty years ago my mother had a treasured possession - it was a useful little oil stove bearing the mark Prindus, which I think stood for Prison Industries. A prison brand might yet have some mileage, who knows.

  3. Not sure where i stand on this: When i was in jail, i refused to work for an outside company, as it was exploitation, but i was having plenty of private cash sent in, not everyone did, so it gave them the chance to earn money for extras. Marks and spencer quite rightly tell people they use 90% uk labour, but fail to mention they exploit prisoners rather than 3rd world, (this was 2003, not sure if this is stll the case)

    Prisoners from Blantyre house were employed as bus drivers, getting the same wage as other workers, but not having to pay rent/bills etc were resented by other employees.

    What really is exploitation, is Summet Media, they moved their work to a private prison, (Wolds) get an inmate to work full time for 15 pounds a week, make a fortue, and teave the tax-payer to pick up the bill for feeding and keeping an inmate.

  4. Interesting thoughts on the prison work idea. Thanks.

  5. I suppose, if nothing else, if Ken insists on prisoners being paid minimum wage it will put companies off exploiting them. It will also probably put them off employing them at all, which would have the knock-on effect of putting those jobs back in the market place outside. Perhaps that's his real ploy?

  6. The idea is in the same category as the anomalous removal of child allowance from HR taxpayers. The Tories are in a shambles, cowed by political correctness and trendy liberalism.

    I’m glad to hear that prisoners don’t have access to the internet, all we need to do now is remove their access to play stations, televisions, mobile phones, drugs and alcohol.

  7. twig, please post your argument behind your belief re internet, tv, etc?

  8. @madalbert
    My "argument" is that they should not have access to those things in prison, so that their time in prison is as boring as possible and something they would not wish to repeat. How's that?

  9. twig, thats primary school criminology. You should read this blog from the start, then come back and give us your opinion.


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