Sunday, March 15, 2015

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Why Prisons Aren’t Working

Alex Cavendish further explains why Chris Grayling is a workshy idiot who, if he worked at escaping the Dickensian era mindset he is happily entombed in, would better understand his own work. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

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!

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