They've got it made in prison: three square meals a day, television in the cells and no bills to pay. It's easier than having to work for a living. No, this is not some rant from a Daily Mail reader; I'm just paraphrasing the sort of comments you might hear at the bus stop, or in the pub on Saturday night. And anyone who tries to say otherwise usually gets called a do-gooder. So why don't we have a look at some of the things that really go on in prison?
Prisons: A Cushy Life?
By Brian Ashton
Now, the government runs prisons, right? Well, sort of, but they do it with some help from other organisations. Private companies whose motivation is profit for their shareholders at your expense, and at the prisoners’ cost, it must be said. I'm not talking here about those companies who are making millions from the government's discredited Private-Finance Initiative prison building programme, which is a bit like the PFI schemes for hospitals and schools, only with bars. No, I'm talking about the companies who are making their profits out of the people who are locked up, people who can't make the choice about where they buy their razor blades or tampons. They are stuck with whatever company has got the franchise for that particular prison, for example, the American conglomerate Aramark. Topping the list of America's most admired companies in 2006, Aramark described itself as a service management organisation, which is another way of saying it has its fingers in all sorts of pies. The company runs catering contracts worth around £400 million across the British public sector. And, as is indicated above, they have the contract to run the majority of Her Majesty's Prison Service canteens and shops.
In terms of the essentials of prison life the prisoners have to buy them from the prison shops, where they have to pay top whack; there's no Tesco Price Check going on in Walton, Armley or Long Lartin, it's a case of like it or lump it. And if you think it's only a matter of cost that prevents prisoners from purchasing soap, writing materials and phone cards, then think again, because access to them has been classified as a privilege under the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme (IEP) since it was introduced in 1995. The right to possess and smoke tobacco is now an earned privilege under Rule 8 of the IEP scheme, and like the other privileges it can be taken away for breaking any of the many rules that govern a prisoner's life. And if prison is anything like the army then there will be rules and regulations you didn't know existed. Until you broke them, that is.
In the case of phone calls, not only are they a privilege, they are extortionate as well. The National Consumer Council (NCC) has placed a major complaint with Ofcom with regard to the cost of phone calls for prisoners. The complaint is laid against BT in England and Wales and Siemens in Scotland. The cost of a ten-minute phone call from inside a prison is nearly three times as much as from a public payphone. Now, you might not have any sympathy for prisoners, but imagine what it must be like to be unable to phone up to check on your sick child because you can't afford a phone card, or the privilege has been taken away. How is that conducive to the rehabilitation of offenders?
The aim of the IEP is "to encourage hard work and other constructive activity" by way of a system of privileges that are "earned by prisoners through good behaviour and performance and are removed if they fail to maintain acceptable standards." Central to the scheme is the paying of prisoners; the rates of pay are dependant on a number of factors including the amount and type of work available at each prison, and the level reached on the IEP scheme by each individual. According to available figures the minimum wage is £4 a week. Earlier this year Gordon Brown intervened to prevent the wage going up to £5.50 a week; that would have been the first rise since the IEP scheme came in to being in 1995. Most of the jobs, by HMPS's own admission, "provide little training, qualifications or resettlement activities for prisoners." The system maintains that one of its aims is to genuinely rehabilitate offenders through education and training; it hasn't explained how packing plastic spoons for Sainsbury's or untangling and repacking in-flight entertainment headphones for Virgin Airways fits with this aim.
The crux of the matter is that the prison system doesn't work, that's if its purpose is to rehabilitate offenders. The regime in the jails is a punitive one and as the prison population increases lock down will increasingly become the norm. The decision made earlier this year, to reduce the amount of time prisoners could spend out of their cells at weekends is indicative of the way the prison system is going. Prisoners are now confined to their cells from Friday lunchtime til Monday morning, except for meals and slopping out. Soon rehabilitation will only be the concern of organisations like the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the only people getting any benefit from the system will be those companies who get their products made on the cheap by what is basically a slave labour force. And if that doesn't cause you to lose any sleep, perhaps the thought that your bed frame was made by prisoners and cost the manufacturer a maximum of £4.30 will do. Because at that price per unit, you and the prisoners have both been ripped off.