Photo by miss_millions
“Industrious places of productive work” is perhaps not the first phrase you'd pick to describe the British prison system. But the coalition government want to defy your hasty presumptions about shivs and awkward roommates with a new scheme aiming to boost the number of employed offenders behind bars from 10,000 to 20,000 by 2020. The plans fall under the Ministry of Justice's snappily-titled "Rehabilitation Revolution", which, besides being a totally on-point, zeitgeisty name, launched One3one Solutions, an enterprise charged with the task of enticing businesses to set up production within Britain's prisons.
A recent survey from the Ministry of Justice showed that three-quarters of prisoners who fail to find jobs and accommodation are reconvicted within a year, compared with only two-fifths of those who manage to land a job and somewhere to live. It's clear that something needs to change, and the government argues that the growth of working prisons will help inmates develop vital skills, decreasing reoffending rates.
“It’s a very nice notion," says Joe Black, a member of The Campaign Against Prison Slavery (CAPS), an association of activists and prisoner support groups who campaign against compulsory prison labour. "It ticks quite a lot of boxes with the electorates – making prisoners work, getting them proper jobs, making them good tax-payers – but it’s just not going to happen, unfortunately.”
Remarkably, the message in the glossy promotional video aimed at seducing businesses into setting up working prisons comes across a little differently. Simon Newberry, Head of Community Service & Interventions at G4S, claims: “It’s about making sure that all the work opportunities we provide prisoners will link through the gates and hopefully lead to employment opportunities upon release.”
Ben Gunn was convicted of murder at the age of 14, released in August, 2012 aged 47, and is one of the few British prisoners to self-teach himself, all the way from schoolboy level to the point of passing both undergrad and post-grad degrees. He now works as a criminal justice consultant investigating miscarriages of justice, but had "vast experience of working behind bars" in every possible job going. “Most of the work behind bars is low-skilled, repetitive work," he told me. "You have grown men putting tea bags into larger plastic bags and getting paid £10 a week; it teaches you nothing about work ethic, just about being exploited.”
While there are some resettlement programs that aim to get offenders employed after release, Joe Black pointed out that those existing schemes often flop just as badly as the worthless, vastly underpaid jobs on the inside that Ben Gunn talked about. “It’s almost standard policy for employers to refuse to even interview anyone with a criminal record," he told me. "So where are people going to find jobs? You employ them when they’re inside and then you kick them out the door.”
The Rehabilitation Revolution just so happens to coincide with the Ministry of Justice’s attempt to make £2 billion in annual savings by March, 2015. Britain has an overcrowded prison population of 84,431, costing the state £45,000 a year per inmate, so recouping that astronomical cost of imprisonment by capitalising on a captive labour force is undoubtedly an attractive proposition.
However, while that may seem like the easiest assumption to make, it seems that it's actually not the government cashing in on prison labour at all. A recent report by a cross-party group of MPs warned that prison service funding cuts are seriously jeopardising offender management services and the Rehabilitation Revolution. In the wake of the cuts, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced that five more public sector prisons are to be outsourced, raising the total number of privatised prisons to 16. “They’re actually handing the workforce over to private companies like G4S, so they'll be getting the money from prison labour, not the government,” Joe told me.
All that said, there are a lot of people out there who argue that criminals deserve harsh treatment, so if the plans achieve that as well as financially fondling private security firms, what's the issue, right? Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke calls working prisons "altogether a more intelligent way of running the prison service". And considering inmates can earn as little as £10 for a 40-hour working week – £237.60 cheaper per week than a worker on minimum wage – and unions are banned, making strikes impossible, it sounds like a win-win for employers and those in charge.
Some have voiced concerns that jobs could be snatched away from law-abiding citizens because of this pay gap. The Ministry of Justice insist that “work for offenders in prison must not be used as a direct replacement for existing jobs in the community”, but things have played out slightly differently in practice. As reported by CAPS, the company Speedy Hire closed 37 depots, slashing 300 jobs, while at the same time employing 200 prisoners to service their plant hire tools. And in August 2012 the Guardian reported that a call centre in South Wales was bussing inmates from an open prison 21 miles away and paying them £3 a day.
Those examples aside, however, most of the jobs in working prisons do largely appear to be confined to industry that would have otherwise been outsourced abroad. “I looked for products that were being imported and decided to re-shore that work into the UK to save on the transport costs,” says Mike Perry, director of Calpac LTD, a corrugated and laminated packaging specialist firm. So it seems unlikely the Mail are going to get a chance to run that "First They're Locked Up for Drug Offences, Then They Take Our Jobs" headline they've been sitting on.
Organisations like the Howard League for Penal Reform, a British charity, have called on the government to pay prisoners "real wages" for doing the jobs that would otherwise be outsourced, but however noble that might be, it seems to be completely overlooking the one thing keeping working prisons afloat: criminally cheap labour.
“The rehabilitation prison idea is very much a financial idea, with the rehabilitation bit added on as window dressing,” says Joe adamantly, and it's hard not to agree. As government funding for the offender management sector is cut and industry professionals argue that services are adversely affected, we have to ask: Is the working prisons scheme really about rehabilitation at all? Or is it just one big exploitative cash cow that's not going to benefit any of the prisoners forced to take part when they're eventually released from jail?