Talking to a Convicted 'Slave Master' About Slavery in the UK
"Listen, this here [prison] is slavery, we're the slaves to these bastards. How they can call me a slave-owner when you see what it's like in here is a scandal."
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
The independent slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland recently published a report that put the number of current victims of modern slavery in the UK at approximately 13,000. In the years I have taught in prisons, I've been in frequent contact with men serving time for murder, domestic abuse, armed robbery, and on more than one occasion, "nicking from Greggs". I wasn't aware of having ever come across a 'slave master', however. The first time I met Stan, a middle-aged man of traveller heritage, I was helping out in the specialist unit for prisoners with either very limited or zero literacy. He was a keen and quick learner, but I soon came to suspect he was a better reader than he was letting on, probably using the class as a hustle to demonstrate his model citizen status. On our third day together, he told me he was being falsely charged with animal cruelty. The next day he changed tack and began talking about a quarrel with a vindictive local farmer. I didn't buy either story.
Several weeks later I found out that Stan had been sentenced to serve time for charges of modern slavery. I was shocked; it simply hadn't crossed my mind that it was a possibility. Having read Kevin Hyland's report, and baffled by the notion of modern slavery existing in the UK, I decided to track Stan down on his wing and see if he fancied a chat.
Standing outside his cell during association time, Stan offers me a biscuit and a cuppa. Against prison rules to accept any offer of gifts from a prisoner, I politely decline. I figure it's pointless beating around the bush and ask him to tell me what all those men were doing living in outhouses on his property. "We took starving people off the streets and gave them food and a roof over their heads," Stan says. "I'll tell ya about one fella, Jonesy, he was nine stone when he came to us, thin as a board. A month later he comes up to the house and tells me he hasn't felt so good in years. He's not Hulk Hogan, truth be told, but he's not far off. He thanks me, tears in his eyes and that. Starts talking about how he wishes his family had been as kind to him as we had been. The bastards threw him out because he was sniffing. That's not our values, we look after people."
Yes, but that isn't how the police or the court saw it, I say. "Ask him if he thought we were mistreating him, holding him against his will. He was with us for six months before the pigs got involved," Stan says. "I'm scared to imagine where he is now, homeless, cold, dirty. That's no way to live; there's no dignity in that life."
There's no avoiding the fact that Stan is a charismatic man. I have Romany blood in my family, and recognise the oral storytelling tradition that comes easily to him. But having read up on the pretty bleak details of his case (men sleeping in rat-infested, uninsulated barns, no access to phones or electricity, continual non-payment of wages due to supposed 'board and keep' costs), I need to press him for proper answers. I ask about one particular individual, a man in his late 30s, who was said by the prosecution to have severe learning difficulties and who stated that he was never paid any money and regularly went over 24 hours without a meal.
"Bollocks. That was all his parents. Trying to make out he was slow in the head, didn't know what he was doing. He worked every day, grafted. Not everyone can be a rocket scientist... or a teacher," Stan says, grinning. "He did a day's work and he got a roof over his head. Life isn't as complicated as people make it out to be. There's a way to live simple and happy."
But what about the claims, echoed by other witnesses, that meals weren't provided and many men suffered from malnutrition and related illnesses?
"If they wanted to go out and have scran at the pub, fair play to them. We weren't going to stop these lads having their social, not like in here. But my mrs wasn't going to stand around cooking them a tea either if it wasn't going to get eaten. Listen, this here [prison] is slavery, we're the slaves to these bastards. How they can call me a slave-owner when you see what it's like in here is a scandal."
Stan may have a point about prison conditions, but it's a blatant attempt to derail the discussion. It's difficult to call Stan out on specific points and apparent inconsistencies; under pressure he'll filibuster his way out of difficult questions without breaking rhythm once. To make matters more difficult, a group of Stan's mates from the wing have gathered around us. One of the lads is Stan's son, Robbie. It's Robbie's first time in prison, serving a few weeks for criminal damage, and he is understandably keen to speak up for his dad. Stan looks at Robbie and nods.
"All them boys on our yard could have left, but they didn't. You don't stay somewhere unless you like it," Robbie says. I ask Robbie how people went to the pub, several miles away, as Stan suggested they sometimes did for a curry and pint. "Their business. Walk I expect." Had anyone asked to leave, though, would he have given them a lift into town so they could get a bus home? "No one ever asked," Robbie replies, suddenly serious and unsmiling. Right.
Stan laughs and puts his arm around Robbie and brings him in close for a hug. "This fella knows the score," he says, grinning. Stan loves the attention he's getting, but can see I'm losing my patience at this point. He explains to Robbie how he's learned to read since being in prison, massively exaggerating my involvement. He looks to me and winks, then thanks me for listening to his side of the story. I ask Stan if he considers anything about the arrangement on his land as having been immoral or ethically questionable. "I told the men straight, they knew what to expect and were happy to go along with it." But this simply isn't true, I say. "Never believe what you read," Stan replies. "All lies, written by bullshitters with as much to hide as the next fella," he says as he turns and walks back into his cell, shutting the door behind him.
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