Prisoners taking work away from the Unemployed

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.

It’s raining, it’s a Bank Holiday…. I’m thinking Windolene

So it’s the Jubilee Holidays and in typical Bank Holiday form, you sweat your pits out in a stifling office for weeks, longing for a break and when it comes along – it rains.  Solidly.  For the duration.

I know I should get out of bed and do something constructive, on my lonesome, but I just don’t have the heart and compunction to do so.  Kind of reminds me when I was single (I married later in life) and I would go places on my own.  It’s amazing how fast you can get around a stately home when you are only looking at things you want to look at.  I eventually decided it was a complete waste of money.  Almost I came, I saw, I buggered off double quick and didn’t get my money’s worth.  You can’t linger on your own – well, I didn’t think I could.  There’s safety in numbers sitting on a bench licking an ice cream.  On your own you just look…. suspicious, weird, plotting?

So I find myself on a soaking went Bank Holiday Monday wondering what to do.  And that’s how I got to thinking about Windolene.  You just don’t see it these days.  In the olden days (I’m talking about 5-10 years back) pre-DIY shows times, you didn’t WANT people to see the complete hash you were making transforming your front room into a state of the art lounging area.  So whilst slopping distemper and whitewash everywhere, you’d wipe a layer of Windolene over the windows and it would dry out thus making it gloomy and difficult to paint on the inside and suspicious looking on the outside.  Then you had the fun of being able to scratch little messages or smiley faces in the layer of dried Windolene (that was pre-computer game fun for the kiddies).  You could even carve out a man with a big nose looking over a wall and write “what no Watney’s”…… that was adult pleasure.

Why did they do that?  The Windolene, not the “man with the big nose”.   I think it must have been so that when you did slop paint all over the place, the paint would not stick to the glass, you could just wipe it off, plus have the added bonus of gleaming shiny windows to set off your new decor.   But a flick through the interweb and I have seen comments like “to stop people seeing the mess you make when decorating”.  Eh?  Who gives a monkeys!  You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.  Do DIY SOS cover up their windows?  No, I don’t think so.

So, that’s Windolene for you.  I wonder what they put in the stuff to make something so basic (water and possibly vinegar) so complex.  I can’t even begin to think of the manufacturing process involved in making Windolene – what exactly is in the stuff!  No wonder it’s not as popular.  I remember using it once, stopped half way through the cleaning to have a chat, or do something more compelling and returning to the windows to find the wretched pink stuff had dried out and would only come off with a scraper.  Horrible stuff.  And then mum insisted we clean our windows with scrunched up newspapers and a bit of spit (no, the spit is poetic licence, she would say a splash of water).  Apparently it was something in the newsprint that brought them up shiny.   Life’s too short.  Nowadays, for those who might possibly be interested in how I clean my windows (no not of interest to the majority of readers of my blog who are spammers) I use water, sometimes if I have any left, with a splash of window cleaning washing up liquid type stuff.

I’m really bored now.  Not as bored as Mike will be because access to the gym is restricted today due to “sports day”.  Apparently three people had signed up to compete in the sports day.  Coming on the back of an arbitrary pay cut, I’m not surprised at the lack of community spirit.  The Sheppey Cluster has decided to revisit the pay structure of those working within the prisons and Mike, who assists in the teaching of a Business Skills class (not allowed to teach, that’s down to the professionals) has had his pay drastically reduced.  Contrary to popular belief, prisoner’s wages are not huge.  Mike will drop down from something along the lines of £7.00 a day to £3.00 a day (I can’t remember the exact figure).  I’ve never sent a penny into Mike since he went inside.  And he doesn’t want me to start.  He’ll just have to make compromises like I do on the outside.   He has decided that although he enjoys and finds it worthwhile teaching fellow inmates how to run their own businesses after leaving prison, and let’s face it, when you’ve got a criminal record, sometimes it is the only way you will be able to find work, to work for yourself, he’d be better off doing voluntary work on the outside.   So rather than do voluntary work with inmates on the inside, he’ll do it for those on the outside.  No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s what being in prison is all about.

Laugh, Talk, Eat

I haven’t blogged for a while, haven’t felt like it, nothing really to report.  I have been meaning to discuss the effect on having a “part time husband” though.

Since May, Mike has enjoyed “Town Visits”.  After I met with his social worker, she advised me that he would be able to come home on his Town Visits, but Mike being Mike, wrote for official confirmation that he wouldn’t be in breach of any rules and regulations by returning home.  Receiving validation he came home for the day last month, returned for the night, then came back again on his first Release on Temporary Licence.

He has to carry with him at all times a lovely little card, very Blue Peter-ish, upon which his photograph is taped (professional job) and details of his temporary release dates are recorded, signed, stamped and counter stamped.  It is a standing joke that wherever we go, the card comes with us…. Just in case a policeman approaches him and asks to see it.

I’ll take a step back here – I could never understand the wives of businessmen (no sexism intended, it is invariably businessmen) who would say “oh I love it when my husband is away”.  I used to hate it.  Mike frequently travelled overseas when he worked at SBS and I hated it.  I’d badly miss him.  Other wives would enjoy having their husbands away, but I could never understand this, I almost thought that I would eventually elevate to this position once we’d been married a few years, but it never occurred.

I miss our conversations.  My big sister once told me, and I’ve never forgotten this, of an occasion she and her first husband were sitting in a pub chatting away.  During the evening, she watched an older couple who were oblivious of each other, who spent the entire time in their own worlds, disengaged from each other, drinking in silence.  She vowed she would never get to that point.  And so it is with me. Mike and I never have nothing to converse about, even if a conversation flags, we’ll bring up whatever is in the news and test each other’s opinions.  I loved our evening meals – not for us sitting in front of the TV, dinner on laps – we’d be at the table, disseminating our days, expressing any concerns and worries – laugh, talk, eat, the way it should be.  I hate silence between people, a throwback to my childhood experience of mum and dad, mid separation, having Sunday tea with the kids to put up a picture of normality, but not speaking to each other.  I used to get ribbed and called “toilet roll tongue” because I desperately tried to fill in the pregnant, poignant.  I could tell something was wrong and was desperate to obliterate the heaving silence.

There is a major difference in two people “just being together” enjoying one and other’s silence.  That quiet time is precious and quite different from longing to have your husband out of the house “for a bit of peace and quiet”.

And so it is that I now find myself with an absent husband, desperately wanting to return home, but with me having to drop everything and entertain him.  And of course, I now have to share him with others who want to experience his temporary release as well.  To extend the time allocated for the Town Visit, I travel to collect him, we return home and then he has to go through “decompression”.  Returning to a messy house (hey, I work all week, Saturday is my housework day) it takes time to get used to the idea of not being under lock and key.   The first weekend was spent hiding from well-meaning neighbours, pleased to see him out for the day.  He feels the stigma of being a prisoner and anticipates everyone else sees a huge sign over his head.  We killed time around the house, he wanted things to be “normal”, but it’s far from normal checking your watch every five minutes to make sure he’s returned on time.  He gets until about 5.30 and then we must head back to Stanford Hill for checking in prior to 6.20.  We are terrified of being late and thus ending future town visits. Indeed the first one was marred by a flat tyre on the car – thankfully it was his car and we were able to get back using mine.

And then his first ROTL arrived.  This was better.  He got two nights at home, but a return time of 3pm!  Apparently Prison Staff can’t cope with too many offenders returning at the same time.  For him this was two blissful nights in a comfortable double bed with fresh, clean bedding.  No-one woke him during the night to check he was still there, but I think I spent the time worrying how I would feel after he had gone again.  I couldn’t appreciate the moment.  I know he had his first taste of freshly prepared food in 9 months and that was a treat for him, plus, of course, homemade lemon drizzle cake.  All he wanted was a taste of normality.  To sit in an arm chair in the front room and gaze at the green field opposite.  For the cat to sit on his lap, to vacuum the carpet, to wear something fresh and clean, to go for a long walk.  You may believe that prisoners “have it easy” inside, and certainly it would appear that some do.  But there is a community within prisons who genuinely regret their crimes, who know they are there to “pay their due to society”, but who bitterly wish they were back home with their families.  For this community, prison is a double sentence – one on themselves and one on their family.  I am not surprised that a lot of wives leave their husbands.  You get used to living alone, to earning your own money, paying bills, coming and going as you chose, to surviving alone.  You begin to think “why am I waiting”.  And then when the ROTL comes along, it is disruptive – he’s there, then he’s gone and you go back to missing him again.  I personally find it very disruptive.

But I know I have adjusted to an awful lot of things, I can make this last adjustment.  As I write, I am anticipating his next ROTL, we move up to three nights at home and this time I am going to enjoy them for what they are – a long, relaxing weekend at home with my husband.