The rehabilitation counter-revolution

The appearance of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in a small newly-opened Timpson training workshop located in a former farm building next to HMP Blantyre House in deepest rural Kent would not normally be particularly newsworthy, even though the photo opportunity was tied in with the launch of the newly-rebranded Prison Industries unit as One3One Solutions – 131 prisons having been identified as able to host some sort of business or prisoner training scheme. Yet it was significant in that it signalled a major retreat in the ConDem Coalition’s attempts to establish its ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ and the industrialisation of prisons in England and Wales.

Prior to the last general election the Tory Party had major plans for the prison system in England and Wales: selling off 30 Victorian inner-city prisons and building a series of brand new 1,500-place ‘mini-Titans’ across the country in their place. These were slated to be industrial-style prisons on the model of HMP Coldingley, built on disused military sites located close to the motorway network. These new gaols would be cheaper to run – of a modern, state of the art, minimally-staffed design (and definitely without any major POA influence) – that would almost pay for themselves as their prisoners would have to work in factory-like conditions.

However, those plans were soon shelved, when the Coalition realised that there were no pennies left in the penal piggy bank, and that the Victorian prisons, despite being located on prime valuable land, were all listed buildings, and therefore largely unsellable. Consequently, the prison-building programme was an unaffordable luxury and the Ministry of Justice decided instead that, in addition to privatising vast swathes of the remaining prison estate, in order to make savings from the current budget it might actually have to close prisons down. This would run counter to the whole ethos of the bang-’em-up, ‘Prison Works’ arms race that the two main parliamentary parties have engaged in over the two decades since Michael Howard coined the phrase. Hence the need to revise plans, inventing the ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ with its dual-track emphasis on skills training for prisoners in newly industrialised prisons and selling prisoners’ labour to the highest bidder and thereby generating sorely needed income for a cash-strapped Exchequer.

Unfortunately for the Coalition, history tells us that prison labour has never played a significant role in Britain. Even in the Victorian era that Tory politicians recall with nostalgia, prison labour was largely unproductive. Whether it was the crank or the treadmill, it existed both to mortify the flesh and allow the prisoners time to reflect on their ‘sins’ and to conveniently help tire them out so they would be less rebellious.

Today, prison labour has taken on a greater significance in that prisoners produce much of the material they consume, including clothing, cell furniture etc, plus much of the infrastructure (doors and bars) that keeps them locked up; as well as all the cooking and cleaning for their prison. However, fewer than 30% of prisoners have any paid work, with approximately two-fifths (10,000) employed in Prison Service workshops – 4,000 of whom work on contracts for private sector firms, largely carrying out small-scale assembly and packing work (67%), whereas manufacturing contracts amount to a mere 4% of turnover.

Compare this to the United States, where the Prison Industrial Complex is much more advanced. There large sections of both the Federal and State prison sectors are turned over to manufacturing and service industries, producing everything from the traditional car number plates to the army’s flak jackets, office furniture, haute couture underwear, solar panels and even printed circuits used in Patriot missiles. Prisoners also carry out much of the military’s vehicle fleet maintenance and some State prisons even operate call centres. Prisons are big business in the US but even there politicians are coming to the realisation that they simply cannot afford to bang up ever-increasing numbers of people.

Which brings us back to the Coalition’s dilemma: no money to build prisons, never mind equipping the workshops needed to expand the Prison Industries sector as envisaged. And no room in most existing prisons for those workshops, even if all the space that was once used for crafts training (bricklaying, carpentry and the like) that was replaced in the past couple of decades with cheap and easy to administer Offending Behaviour Programmes (the pseudo-scientific psychology-based courses that are the bane of prisoners’ lives) were reclaimed.

The only option therefore is privatisation, by one of two routes. The first is to hand the management of yet more prisons over lock, stock and barrel to private security companies, where they can exploit their captive workforces (See ‘Selling off the punishment machinery’ FRFI 226). The other option is to invite outside companies to provide training and employment in workshops fitted out (or even built) at their own expense within existing prisons: the carrot being that they get incredibly cheap, or even free labour, and can cherry-pick the most compliant workers to employ in their companies post-release.

This is the model that Ken Clarke (alongside supposed prisoners’ advocates such as the Prison Reform Trust) was proposing when he appeared at the recently opened Timpson training workshop and effectively pleaded with the private sector to help the government out of its dilemma. And Timpson was a perfect example to choose: 5% of their 4,000+ workforce are ex-prisoners; they already operate workshops in HMP Liverpool and HMP Wandsworth and the new workshop follows that pattern – training 12 prisoners at a time in shoe repair, watch-mending and dry-cleaning tasks, with the best creamed off to work for the company post-release.

And this is the model that Clarke’s once lofty ambitions have been reduced to – begging companies like Marks & Spencer and Virgin to help him out. However, it has already proved to be a successful model for some companies. Speedy Hire, for example, operates from four prisons in England and Scotland, training 200 prisoners to repair plant hire equipment; this has allowed the company to close 37 depots with the loss of 300 jobs whilst maintain its profit margins and shareholder dividends during the current recession. In the private prison sector Summit Media has been even more successful, creating an international e-commerce empire on the back of training prisoners in its media suite at HMP Wolds.

Unfortunately this route is not designed to maximise the government’s income from prisoner labour, which is where the final brick in the edifice of the new on-the-cheap working prisons model comes in. The Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996, which had remained dormant until 2011 when the Coalition implemented it, allows the government to take tax and NI contributions from prisoners, as well as to levy monies for a victims’ fund (amounting to secondary taxation) and eventually to force prisoners to pay for room and board. Initially this has only operated in open prisons, where prisoners can go to work for outside employers. Having recently defeated legal challenges to the enforced deductions, the government will now be looking to expand the scheme into closed ‘working prisons’. This is not such a lucrative outcome when compared to the Tories’ original plans, but the Coalition is making what they can out of a typical British Heath Robinson-style compromise and, as ever, prisoners’ needs remain very low on their list of priorities.

Joe Black

(Campaign Against Prison Slavery)

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 227 June/July 2012