Responding to Ken Clarke's rehabilitation revolution

Reform should not come at the expense of inmates or prison workers, argues Eddie Ford

“Prison works!” Or at least that is what they used to tell us - like a mantra, from Michael Howard’s notorious 1993 speech at the Tory Party conference right up to the present day. Guided by this cruel and irrational ethos, which saw the authoritarian New Labour government dishing out more and tougher custodial sentences, prison numbers have risen relentlessly, to where they have now reached bursting point - or the official “useable operational capacity” of 87,859. So, according to the latest ministry of justice figures released on July 2, the prison population stood at 85,074 - with 2,433 others under various ‘home detention curfew supervision’ orders[1] and the home office predicting that the prison population will rise to at least 94,000 before the next general election if present trends continue. Even worse, we have had to endure a succession of politicians almost boasting about these appalling statistics - as if they were a sign of success, not grotesque failure.

But not any more, it seems. Hence Kenneth Clarke, the coalition government’s secretary of state for justice and longstanding president of the Tory Reform Group, last week launched a scathing assault on the “prison works” orthodoxy of his predecessors. Attacking the “failed” penal system, and stating what has always been obvious for those whose brains have not been zombified by the tabloid press, Clarke warned that simply “banging up more and more people for longer” actually makes the problem worse, not better - so that in our “worst prisons” such a regime just “produces tougher criminals”. Furthermore, he said, “many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem” and then “come out drug-dependent” - how can this be described as “protecting the public against crime”?

Indeed, Clarke questioned the entire punitive notion that building “ever more prisons for ever more offenders” was somehow beneficial to the public - and observed that the UK’s prison population was now among the highest in Europe. For Clarke, incarcerating such numbers of people “without actively seeking to change them” is the sort of thing “you would expect of Victorian England”. He went on to describe the current prison population as an “astonishing number” which he would have dismissed as an “impossible and ridiculous prediction” if it had been put to him as a forecast in 1992. Of course, Clarke pointed out that as a result more and more offenders are being “warehoused” in “outdated facilities”, and at vast public expense - leading to the crazy situation where it costs more to keep someone in prison - £38,000 per year per prisoner - than it does to “send a boy to Eton”.

Yet for all this money spent - some £4 billion a year to maintain the prison system - “no proper thought” is ever given as to what would actually be the “most effective way” to deal with prisoners. He went on to note that the reoffending rates among those given short sentences has reached 60% and is rising. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that it is “virtually impossible” to do “anything productive” with such offenders - many of whom, as Clarke pointed out, end up losing their jobs, their homes and their families during their short but personally destructive time inside. Rather, governmental policies have been driven far more by opportunist political expediencies than by logic or rationality - with Clarke accusing his predecessors, David Blunkett and John Reid, of administrating the prison system with “a cheque book in one hand and the Daily Mail in the other”.

In which case, stated Clarke, confronted by a system self-evidently not fit for purpose, we urgently need instead a “rehabilitation revolution”, one that involves “more intelligent sentencing”. As opposed to the current dysfunctional set-up, he called for prisons to become “places of education” and “hard work”. Really throwing the cat amongst the pigeons, Clarke pledged to cut back on the “absurd expansionism” of the previous government - ie, the coalition would lock up fewer people - and put his weight behind “radical” Tory plans to substantially increase participation by the voluntary and private sectors both inside and outside prison, which would involve “payment by results”. According to Clarke, under such schemes private companies would have “clear financial incentives” to prevent prisoners from reoffending and hence “success” would be measured - and rewarded - by “whether or not they are reconvicted within the first few years of leaving prison.”

Living as we are in the new age of austerity - of cuts, cuts, cuts - chucking billions down the black hole of prisons now looks like a monstrously inefficient use of money, which indeed it is by any objective or moral yardstick. In his 1991 white paper, the former Tory home secretary, Douglas Hurd - another ‘one nation’ social liberal like Clarke - described prison as an “expensive way of making bad people worse”, and that in the days when the prison population stood at ‘only’ 42,000. But, of course, for communists the overwhelming majority of prisoners are not “bad people” at all: they are much more the victims of a dog-eats-dog capitalist society. Thus, for example. two out of five prisoners lack basic literacy skills - around half of all prisoners have a reading age less than an 11-year-old - and four in five do not have basic numeracy. One in 10 male prisoners and one in three female prisoners are being treated for psychiatric disorders. The number of women in prison has risen disproportionately - from 1,800 in 1994 to 4,500 in 2004. Some 40% of women going to prison have previously attempted suicide. Almost 13% are inside for various drug-related offences. And on it goes, a catalogue of despair.

Therefore communists could not agree more that we need a “rehabilitation revolution” - that is, we should stop the obscene waste of human and financial resources that the UK prison system represents: a disgraceful monument to an almost medieval desire to inflict vindictive punishment upon the ‘wretched of the earth’. Needless to say, it follows from this that communists could not disagree more with the disgruntled philosophising of The Daily Telegraph, which feels obliged to remind Clarke that the “principal function of prison is to punish” - not to “treat or educate” the prisoners, “however benign the outcome might be”.[2] No, for that very small minority of people who require some sort of custodial sentence, and have to be imprisoned, then that should only be viewed as a temporary situation pending their rehabilitation back into society - and when in prison they should be treated as human beings.

However, though quite predictably, this has not been the sort of progressive, humane response to Clarke’s speech we have heard from prominent Labour Party figures - quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, if anything, they have been competing as to who can come out with the most reactionary, illiberal sentiments possible - with the reward for the most venal remarks to date possibly going to Jack Straw, a former home secretary, of course. Writing in the Daily Mail - where else? - Straw castigates the “liberal approach” adopted by Clarke and successive pre-1997 governments when it comes to ‘crime and punishment’. Hence he comments on the “hand-wringing” approach to crime which “had risen during every administration”, whether Labour and Conservative, right from the end of World War II. Straw pours scorn on those who took refuge, as he sees it, in “‘respectable’ research evidence which confirmed the hand-wringing”.

But luckily, Straw informs his Mail readers, “there were some of us” - Michael Howard included, of course - “who did not share the hand-wringing approach”, before going on to boast about the number of people banged up by the Labour administration - “nearly an all-time high”. In fact the “increased number of offenders sentenced to prison” was a “key factor in reducing crime”. Straw asks: “Does anyone seriously believe that crime would have come down and stayed down without these extra prison places?” Straw very much regrets that David Cameron has allowed the government’s penal policy to be “dictated not by his own common sense”, but by Clarke “in alliance with 57 Liberal Democrat MPs” - who are “using the need to cut the deficit to pursue what they have always wanted”: a “more weak penal policy”.[3]

With this vile Daily Mail article, Straw - and all those in the Labour Party who think like him - have positioned themselves on this matter to the right of the coalition government, which is quite a remarkable achievement, considering that the present administration is possibly the most reactionary government in Britain since the 1930s - certainly as far as its strategic assault on our class is concerned.

Then we have the reaction of the prison officers’ union, the POA - until earlier this year its general secretary was Brian Caton, a member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. According to a July 1 press statement, the POA was “furious” about Clarke’s intention to extend the role of the private sector “at the expense of prison officers’ jobs” - with Steve Gillan, the new general secretary, making clear his view that the justice secretary wants to “sell prison officer jobs to the lowest bidder in the private sector”. So far, so good, But Gillan goes on to say that Clarke’s “statements about rehabilitation revolution are even ridiculed from within his own party”. They are “half-baked”, not to mention “dangerous”. He warns that the POA “have the appropriate mandates from our members to take strike action to protect our jobs when necessary” and concludes: “We will not stand by and watch the public endangered. Nor will we stand by and watch our jobs sold”.[4]

So what attitude should communists take towards the POA’s “furious” opposition to Clarke’s “rehabilitation revolution” and to prison officers in general? Well, there is much that is supportable in their statement. Yes, Clarke’s plans are obviously “half-baked”, seeing that the coalition’s austerity drive demands a 25% cut - except in health and international aid - for all government departments, which must therefore include cuts to the various probationary and rehabilitative services. That will actually lead to more recidivism and very likely to more people receiving a custodial sentence of some description. Equally as obvious, communists are opposed to PFI involvement in the running of prisons, as it will inevitably lead to penny-pinching and a further deterioration of the already appalling conditions that prisoners have to put up with. More to the point, privatisation is a weapon used against workers and their unions and must be opposed for that reason. Nor, unsurprisingly, do communists support measures that will see prison officers, as workers, thrown onto the dole.

However, having said that, it is important to read between the lines of the POA statement. In what way are Clarke’s plans “dangerous” and how will they see “the public endangered”? Because more bad people will be free to roam the streets if prison numbers are reduced? Does Gillan mock Clarke’s “rehabilitation revolution” because he prefers prison? There is more than a hint of blind sectionalism: it could easily be interpreted as saying: ‘We are for more prison places because that means more prison jobs.’

Which leads me to my second point. We cannot simply treat the POA like any other trade union - purely as ‘workers in uniform’ just like any other section of the working class - and thus accord the POA the status of a ‘normal’ trade union, no different from the National Union of Mineworkers or the National Union of Teachers. This, of course, is the economist and rightist position of SPEW and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, which in the eventuality of any POA strike action will automatically - and routinely - support it as they would any other strike action by any other union.

The plain fact of the matter is that POA members are responsible for the daily, direct, physical oppression of the most downtrodden section of the working class - a section which has increased in numbers with each month and year that has gone by. So, yes, to that extent prison officers are oppressors in uniform. But this in no way means that communists regard POA members merely as representatives or agents of the oppressive state machinery, obliging us to shrilly denounce any display of solidarity or political sympathy with striking rank and file POA members as virtually an act of class treachery. This would be plain stupid, even if it is the stance taken by leftist moralists like the International Bolshevik Tendency or the Revolutionary Communist Group.

In other words, the POA has a dual nature - workers’ in uniform and agents of state oppression. Consequently, we in the CPGB have always opposed any demands or actions of the POA that could only come at the expense of prisoners, like even longer lock-up times or sadistic refinements to the means of oppression - bigger and harder batons/shields, use of water cannons or tear-gas, etc. But at the same time we critically support those demands - just as we would with rank and file police officers and members of the armed forces - that act to cohere intra-solidarity against the senior officers/management and thus help to undermine and eventually split the state machine.

Therefore communists should favour strike action by militant prison warders to the extent that they are defending their pay, jobs and hours and not the right to be better armed oppressors. Furthermore, if the UK prison population was to be drastically reduced - something which should be welcomed - thus reducing the need for large numbers of prison officers, then there should be retraining and voluntary transfer to other spheres of work.


  1. www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/resourcecentre/publicationsdocuments/index.asp?cat=85
  2. The Daily Telegraph July 7.
  3. Daily Mail June 30.
  4. www.poauk.org.uk/index.php?press-releases&newsdetail=20100701-10_poa-threaten-strike-action