Brown bows to 'cushy prisons' hysteria

Jim Moody counters the mass media's onslaught

Gordon Brown has just overruled a recommendation from the Prison Service Management Board that prison wages be raised to the princely sum of £5.50 - up from £4.00. That, by the way, is not the hourly, but the weekly rate for prison work.

On the eve of the May 1 elections Brown did not want to be seen as being soft on prisoners. Especially after the press - red tops and the so-called serious papers - had just been having an extended field day denouncing cushy prisons, prisoners who refused to escape because life inside is so pleasant, etc, etc.

Of course, such stories came thanks to the Prison Officers Association’s assistant general secretary, Glyn Travis. The Sun gleefully reported: “Travis ... said that while lags had it easy, staff morale was at rock-bottom due to government underfunding ... lags had better conditions than soldiers in barracks - and were treated with kid gloves to protect their human rights” (April 25). According to another tabloid, “He claims satellite TV, free phone calls and breakfast in bed are commonplace” (‘Fury over “cushy” jails no-go areas’ Daily Mirror April 26).

The BBC concentrated on his claim that a drug dealer “regularly broke into a Yorkshire prison by using a ladder to enter cell windows - but no inmate used the ladder as a means of escape” (April 25). Not only that - Travis insisted that drugs come into prisons at such a rate that they are cheaper there than on the outside.

In reality of course, as anyone who knows anything about the prison system will confirm - including everyone in the POA - drugs do not usually get delivered by your friendly local drug dealer. Who then brings them in? In the main, visitors and ... screws - something that prison officers will quite openly admit, as long as their comments are unattributed.

Anyway, never letting facts get in the way of a good story, the BBC quotes Travis’s explanation of why no-one else used the dealer’s ladder: “The prisoners didn’t take this opportunity because we believe life is so cushy within the prison system.” These break-ins were apparently uncovered in January at HMP Everthorpe, a prison with around 700 category C inmates. (Although category C prisoners officially “cannot be trusted in open conditions”, nonetheless they are considered unlikely to try to escape; they are in fact held under conditions of lower security than remand prisoners.)

Travis also claimed to know of prostitutes doing business in several open (D category) institutions, though he only mentioned one. At this, broadsheet outrage was stirred, joining the gutter press onslaught: “It is understood that there have also been examples of prostitutes being smuggled into HMP Sudbury, a category D prison, in Derbyshire” (The Daily Telegraph April 28).

Whipping up further flog ’em, hang ’em hysteria, Travis also wildly alleged: “We have got no-go areas in certain prisons because prisoners have got complete control. There is not sufficient staff, there is no interaction between staff. We have got a serious crisis in our prisons today.” Liberal media joined the scramble to quote Travis: “And prison staff are forced to deal with them in such a subservient way. It’s ridiculous” (The Independent April 25).

Travis’s real agenda behind all this hyperbole and anecdotal ‘evidence’ is purely sectional - the POA wants more resources, more prison officers, more money. Travis uses these ‘shock, horror’ tales to point the finger at too few prison officers and too liberal prison regimes. He sees giving prisoners access to satellite television and video games as mollycoddling. Maybe it is unsurprising that in the current climate of clampdown upon already circumscribed legal rights, his diatribe received a ready response across Britain’s media.

It is quite true that prison overcrowding is making the situation inside more and more difficult for all those most closely concerned - both prisoners and prison officers. Whereas in 1993 there were 45,000 prisoners, the figure is now a record 82,319, representing an 83% increase. In that time, there have been disproportionate rises amongst juveniles and women compared to men. But, yes, the numbers of prison officers have increased at a much lower rate.

Yet there is no crime wave in Britain. As the Prison Reform Trust quite correctly notes, “The reason for the growth is not more crime, which has been stable or fallen, or more convictions in court, which have stayed stable, but the extension of prison for petty offenders and ever lengthening sentences” (www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk).

Of course, the views of Travis are not shared by POA general secretary Brian Caton. He has a somewhat more enlightened approach to prison inmates. Addressing the April 19 north west conference of the National Shop Stewards Network, Caton mentioned the large number of prisoners with mental problems. Looking back nostalgically to the time when Labour was “a mass workers’ party” he regretted that there is no viable alternative to the left of Labour at the moment.

What of the POA? He acknowledged that not all of his members actually regarded themselves as trade unionists. However, it was wrong, he said, to dub all prison officers “racists and fascists” who want to clamp down on prisoner rights. POA members recognise that many inmates should not even be dealt with by the criminal justice system, let alone locked up.

The fact that Caton was elected as general secretary shows that there is a left current in the POA. Many prison officers used to be miners, steelworkers, etc, and the POA has been prepared to engage in militant action, staging an unofficial strike on August 29 2007.

However, the POA is hardly a trade union like any other. Prison officers hold a contradictory position: on the one hand, they are exploited workers; on the other, they are direct agents of state repression. We cannot by any means always endorse every trade union action that they take. There are many demands that they might make - such as those that would improve their own conditions at the expense of prisoners’ rights - which we would never support and would in fact argue should be actively fought against by the trade union movement as a whole.

In this context, the brouhaha generated by the POA’s assistant general secretary is moot. Life in prisons is far from cushy. To suggest otherwise is to fly in the face of the facts: in short, to lie. During 2006, there were 23,420 incidents of self-harm in prisons in England and Wales alone. That is, 64 people every day. And it is getting worse. According to government figures, 92 prisoners committed suicide in 2007, compared with 67 the previous year - a rise of 37%.

Life in prison should be as near normal as possible. How else can prisoners develop themselves as human beings? Overcrowded conditions and the absence of substantial cultural or educational programmes merely reproduce and exacerbate criminality. The aim of prison should be rehabilitation, not punishment, which is all it amounts to at present. Its only worth to society has become keeping lawbreakers out of general circulation for a few months or years. Their position on release is not addressed at all.