We don't make the laws. We do a job

Steve Gillan, new general secretary of the prison officers' union, the POA, wrote to the CPGB in response to Eddie Ford's article last week. Mark Fischer spoke to him

Could you tell us something about your political and trade union background?

I joined the prison service some 20 years ago. I was actually looking for a secure job. My employment was erratic prior to this, I had a young family and felt I needed something secure. Something that provided a long-term future for them. I also wanted to work in the public sector - it was a way to give something back to society.

So I started in HMP Chelmsford and I very quickly became a branch official. I suppose coming from a town like Greenock in Scotland meant that my roots were steeped in trade unionism. My grandfather, my uncles and my father himself all worked in the shipyards. There was a very strong union backdrop to my upbringing - the Clydeside and its history. I believe every worker has a basic right to join a union and to be treated with respect as a worker. Trade unions are about winning and keeping that respect for workers.

As I say, I was a branch official early on in Chelmsford and I soon became assistant secretary at national level for the POA. Then I was national vice-chairman for four or five years, afterwards the finance office of the union for a similar period and finally general secretary.

As to my political background, I’ve voted Labour all my life. That was the tradition in Scotland; it was what I was brought up with. I’m a Labour Party member - but I’m not now, nor have I ever been, New Labour. I’m old Labour, if such a thing exists. New Labour has done nothing good for working men and women in Britain. I have to say, I actually struggled this time round to vote for Labour. I was deeply dissatisfied with the Blair-Brown mantra, the way they dealt with the Iraq war, or why young men and women are being sent to die in Afghanistan - a war probably to do with money and oil rather than any notion of ‘democracy’.

But, when it came to it, my roots wouldn’t allow me to vote anything other than Labour, although there isn’t a fag paper between the policies of New Labour and the Tories, when all said and done. They share the love affair with the private sector, with the private finance initiative to fund schools, hospitals and prisons.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? People don’t generally want to talk about prisons in the same breath as our education system, the national health service, housing and so on. But why not? After all, it’s the taxpayer that funds it. So a hospital, or a school or a prison should be equally important to the taxpayer because they are paying for it - they should have as much interest in the penal system as they have in the education system. They should want to know what’s going on, there should be scrutiny and transparency.

For instance, I think the general public should be concerned and want to know why we are holding 86,000 prisoners in this country - something I think is obviously wrong.

Here you might see a parallel between what I’m saying and what Ken Clarke has said. But that’s not accurate. What Clarke was effectively saying was that the onus must be shifting away from the state to the private sector. I still agree with what Jack Straw said prior to 1997, before Labour coming to power - back then, he, Prescott and Blair all said that privatisation of prisons was morally repugnant. Yet New Labour in government opened more private prisons than the Tories.

 Now, listening to my views, some people might think this odd. Here I am talking about old Labour, I head a trade union that has taken militant strike action over the past few years, in defiance of court injunctions. Yet the POA is composed of people that some might simply describe as officers of the state. Well, I think every worker has a fundamental right to join a trade union simply by dint of being a worker. So I believe that a policeperson has the right to join a trade union. A British soldier - should they have that right? Of course they should. Trade unions are basic organisations for the defence of workers’ right. Perhaps if people in the army and police were in proper trade unions - let’s leave aside the Police Federation for the time being - then things would be very different for them.

Trade unions in the army would not only fight for better conditions for the rank and file soldiers: they would be able to question, as a collective organisation of soldiers, why we are actually at war in Afghanistan in the first place, for example.

You’ve obviously touched on something important here; something that causes some controversy on the left. Let me put it bluntly. Bus drivers wear uniforms and go off to work every day to earn their wages. Prison officers also wear uniforms and go in to graft for their daily bread. You ain’t exactly bus drivers, though, are you …?

No, absolutely correct! We’re not the same in that sense. But I wrote to you because of this section in the Eddie Ford article in last week’s Weekly Worker, which I take objection to. Let me quote it:

“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.”

From my point of view that is simplistic and I don’t view our role as such. Look, we as prison officers try our best, under the most difficult of circumstances, to rehabilitate prisoners. Personally, I’m proud of the things I have done in that context. The problems you were referring to are very much of the past when there were too many bad apples. Of course, we still have those - but that’s no different from any other occupation, like teachers, doctors or even MPs. But I see our job as helping to rehabilitate the people we look after, not ‘physically oppress’ them. These people are locked up by the courts - we don’t arbitrarily pick them up off the streets. Society decides that they will be imprisoned; society has its rules. We have no control over that.

What this trade union is saying is that there needs to be a root and branch examination of the whole criminal justice system. Those members of our society who end up in prison represent a failure of our society as a whole, not simply the people who might turn the key at night.

Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental health problems, plus poverty and social alienation. Until we start to address these sorts of problems in a fundamental way, we are not going to be looking seriously at the causes of crime.

It’s easy for Ken Clarke to come along and talk about a “rehabilitation revolution” - at the same time they’re cutting the budgets for probation and other related services. It’s fantasy, pure fantasy. If they really wanted that ‘revolution’, then they would be seriously addressing the social causes of crime.

OK, so you often deal with the products of our ‘broken society’, but not only them …

Oddly enough, I’ve just come back from the Durham miners’ gala - Durham prison actually had a lot of miners locked up in the strike …

Exactly my point. We’re talking about a situation looming in this country where there will be a rise in working people’s struggles. You talk about the anti-trade union laws and the repressive legislation against working class organisation. Yet you could be in the position in the not too distant future of turning the key on activists and militants who have fallen foul of those laws. Again, this does say something about the ‘duality’ of prison officers - workers and trade unionists, but …

I can see that. There will be those in the movement that look at us with suspicion, that are unsure about our reliability as comrades, if you like. I would simply say, it’s not us that make the rules. We don’t make the laws. We do a job. First,

Take the PCS. They have members in the dole offices, in the tax offices, in the immigration services, etc. That doesn’t stop them being ’t make them enemies.

True, when we turn up at some trade union forums and conferences, we get a degree of hostility. I can understand that. (And by the way, sometimes we get hostility because we’ve been too militant. For the last two years, we’ve called for a general strike against anti-union laws - that’s earned us some dirty looks as well!). But we actually need some fighting unity in our ranks,

No-one ever reports the good things prison officers do - and we used to have more time to do these sorts of things when the prison population was just 40-odd thousand. This was one true thing Ken Clarke did point to. No-one ever talks about the prison officer who sits in a kid’s cell and talks him out of self-harm or suicide. I can bring to mind thousands of cases when an officer has stayed after work to undertake that sort of care of prisoners. You get an instinct for it. It’s part of the job that is not recognised by the wider

We are not rightwing skinhead boot boys, covered in tattoos, people who ’s a parody of the truth.

A part of rehabilitation has to be a huge expansion of prisoners’ rights, surely? It’s not simply a question of a Mr Barrowclough on your wing as opposed to a Mr Mackay, if we can put it in Porridge terms. We are trying to integrate people back into a society they feel part of and have a stake in. What’s the attitude of the POA to prisoners’ rights - work at trade union rates, the right to vote, etc?

The political climate at the moment makes it hard to come out with a positive agenda like this. Of course, it is appalling when someone says we should bang people up and throw away the key. If you take away hope from people, the prisons become hellholes for prisoners and officers alike.

Should prisoners get the vote? I don’t think that’s really for me to pass a comment on. Parliament says no. The majority of the public would say no, I guess. Until that changes, we just implement the rules. Although organising ballot boxes in prisons would be a bit of nightmare!

There is a tendency to see prison as something alien. It’s not. It’s like the way the rightwing media brand prisons as ‘breeding grounds for terrorists’ as far as Muslims are concerned. No, prisons don’t make young men and women from a Muslim background turn to terrorism - society does that. Prison simply reflects the wider reality.

You’ve been at pains to emphasise the trade union credentials of the POA, which is fair enough. But, given the sections of society you deal with, the job you do, a narrow approach to what constitutes a ‘trade union issue’ for the POA - just pay, conditions, etc - can lead you in quite reactionary directions.

That’s precisely why our union calls for a thorough overhaul of the way our society deals with drugs, for example.

As a prison officer I was appalled when they effectively legalised cannabis. I have seen the effects on people’s lives and families that addiction to this ‘soft’ drug has had. The same with alcohol. But then there’s the problem of prohibition - do that and you simply hand a huge, lucrative industry over to gangsters. So, until we start addressing these questions rationally, we will have the ongoing problems of society reflected in the criminal justice system.

I think you’re right - the POA should have a leading voice in the overhaul of the system, as it’s our members who are working at the ‘coalface’. Take the irrationality of the fact that we are stopping building schools, but there are more PFI prisons in the pipeline. Educate our kids better, give them some hope and a future, then perhaps we wouldn’t need as many prisons.

It’s time for a rethink, we say.