Monday, 2 February 2015

Why Prisons Aren’t Working

Workhouse labour
There is a widespread popular misconception, fuelled by the malevolent tabloid news agenda, that most prisoners are lazy and don’t want to work. This seems to be based on a simplistic modern version of the old Victorian workhouse philosophy that there are the ‘undeserving and idle poor’ who need to be whipped into activity by their God-fearing betters for their own good.

This would appear to be behind the latest publicity puff from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) concerning prisoners being put to work making sandbags, fence-posts and other equipment for the British Army under a 10-year contract announced by Secretary of State Chris Grayling. In announcing the new deal, ‘Calamity Chris’ gleefully informed the media that: “Prisoners will be giving something back to their country, while learning important new skills and the value of a hard day’s work.”

Behind these glib words you can almost hear the dulcet tones of Mr Bumble, the cruel, pompous beadle of the poorhouse in Dicken’s Oliver Twist. It’s surprising that Mr Grayling didn’t take the opportunity to announce a reduction in the cons’ gruel ration while he was about it.

Chris 'Bumble' Grayling
Most of the tabloid media fell for the story and duly presented bold headlines that lauded the MOJ for managing to combine budget savings for the Army, a hearty dose of faux patriotism and a way of making “lags” work hard. If Mr Grayling’s plans had also included cons breaking rocks while wearing leg-irons I imagine the Daily Mail leader writers would have proclaimed him to be the saviour of the nation.

In reality, of course, this whole scheme is currently based on a pilot project that has been running for six months at HMP Coldingley, a Cat-C training prison near Woking. The MOJ claims that the deal has already saved the Army almost £500,000. Indeed, that is often one of the great advantages of slave labour – or something akin to it – as any grinning gang-master or simpering brothel madam will no doubt confirm.

To be honest, I think that any opportunity to do something, even assembling plastic widgets for B&Q, would be welcomed by most prisoners. Based on my own experience a majority of inmates are desperate for jobs since this can be the only source of income for many who have no support from families or friends outside. Even the £8 or £9 paid per week for prison work can make a massive difference to a prisoner who literally has nothing when canteen day comes round.

Daily rate in most prisons
However, the need to be doing something out of your cell goes much further than the 75p per half-day session that is typically on offer in most prisons. Activities of almost any kind become an opportunity to talk to others, to take your mind off personal problems and – perhaps most importantly – to escape at least temporarily from the mind-numbing boredom of being confined in a small concrete box often with one or two other cons. 

In many nicks you don’t even have your own private hell anymore due to serious overcrowding. At least a ‘labour allocation’ gives you a welcome stroll to the workshops and back, as well as a chance to chat with your mates across a workbench. Doing something out of cell, no matter how seemingly repetitive or boring, can help to mitigate the impact of rigid confinement on inmates’ mental health.

Contrary to the tabloid smears, many jails actually have waiting lists for the small number of jobs available. The real problem isn’t laziness, it’s too few jobs or education places on offer, combined with overcrowding and too few frontline staff to make the system work safely and securely.

Sandbags... rehabilitation value?
Sadly, I seriously doubt that there will be very much rehabilitative value in the new MOJ contract with the Ministry of Defence. Unless there is suddenly a massive and unexpected civilian demand for sandbags or fence-posts, then it’s hard to see what new ‘skills’ are really going to be acquired. Moreover, there could also be a few pacifist or anti-militarist refuseniks who will take exception to any compulsion to work on a production line for the British military, although I suspect that they will be in a tiny minority.

I have witnessed a number of very interesting projects inside prisons – from repairing donated bicycles for charity to making lobster pots for commercial sale and from making garden furniture from reclaimed railway sleepers to running a commercial cake shop – all of which provided the opportunity to learn new skills that might be transferrable to the workplace on release. You can’t imagine the queues of eager cons waiting to get on one of these schemes – they were probably similar to the waiting list for Eton.

Even working in a prison laundry, as I did at one Cat-B jail, earned me a set of external vocational qualifications that might get me a job in a high street dry-cleaners – if I was in need of work. It sounds that this project won’t really compare in terms of what transferrable skills it might be offering. Will there be any tangible vocational qualifications available under this deal? Personally, I doubt it otherwise the MOJ minion who drafted Mr Grayling’s press release about the Army sandbags contract would probably have flagged it up.  

Good news for Coldingley cons
In all likelihood, this much vaunted tabloid headline-grabber lacks any real substance. It will probably involve a tiny number of actual prisoners in one prison workshop – HMP Coldingley, for example. Good luck to the lads who manage to get a place on this work detail and hopefully you’ll get paid a bit above the average wage, but don’t expect this project to be coming to a nick near you anytime soon.

Like so many of Calamity Chris’ tabloid headline-chasing initiatives, any drive to get more prisoners into work each day will be destined to fail until and unless there are sufficient front-line staff on duty to provide escorts and supervision in workshops. We've previously heard promises to ensure that prisoners will “work a full day rather than lying on their bunks watching daytime TV” (that was back in 2010). It never happened. 

Every day is Groundhog Day in the nick
In fact, official MOJ figures for 2013-2014 revealed that only 14 percent of prisoners had work, a very modest rise on the 13 percent who were working back in 2010-2011 just after the coalition government was elected. At that time, the MOJ announced its determination to get more cons into productive labour: “Prisons will become places of hard work and industry, instead of enforced idleness.” So much for that particular promise!

Too few frontline staff, owing to swingeing cuts to the Prison Service budget, mean that in many of our overcrowded prisons inmates are remaining locked up for up to 22 or 23 hours per day even when they desperately want to work. Happy Groundhog Day everyone!


  1. Some good points made there - thank you - I hope it gets a wide readership. It could make a good magazine article, and I think it could be edited for length to make it even more sharp.

    I am in awe of your persistence in turning out interesting well illustrated articles making relevant points, I wish I was a faster reader!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Andrew. Having been a hack and professional writer for some years, it's little more than an hour or so work each time.

      Most of my blog pieces seem to get well over 1,000 views these days - some quite a lot more, so hopefully the message is getting out to a reasonable readership. Each month Jail Mail also reprints one post so prisoners and prison staff can read a hard copy.

      I find it interesting how most prison staff, including governor grades, do agree with much of what I am writing. I really didn't expect that when I launched the blog back in July last year. I suppose it helps that pretty much everyone in the criminal justice system detests Mr Grayling and all his works, so in that respect perhaps "my enemy's enemy is my friend"!

  2. Prison in the UK doesn't work and is never going to work unless the entire concept of it is radically revised. You need proper education that can take someone from illiteracy through to degree level if that is the route they wish to go. You need proper jobs not make work jobs or these slave labour contracts that provide you with absolutely no useful skills whatsoever. You need counselling and proper mental health services. You need to help people to take responsibility for the choices they have made and to think about the choices they will make in the future. You need to provide social skills training as well as the job and education training so that people are better equipped to deal with life.

    To be honest I think it would be better if you set up prison to function as close to real life as possible: make people interview for jobs for example to give them interview skills. Pay them at least minimum wage, pay tax and NI, deduct reasonable board and lodging from that sum so people get used to budgeting. Leave a percentage of whatis left (say £25 a week max) as spending money and the rest to go into a savings account for release). If you make it so everyone is expected to work or be in education full time (pay education at the same rate as work to encourage people to take it up). If you don't do a good job or dick around you get sacked just as you would in the real world.

    The trouble is with our current system is is takes away all responsibility from people so people never learn how to budget, how to better themselves, how to behave in the workplace and so on.

    There would also be no need to for anyone to have money sent in if they were getting paid at least minimum wage each week so that would be a cost saving for HMPS.

    This may not be a perfect solution but it would go a long way to making prison work.

    On a separate not when, I wonder, is Grayling going to be arrested and charged as a slaver with using forced labour paid a pittance and kept in inhumane conditions they are unable to escape from to fulfil these contracts? I really can't see how his behaviour is in any way different from the cases of slavers which have been prosecuted recently. If the jobs paid a decent wage and actually provided some reasonable training and thus decent employment prospects on release that would be one thing but I really don't think there is much in the way of career prospects for people making and filling sandbags in the UK economy.

    1. Thanks for your comments and contribution. To be honest, writing as an ex-prisoner myself, my main focus in this post was to challenge the widespread myth that all cons are lazy ne'er do wells who want to slob on their bunks all day. Given the choice of breaking rocks or watching daytime TV all day, I know which I'd choose!

      Arguably, prisoners who sign up for education and vocational training courses should be paid much better than those who are just content to do menial jobs that offer little in the way of rehabilitation or employability.

      The key problem is at the moment our overcrowded prisons can't even offer enough wing cleaning work or other jobs to keep more than 14 percent of inmates occupied. Even if a sizeable percentage are also undertaking education courses, that still leaves an enormous number of cons watching 'Jeremy Kyle' every day (cruel and unusual punishment if ever there was!)

      When I was still inside I used to argue that rather than forcing prisoners into work or education through threats or punishment, activities should be seen as part of an individually-tailored programme structured to support rehabilitation. However, given the initial five minute interview prior to being assigned to work by the Labour Board, it was hardly likely that this could ever be achieved.

      Since then, with the further cuts in staffing and the overcrowding, all my contacts still inside are informing me that access to work and education is now so restrictive in closed prisons that the default setting is celluar confinement for 23 or 23 hours per day. None of this can possibly contribute to effective rehabilitation or improving employability prospects upon release.

      I was very lucky with work inside prisons myself. I was either assigned to education departments or mentoring (other than my stint in the laundry which at least gave me some vocational certificates and the chance to write a blog post!) and I really had a lot of satisfaction teaching other prisoners to read and write. However, I'm also very much aware that my own experience isn't typical.

      To answer your final question, if we really were to indict Mr Grayling for anything it would be responsibility for deaths in custody through gross negligence - perhaps under the corporate manslaughter legislation. Otherwise if we opted for slavery or forced labour charges we'd probably end up with even more overcrowding in the slammer: successive Home Secretaries, Justice Secretaries and Prison Ministers!

  3. I have to agree with the post and the comments above. It's worrying that the latest initiative to rehabilitate is to have inmates making sandbags. Not a far cry from sewing mail bags.

    Inmates need interesting engaging activities to break the predictable monotony of their lives. Education is key. Everybody should be offered education at a level appropriate for them. For those unwilling to participate then they should be offered work inside. Too many prison jobs are simply forced labour with punishment for not attending or not working hard enough. In one Cat-B local I was in attending education paid less than the £9.50 weekly wage for folding up clothes in the laundry.

    I knew a number of lads who had never had paid employment on the outside, their only experience of work was in a prison workshop. Having a screw cracking the whip whilst performing incredibly dull repetitive tasks for virtually no pay was no incentive for them to seek employment on release.

    Prisons should focus on appropriate vocational training. Personally I have around 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. After almost 18 months inside I left prison with two 'qualifications'. The first a certificate stating I can wash my own hands, the second certifying that I can put a shower curtain into a box. something I've never done in my life!

    With a prison population of 85,000 and only 14% working that's hundreds of thousands of hours of human life being wasted watching Homes Under The Hammer and Bargain Hunt each day in a small concrete box.

    1. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your own experiences or 'work' inside. I think that much prison work is based on the 'lowest common denominator' theory: that is never offer anything more challenging that the least capable con should be able to do.

      The irony is that some of the projects I listed above in my blog post were incredibly successful financially. Some even made good money for the prison concerned and allowed them to pay prisoners decent wages of £90 or more per week (most of which went into a saving account for them to be given on release). I knew a number of prisoners who were released with £3,000 or more in their bank accounts - a good start for resettlement - and earned through hard work and the commercial sale of actual products people wanted to buy.

      Of course, there is another argument against prison labour and that is when it distorts the labour market outside. If B&Q, Boots or DHL are paying cons £20 or £25 a week to pack widgets, canteen goods or other bits and bobs, then they aren't paying workers outside at least the minimum wage to do the job. This risks introducing a serious distortion of the local labour markets and can only contribute to the profits being made by the companies concerned - and that is genuine slave labour in the proper sense of the term, especially when prisoners face serious punishment for refusing to undertake these tasks or even when they are not deemed to be working hard enough.


    1. Thanks for the link. This was another Ministry of Justice disaster just waiting to happen. Only on Team Grayling's watch...

  5. I've read recently in the tabloids that inmates are enjoying 3 hot meals each day and spend their time on their Xbox or watching sky TV smoking heavily subsidised tobacco. Hardly surprising they don't want to work or are we not being told the whole truth?

    1. Utter tosh - please give a reference.

      In similar unreferenced vein, though I am willing to swear it in court and am confident I could find a reference - I read in the last few days - I think in a regional newspaper that at a prison somewhere in the UK there were protests because one day recently they had no hot meals.

      I suspect there are few prisoners who nowadays have a cooked breakfast on any day of any sort, which was commonplace throughout the English and Welsh prisons when I first visited them in the mid 1970s

    2. There we are I just stumbled into it again - Cold food protest

    3. The tabloids talk a load of total bunk. No prisoner gets three hot meals a day. You're lucky to get one and often not even that as the recent riots at HMP Northumberland showed. Few prisoners have an Xbox or play station of any kind especially since the new IEP regime came into effect in 2013. No prison gets Sky TV - there are on average the terrestial channels andpossibly 5 freeview ones which the prisoners pay for at a rate of £1.00 a week (or percentage thereof depending on how many in the cell). It may sound a lovely life lying on a bunk doing nothing but smoke, watch satellite TV and play on a computer game but even if all of the above was actually true imagine how bored you would be doing this day in day out 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You can't go anywhere or do anything constructive. You'd be bored out of your skull and climbing the walls within a week begging to be let out. Prison equals total boredom. The jobs are crap, the education is a joke, you're fed food not even fit for animal consumption most of the time, the threat of violence is ever present in a lot of jails and you could end up with a serious drug addiction to boot. Still think its a holiday camp? I can bet you anything you like no tabloid journalist writing such stupid stories has ever spent time in jail as a prisoner. I'm pretty sure, for example, Andy Coulson will never write any of those ridiculous stories again after spending quality time at Belmarsh as he now knows what prison is really like

    4. My 17:29 comment was a little tongue in cheek and a dig at the tabloids.

    5. It's difficult to recognise sarcasm in a text...maybe include ;) or ;p next time

    6. Thanks for the original tongue in cheek question and the replies that have followed. Just in case anyone gets misled by the tone and believes this is true, I thought I'd deal with each issue raised!

      I think we're all aware that the 'three hot meals' a day story is now just a tabloid fantasy. I have been at the last English prison that still offered a cooked breakfast every day - but that was because the establishment had its own farm and supplied the food cheaply. Every other prison just offered a tiny bag of cereal and a 0.3 ltr carton of semi-skimmed milk for breakfast - not even a slice of bread extra! Almost all prisons now only serve a sandwich or filled bread roll for lunch, although a few also offer half a bowl of soup (usually packet in origin).

      As with HMP Northumberland's recent near riot over cold food, I've been in a Cat-B when a neighbouring wing rioted over the failure to provide a hot meal in the evening - when the kitchen ovens failed. We were issued with leftover stale sandwiches after a day's work and this went down very badly. The ex-Army contingent controlled our wing and we kept the lid on things, but the next wing was full of Young Prisoners and they went on a rampage in protest. We could hear the sounds of smashing glass and furniture being thrown over the upper landing railings. Quite scary, to be honest!

      I've never been in any prison that allowed X-boxes of any type (although I gather that some of the older non-wifi models might now be permitted). Those prisoners who were on Enhanced level could purchase a second-hand Playstation 2 console from an approved supplier (at a much higher price than the £30 or so that they can be purchased from eBay).

      Those prisoners who have these tend to be lifers or prisoners serving longer sentences. Most lads on short stretches don't bother or borrow them from other cons (against the rules, but no-one really checks).

      And sorry to disappoint on the subject of rolling tobacco ("burn"). There used to be a very cheap HMPS pouch offered via the canteen, but it seems that this has disappeared. Certainly I've never seen it on the canteen sheet. All tobacco is sold at the normal retail price. There is no subsidy. Hope that clarifies the real situation, at least in the six prisons I had personal experience of!

  6. I totally agree, people who don't know, through personal experience or through having a loved one inside prison, have no idea what it is really like.people tend to believe what they read and hear.There is definitely no sky tv and play stations are rare, rehabilitation and education are not able to go ahead as staff numbers are so low they cannot manage to put activities in place.prisoners are locked in cells for most of the time, many want help and to be educated.many decide to end their lives,the press inform us of the actual suicides in prisons, but what are the true numbers of prisoners who attempt to take their own lives?It was only due to the fact that my son discovered a prisoner in the cell next to his with a cord around his neck minutes from death, that one less suicide was reported, but just how many times does this happen?Not enough staff to keep closer watch over prisoners.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I've tried to knock the old Sky TV lie on the head several times, but it still persists, fuelled by daft backbench Tory MPs and the tabloid media. If they bothered to check PSI 30/2013 it actually lists the nine approved TV channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4 and C5, plus four Freeview - usually including Viva, ITV3 and Film 4). Not a great choice in return for a £1 a week charge (50p in a shared cell).

      On the important issue of self-harm and attempted suicides. There are statistics published by the MoJ. However, they don't distinguish between self-harm and attempted suicide. Both are lumped together, so it's difficult to analyse properly.

      To be honest, I think a very large proportion of prisoners do at least consider suicide. As I've written in previous blog posts I never moved into a new cell without locating every viable ligature point, just in case things got too much and I decided to exit on my own terms using my belt.

      Fortunately it never came to that in my own case, although one of my closest mates got very close to doing it when his family life imploded. I like to think that I played some part in convincing him that life was still worth living and we remain good friends - as close as brothers.

      Staff shortages certainly make it much more difficult to monitor prisoners who are at risk of suicide or serious self-harm. However, in many cases once a person has made the decision to die they are often very good at concealing their real intentions and even seem to cheer up. Those around think mistakenly that they have come out of their depression. In fact, they are relieved because they have made a decision that they believe will resolve all their problems. Tragic, but true.

      We should also never underestimate the impact that suicide or attempted suicide can have on other prisoners and members of prison staff. Many years ago - long before prison - I had to cut down a young soldier who had hanged himself after being severely bullied. I have never forgotten the horror of it and can still visualise his face to this day, so there can be a lasting impact on everyone around when such incidents happen.

  7. Going to the original point of the article, as a member of the front line staff I can tell you that the majority of prisoners do not want to work or attend education for the sake of betterment or rehabilitation.

    Those that do usually fall in to 3 categories:

    those that need education (or rehabilitation) the least, the educated or working citizen that fell foul of temptation on the out, because they're so bored inside.

    Those who want jobs to facilitate their criminal activities inside.

    The tiny minority that actually want to change their lives and the education / work offered is a genuine 1st step.

    However, these 3 groups account for about 25%of a typical houseblock, with the other 75% being career criminals, gang members, involved in the drugs trade or any combination who look at the idea of 'working for a living' as a mugs game, both inside or outside.

    I agree prison doesn't work (for the majority) but it's because far too many poorly educated or abused (in some manner) individuals exist in our country for whom criminal activity is a way of life, not a choice they're easily rehabilitated away from.

    1. Having been in prison myself I find the above comments highly offensive. You are obviously entitled to your opinions but they seem to be extremely blinkered and do not reflect reality in any way shape or form. With an attitude like this you really shouldn't be working in the prison system because your attitude is so counterproductive as to be offensive. And here's a thought: perhaps if prisons actually offered decent work and education that provided real jobs and real training and betterment opportunities instead of the current Mickey Mouse offerings people might be more inclined to take them up. But the current offerings are little more than an ill thought through and badly funded joke. Would you be willing to work for less than a tenner a week making sandbags and fence posts? No, didn't think so!

    2. Thanks for your insightful comments. I always welcome the alternative point of view from the 'other side of the door' - in fact, I wish that we had even more contributions from serving staff.

      I am interested in your analysis of those cons who do want to participate in work or education. The first group I recognise instantly. I lost count of the number of former professionals who were perfectly literate and numerate sitting in education classrooms. I myself sat the Level 2 English and Maths exams - under the urging of the class civilian tutor in a group where I was actually doing most of the teaching while he sat at the back and read the Daily Mirror!

      In part, this was because the prison system only seems to recognise education qualifications gained within its own walls. "Degree? PhD? don't know about those, mate. Let's get you registered for a nice Level 2 literacy course!" Moreover, people like myself offered a 'quick win' for the education provider and made the results look a little less grim.

      You are also spot on about the boredom issue, although I do think that this does extend beyond the 'magic circle' of fallen citizens as described above. Don't underestimate the need that many cons feel to get out of their pads for a few hours a day.

      The second category is also fascinating. You are right about those inmates who get jobs or on education courses in order to traffic contraband around the nick. Some freedom of movement is always helpful within a prison in order to deliver 'product' or collect debts. On the other hand, as the latest MOJ figures indicate there are a fair few staff - uniformed or civilian - who are implicated in the trade in drugs (legal and illegal) and mobiles, so your comment could apply either way!

      On the third category, I tend to take a more generous view of people's capacity for change. Inspirational leadership or mentoring can sometimes work wonders, even with some hardcore recidivists - although clearly not all, otherwise the prison estate would be much smaller than it currently is.

      I am encouraged by your final paragraph because it does recognise the link between a poor start in life - including poor education and abuse - and wrong choices in adolescence and adulthood. Sometimes people who have been victims themselves (rather than 'survivors') do go on to create more victims unless there is some form of positive intervention, particularly at an early age.

      Based on my own observations inside, a great many cons have never really grown up. As I've remarked on other posts, some are likely to remain 'man-boys' their entire life... never taking responsibility for themselves or for others.

      I would never underestimate the large number of prisoners who have been severely neglected or abused as kids (psychologically, physically and often sexually). Dysfunctional families tend to raise dysfunctional children, although it's far from being inevitable.

      As Philip Larkin observed so accurately in This Be The Verse:

      They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
      They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

      I've often reflected on just how true those words ring when you get to know cons on any prison wing.

  8. Maybe cons should be more proactive and write to environmental companies to offer their skills to complete contracts. I know Blue Sky employs ex cons to complete environment based contracts like cleaning ponds and tidying parks. Maybe the company can pay cons to make fenceposts for them or fill sandbags as flood defenses when the need arises.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions. For those prisoners who will get to do this type of work (around 0.06 percent) that does sound like a route worth pursuing. However, it's also worth noting that while on licence (normally half the entire sentence) ex-prisoners on licence have severe restrictions on moving from their probation area without prior permission. This can mean that moving away in search of work opportunities isn't really an option for many ex-offenders.

      The situation becomes even more complicated since many accommodation providers, including private landlords and some housing associations won't consider ex-cons as tenants if they do move into a new area, while insurers whack up premiums to silly levels and this can also make having your own transport impossibly expensive. Resettlement can sometimes involve overcoming a wide range of 'invisible' barriers!

    2. The only accommodation I could arrange for my release was with a charity run supported housing scheme. It's near impossible to secure a private rental from a prison cell.

      Due to the additional support the charity offered the rental was extremely expensive but was (almost entirely) covered by housing benefit. If I managed to secure a job the benefit would be lost and it would be impossible to pay the rent. With no other housing options available I would be unemployed with a roof over my head or employed and homeless. Not the best way to try to rebuild your life.

    3. Thanks for sharing your own experiences of the problems faced by many prisoners on release. This really does highlight the so-called 'poverty trap' - principally fuelled by past political decisions to flog off social housing stock. We are now reaping the whirlwind that was sown by politicians in the 1980s and 1990s... stable accommodation is becoming a luxury for anyone who can't afford either a mortgage or the high costs of private rentals.

      No wonder so many ex-cons get utterly disillusioned about finding work on release - especially if probation insists on them returning to their original home areas where there may well be high levels of unemployment anyway. It's worth remembering that there is practically no mobility for people on licence to relocate out of their approved area - it's like a form of 'internal exile' in some respects, at least.

  9. Flogging off social housing stock isn't the problem, more social housing should have been built by the Government in charge (Labour).

    Blue Sky has a sister company called Blue Sky Inside, which provides work for cons in Prison.

    1. I have had a look at the Blue Sky website. Seems interesting, although from the material online it seems to only have two in-prison projects at High Down and Bronzefield. Also, its areas of operations mainly seem to be down in the South East - unless there's more info available that I haven't been able to find.