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Prisoners exploited for labour but they think it’s a fair cop, guv

Not your regular 9-5. Peter Macdiarmid/PA

British prisoners are increasingly being asked to work for profit-making companies while serving their time, without receiving much in return. But, far from resenting such apparent exploitation, research shows that prisoners rather admire the business nous on display. It seems the prison system may not be entirely successful at turning out reformed characters, but it certainly does an excellent job of nurturing good capitalists.

Prison labour was originally used as a form of punishment, and usually meant painfully futile and tedious work such as breaking rocks and picking tarred rope. This was the norm in most if not all UK prisons up until the early 1900s, at which point the purpose of prison labour shifted. Many argued that work in prison could be rehabilitative, as it could provide prisoners with skills that would improve their employability and help prevent them from returning to crime.

Prisoners in 1860s London pick apart old ropes to make oakum, used to seal ships. Mayhew & Binny

In recent years this has once again become a priority in the penal system, with the coalition government announcing plans to transform UK prisons into “industrious places of productive work”. In 2012, then justice secretary Ken Clarke put it bluntly: “Right now, prisoners are simply a wasted resource – thousands of hours of manpower sitting idle.”

This attitude has led the government and prisons to encourage private firms to use prisoners in labour intensive jobs such as those in factories or call centres. Convicts are paid, but the salary they receive usually amounts to considerably less than the minimum wage. It’s an attempt to put prisoners to “useful” and “constructive” work. But useful and constructive for whom?

Such moves are part of a growing emphasis on privatisation and profit in the penal system. Turning prisoners into a captive workforce is indeed a very effective way of increasing profits.

To investigate this situation I conducted research in a UK-based private prison, spending most of my time in the “prison industries” department where I explored prisoners’ attitudes towards completing privately contracted manufacturing work. I spent just under a year observing these workshops, discussing the work with the prisoners conducting it and often participating in the work myself. I also conducted 40 interviews with prisoners during this time.

So, you may assume that when prisoners found out about this attempt to extract profit from their work that there would be outrage. Initially I found that yes, this was the case. On the surface, many prisoners based in the industries department (where the privately contracted work was completed) were angry. The phrase “slave labour” was propelled across the workshops frequently and frivolously. Prisoners were angry that the work they completed lined the pockets of the prison.

This interviewee was typical:

Shit, shit. For the amount of work I do and everyone will say the exact same thing to you. If there’s one person saying ‘yeah, it’s alright’ they’re lying. Trust me, the pay is shit. And I know they [the prison] probably get paid four or five times that amount for one person, I could go on all day about this extortion. They extort us, the canteen is pure expensive, phone credit, even if you’re on a house phone, it’ll rinse your credit and you’re working for peanuts and they just take it off you. I can’t wait to go home.

His comments were echoed by another inmate:

It’s good for them, for the prison because they’re making money, but it ain’t good for the people they got slave labouring, you know what I mean. Like sometimes they’ll say to me ‘come on, work a bit harder’ like and I’ll say fuck off, fucking hell mate, I’m on minimum wage, I aint gonna flippin’ graft am I?!

However, on closer inspection, the situation was not actually as simple as this, and here’s where it gets interesting.

Yes, they were angry that the prison (essentially a government institution) would profit from their work, but the same anger was not directed towards the private contractors involved. Instead, most prisoners discussed this work with real admiration:

It’s pretty cool like. It doesn’t bother me. I wish I’d thought of it, I wouldn’t be sat here now, I’d be making bloody loads of money.

Me: So what about the private company then, do you have any problem with them? Prisoner: No, because honestly, I’d love my own business making money like that, so fair do’s to them, that’s what I think.

This accommodating attitude was not something I thought I would find when I began conducting this research. The prisoners respected the need to make money and admired those who did this quickly and easily. So, despite their disdain for completing the privately contracted work, they believed that sending work into prison was a good idea.

A lot of the inmates I interviewed were in prison because of their illegitimate careers such as drug dealing or robbery. These unethical ways of earning a living and the materialism inherent in criminal culture meant the way the private firms were profiting did not bother them as much.

Many prisoners talked excitedly about earning lots of money so they could buy fancy suits, flash cars and mountains of toys and designer clothes for their children. As most prisoners suggested: “at the end of the day, they have to make a profit”. They saw it as a clever idea and admired the entrepreneurial, easy profit tactics employed by the private firms.

It would seem then that capitalism has clearly done a number on these prisoners. They have adopted an unsustainable lifestyle due to their avid belief in and admiration of neo-liberal ideals. They have bought into the capitalist economic system and its values, especially a get rich quick, “me, me, me” version of capitalism but they still retain values of illegitimate criminal outsiders, with its strong working class ethos.

And even when they are fully aware that they are the losers in this scenario, they are still willing to accept it in the hope that one day they may move from the exploited to the exploiter. As one interviewee put it:

I think it’s alright. If I owned a company I think it would be brilliant because you’re paying them, you’re getting cheap work … If I owned a company, I’d be straight in here – cheap as chips really.

Today’s prisoners have become explicit in what could arguably be considered their exploitation. They admire it, respect it and have ultimately become its advocates.

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