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Working people’s experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic have differed markedly. The richest ten men in the world have doubled their fortunes to more than £1 trillion. Meanwhile, some of the lowest paid workers were exposed repeatedly to the virus, and in many cases fatally.
Yet there has been little attention paid to one group of workers in particular: those incarcerated in prisons. In 2020, whilst members of the cabinet were having parties and gatherings, prisoners were drawn upon to help scrabble together PPE for health and care workers across the UK.
The coalition and prison reform
While prison labour has a long history, the immediate roots of this utilisation of prisoners as a contingent labour force can be traced back to the Coalition government formed in 2010. Back then, Britain was in the throes of the biggest recession since the 1930s, and the violent force of austerity measures were on the horizon. In his first speech as Prime Minister, making reference to a wholesale programme of reform that would follow, David Cameron pledged to rework the role and functions of criminalisation and punishment.
This was a task which the Coalition pursued with vigour. Just a few months after being formed, its first green paper on criminal justice promised to ‘transform the administration of punishment’ in what it described as a ‘fundamental break with the failed and expensive policies of the past’. Central to this was the utilisation of punishment to create labour forces. This was something which could not be ‘seen in isolation’; standing alongside ‘historical reforms of the welfare system to encourage employment’, among other things.
Within a few years, the reform agenda was beginning to take shape. The punitive ‘workfare’ programmes (whereby people work for free in order to receive benefits) already pursued by the previous New Labour government were rapidly expanded. Around that same time, over one million benefit sanctions were imposed on benefits claimants across England, Wales and Scotland per year, operating as a ‘secret penal system’ at the centre of the government’s welfare reforms.
Prisoners as a contingent labour force
Simultaneously, alongside moves to further privatise probation services and ‘make community sentences more punitive’, the Coalition attempted to reshape the provision of unpaid labour as a form of punishment. They increased working hours; ensured that people could be identified publicly as offenders; and made some work more arduous – plans that were rationalised as ensuring ‘hard, honest work’.
Meanwhile, they were ushering in substantial drives to expand the provision of prison labour and its customer base. Under the rubric of creating ‘prisons with a purpose’, potential employers were told that prison labour’s ‘flexibility could be the strength you are looking for’. Prisons would be able to ‘produce your merchandise to order’ and become ‘part of your supply chain’. Marketing materials advertised that this was ‘justice working for you’.
Conditions of work in prisons
This brings us back to incarcerated people making PPE. To be clear, incarcerated workers may well have saved health and care workers’ lives. And despite general increases in the levels of prison labour, work is nonetheless not the typical experience for incarcerated people. Those who do work are mostly involved in prison upkeep and maintenance. At the same time, of course, incarcerated people do want meaningful activity. But what must also be borne in mind is that these desires can also turn work itself into a powerful form of labour control. For work is in many cases linked to Incentives Policy Frameworks which determine access to finances and other small privileges (like in-cell television, improved visits, additional time out of cell or improved access to gym and well-being facilities). But ‘transgressions’, including in the labour process, can lead to the downgrading of these privileges, if not their removal.
In the vast majority of cases, prison workers have no pensions, work for massively suppressed wages not even close to the minimum wage, and have little ability (in real terms) to negotiate or organise around working conditions. With many incarcerated people reliant on work – for example to be able to purchase essential items – they have hampered ability to refuse certain forms of work, and little means of redress if refused access to it.
What is more, work is frequently concentrated in sectors where injuries to workers are common; but prisons are barely inspected by regulatory agencies and bodies designed to uphold working conditions. Indeed, when prisoners were putting together PPE to mitigate shortfalls, not only did their suppressed wages mean that the price of equipment was reduced by around two-thirds. They were also working in environments which are frequently overcrowded, frequently have poor healthcare, and which have elsewhere have been described as ‘disease incubators’ and ‘epidemiological pumps’.
And this has very real, ongoing implications. Prison labour is generally rationalised as central to ideas of rehabilitation and, more broadly, notions of prison reform. And again, people in prison want meaningful activity. But as criminologist David Scott has argued, no matter how prisons are (re)conceptualised in such ways – a process as old as the prison itself – it is imperative to remember that they are institutions ‘deliberately designed to inflict pain’. They are institutions which, for many, exist as ‘warehouses of suffering and death’. Incidences of self-harm take place every fifteen minutes in prisons in England and Wales. Meanwhile, fatalities are now at the highest level ever recorded.
Yet, as made clear last year with industries such as meatpacking turning to prisoners to mitigate labour shortages, incarcerated workers can be drawn on as a reservoir of labour to meet short-term and longer-term demand. Indeed, while there is no dominant overriding form or experience of prison labour, what is clear is that in at least some cases it offers up labour forces shorn of working protections under the banner of rehabilitation.
This has particular resonance at a point where prisons are set to expand much further. According to the Ministry of Justice, the prison population is set to swell to almost 100,000 people by 2026: a prediction which is mirrored by plans for a programme of substantial prison building to increase capacity by 20,000 places. At the same time, there is no ambiguity in the fact the government is implementing an authoritarian strategy of carceral expansionism, ranging from concerted police recruitment (of around 20,000 more people); increases in police and criminal justice powers; increases in lengths of prison sentences; plans to imprison some asylum seekers; and the greater criminalisation of Gypsies and Travellers. The Home Secretary said the intention is to make people ‘literally feel terror at the thought of committing offences’. The government want to be seen as ‘fundamentally… the party of law and order, full stop’.
Prison expansion is certainly not the sole component of this broader political framework. There is also the full-on attack on legal aid, pledged attacks on human rights legislation, substantial outgrowth of surveillance, and the attempts to roll out measures which already disproportionality impact on racialised and working class communities. But prison expansion is a core part of it, and it is vital that prison labour should be a central concern of the labour movement.
At a minimum, incarcerated labourers should be afforded solidarity and the strengthening of labour protections, including wages and representation. But more than that, we must connect this struggle with the function of the prison itself. As Joe Sim has demonstrated, prisons and the wider criminal justice system operate as ‘corrosive sites for the “churning” of vast, increasingly racialised, numbers of the dispossessed, pauperised and destitute’. As well bolstering prisoners’ rights, what is necessary is a radical abolitionist programme which, as Angela Davis makes clear, would build the conditions and social institutions to address ‘the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete’.
Jon Burnett is author of Work and the Carceral State, published by Pluto Press.