Oooh, a hot potato. Been hearing a lot about this on Radio 4 recently. Trundle on Ken Clarke who will have a good old bluff and bluster, but I have to say, last time I heard him on the subject, he did talk sense. I can only report on personal opinions here and from second hand experience but my sentence serving husband works in his Category D prison as an Education Assistant. For this, he receives payment for services that is extremely low – I can’t remember the exact figure, but I promise you, it’s pence per hour. With this extra money, he can buy little luxuries – sachets of porridge to eat if he gets hungry between meal times, batteries for his radio, money for his phone card and postage stamps so he can write to me. I sent him in with money and since that time I have never had to fund his stay, he is frugal, he is an accountant after all.
Last month, the governor of the Sheppey Cluster decided that the prisoners under his care were too well paid and he slashed the wage bill (he did not reduce the prices for the above luxury items). You have to understand there are two types of employment within the prison service – those working on the inside for the benefit of their fellow inmates (canteen work, laundry, education etc) and those working outside, either completing voluntary work or paid employment. And remember, 40% of the wages earned by those in paid employment on the outside goes directly to Victim Support.
Since the reduction in wages, Mike now has to make a difficult choice. Should he continue to Assist in the Business Course run by the prison. He can only “Assist” as he is not employed by Manchester College who provide the funding for tutors, but he maximises his “assistance” as much as he can to provide valuable information and guidance to fellow inmates wanting to set up businesses on their own once released. For many, self-employment will be the only means of earning an income. For others already in business (it’s not only murderers and rapists that get sent away, others on short sentences are there as well) it is the chance to pick the brains of a qualified accountant (albeit a struck off one) without the insult of being robbed by the fees that would be due on the outside. So should he continue to act as a Classroom Assistant, or apply for Voluntary work on the outside. The wages are higher, but he will have to forgo one Town Visit per month. Not the Prisoner’s Dilemma discussed in “game theory”, but a real Prisoner’s Dilemma. For what it was worth I suggested that, as the last few months of his sentence was dragging a change of scene might make time go faster. So we wait to see what he will be volunteered for.
So there’s a little inside view of working within the prison system, knowing what you do now, let’s move on to prisoners taking work away from the unemployed. Not my favourite politician, but Ken Clarke spoke sense when he said that it was highly unlikely that prisoners would undercut workers on the outside. Let’s think it through. What occupations are available to prisoners? Nothing involving technology! No computers, mobiles, iPads, Pods or Phones, no SIM cards, memory sticks – you don’t want to give them the opportunity to access the outside world. Which is a shame because there is a lot of work that could be done if you allowed them RESTRICTED computer access. You could set up some kind of workshop within the prison, but this has many pitfalls, some of which you can read about on the Howard league for Penal Reform’s website – do a search on Barbed to see the problems they ran into. Their problem involved the wages of prisoners, but I’m thinking of the buildings available for setting up a workshop. Many of today’s prisons are much older properties that cannot cope with the demands of running a business. So you’d have to pay for a conversion, costly. You’d also not expect Prison Officer’s to assist with providing security for this enterprise, no, you’d have to pay for your own security, costly. There is a rag production line at Stanford Hill – unfortunately even this is closing. The wages of those operating the production of rags (you feed fabric in one end and get shreds of fabric out the other) is not high – do you really think the unemployed on the outside have stolen this fantastic job opportunity?
When you start to think about it, it’s actually rather difficult to think of things that could be done on the inside without an employer (and that’s who will have to bear the cost) going to great expense – not on salaries, but on provision of work. And the whole point of the employment of offenders is the idea of a cheap and ready workforce. So the idea of a business going inside to undercut the unemployed suddenly starts to look like an expensive option.
I hope I’ve offered you a few crumbs of information so that the next time you hear someone arguing that prisoners are taking away work from the unemployed, you’ll ask them exactly how and if they come up with a good, workable idea, you can let Ken Clarke know.