Prisoners and workfare

One3one solutions: Justice working for you – at £2 an hour or less.

Prison costs a lot of money: it’s expensive to lock someone up and keep them under guard. If we’re going to spend that kind of money on keeping people who are a danger to society out of circulation for months or years, we should be investing it sensibly and giving people opportunities to reform.

I think it’s a good thing if a prisoner who’s soon to be released from jail can do day-release work outside, get used to interacting with people outside the prison environment before they actually go out for real. I think prisoners should have options to study and get qualifications in prison. I think we should be investing money in imaginative schemes like a prison restaurant, that give prisoners a chance to learn and get work outside, in trying to make sure that once someone leaves prison, they have more options than when they went in.

But:

Andrew Neilson, from the Howard League for Penal Reform says:

“We do welcome these opportunities [for prisoners to work] but it should be on the same basis as anyone else in the community. We don’t want the issue of prisoners on day release being employed becoming one that divides people and effectively people are turned against those prisoners because they’re seen to be taking people’s jobs. That’s not what should be happening.”

He’s talking about a situation that’s come up with a company called BecomingGreen@BecomingGreenCo on Twitter. (They seem to have sacked whoever was responsible for managing their Twitter account in April.)

Becoming Green said:

“Corporations should have a social responsibility to help society. It feels that if they work with this attitude and behaviour it will help make a better society for all.”

The company added that this kind of work would “enable [prisoners] to resettle and integrate back into society and not feel the need to re-offend. By working, prisoners can repay the victims of crime rather than be unproductive in prison and by working potentially turn their lives around.”

I don’t disagree with any of that. But the Guardian reports that

After establishing an arrangement with minimum security HMP Prescoed late last year, roofing and environmental refitting company Becoming Green has taken on a staff of 23 prisoners. Currently 12 are being paid just 6% of the minimum wage. When contacted by the Guardian last month, that figure was 17 – 15% of the staff.

The company confirmed that since it started using prisoners, it had fired other workers. Former employees put the number at 17 since December. However, the firm said firings were part of the “normal call centre environment” and it had hired other staff in a recent expansion.

Becoming Green said the category D prison had allowed the company to pay the prisoners just £3 a day for at least 40 working days but added that they could keep them at that pay level for much longer if they wanted.

A company spokesman was unable to give the longest time a prisoner had been employed on token wages. The spokesman added that under the arrangement, they were only allowed to take a maximum of 20% of their total call centre workforce from the prison.

Their careers page has an advert for “Telesales Executive”, dated 23rd March 2012, salary “Unspecified To be discussed” which is clearly a call centre job:

As a Telesales Agent for a fast growing and strategically visionary company you’ll be working in a friendly and driven Call Centre environment contacting customers by Telephone. Your role is to professionally advise the customers on services offered with an emphasis on how they will personally benefit. Once you have built rapport, you will make appointments for surveyors to visit.

Legal minimum wage for a prisoner is £4 a week. The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that many prisoners from this Category D prison in South Wales, had worked for BecomingGreen’s call centre for at least two months at a rate of 40p an hour in Cardiff. Prisoners at the company who were being employed at above minimum wage were paying 40% of their salary into the victims’ fund. Three of the prisoner employees were understood to be working as day-release managers at the company. Shouldn’t employers who use prison labour regularly have to pay at least minimum wage to all their employees – even if a part of that was required to go to the Victims Fund and most of the rest to a savings account?

A Prison Service spokesman said:

“We want more prisoners to undertake challenging work, within the discipline of regular working hours, which will help them develop the skills they need to gain employment, reform, and turn away from crime. The spokesman added that prison work “helps to reduce the chance of re-offending by setting up appropriate employment and rehabilitation work in the community”.

In June this year the Independent revealed:

The Department of Justice has rebranded the old Prison Industries Unit as a new body called One3one Solutions and wants to increase prison revenues to £130m a year by 2021. One3one, which is named after the number of prisons in the UK estate, is offering interested companies the chance of “utilising a workforce of motivated prisoners” who, it claims, are looking to “build outstanding business relationships with you”.

Prisoners are not paid the minimum wage, and labour contracts seen by the investigative website Exaro News show companies are typically paying prisons the equivalent of around £2 an hour for prisoners’ labour.

Most convicts are paid much less, with the prisons taking a variable amount of their salary.

Another story, another prisoner: James Jeffrey writes from HMP The Mount on whether prisoners should be allowed laptops in their cells.

Before coming to prison I was completing a Software Engineering degree and working as a software developer, but now I fear my career is slipping away and upon release regaining employment as a developer will be extremely difficult because I am not able to develop my skills and educate myself without the aid of a laptop in prison.

For me, the use of a laptop would allow me to complete long distance courses offered by companies such as Microsoft, thus gaining industry recognised qualifications and the ability to use my time in prison constructively

James Jeffrey disagreed with the decisions of two women he knew who had decided to have an abortion. So on 7th/8th March 2012, he hacked into and defaced the BPAS website with an aggressive prolife message accusing them of profiting from the murder of children. He was unable to obtain the personal records on any of BPAS’s patients, but he was able to get hold of 10,000 records of people who had made enquiries of BPAS online:

These may have been inquiries relating to contraception, pregnancy, abortion, STI testing and sterilisation. Relevant authorities were informed and appropriate legal action taken to prevent the dissemination of any information obtained from the website.

“While the confidentiality of women receiving treatment was never in danger, this episode was taken very seriously indeed.

Using the Twitter name Pablo Escobar, James Jeffrey boasted of what he’d done, declaring that he planned to publish the information, releasing the name and email address of one BPAS administrator. BPAS had already taken out an injunction against the publication of any of the information that he had hacked, and reported his activities to the police.

Jeffrey was arrested about 24 hours later. Despite what he had bragged on Twitter, Jeffrey claimed in court that he had “decided against publishing the details in his possession because he thought doing so would be ‘wrong’”. The judge did not allow him bail, assessing him as an “anti-abortion zealot” who would put “other organisations and people’s private details at risk”. On 13th April, he was sentenced to 32 months in jail (so to 9th November 2014, less time off for good behaviour).

The judge at this court, Michael Gledhill, speaking about Jeffery’s boast that he would publish the thousands of personal details he had hacked,

“You only have to think for a few seconds of the terrible consequences had that threat been carried out.”

Although Jeffrey had admitted he had chosen BPAS to hack into because he hadn’t agreed with the choice of two women he knew, his defence lawyer Shaun Wallace said he only entered the website to “test” it but

“The more curious he became, the less responsible he became.”

Six months after Jeffrey went to jail, he wants a laptop to use in his cell. I’m not surprised. But, if prison is for reform and education, it does not appear to me that Jeffrey needs any more education in information technology (he was caught because he failed to conceal his IP address) it would seem he should be studying the reasons why a woman may choose to have an abortion, and the ethical reasons why it’s not for a man or anyone else to decide to stop her or to try to publicly shame her as Jeffrey had intended: to discover for himself why his motivations for attacking BPAS were wrong. If he wants to. Obviously no one can be forced to reform.

Or he could spend some time in a call centre trying to convince people to buy solar panels. Providing the company has to pay minimum wage for his time (and that a substantial percentage goes to BPAS), I’m not even clear that would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Erwin James notes that:

private companies making profits from prisoner labour in the UK is nothing new. While still in a closed prison 12 years ago, I was one of about 30 men working in the prison’s timber workshop.

We manufactured garden trellis fencing for a private contractor. Top wage was £17 a week. To earn it we each had to produce 40 panels a day. The panels retailed at £30 apiece. Scandalous though it may seem to an outsider, nobody was forcing any of us into that workshop.

We knew we were being exploited. But it was good to work – and it was better than mopping a landing for £6 a week, or being unemployed and “banged up” for 20 hours a day.

In June, reacting to the first episode of Gordon Ramsey’s new C4 series, Gordon Behind Bars, Erwin James wrote:

I know what Ramsay is up against: prisoners are not “all mates together”. Fundamentally they are rivals, for space, for resources and for attention. Getting people in prison to co-operate is almost impossible. On the landings it’s every man for himself –a theme driven by instinctive survivalist defence mechanisms. Life in a prisoner hierarchy is as primitive as the hills – but like any other human beings prisoners have potential. Often all they need is a champion to bring it out.

The signs are that for Ramsay’s crew, he may be that champion. But he is angry when he discovers that prisoners spend so little of their incarcerated day working. Referring to men who are locked in their cells for 21 out of every 24 hours he says, “Why should they be sat there doing jack shit?” It’s a good question – but for once the truth is, it really isn’t their fault.

Over the past 20 years successive governments of the major political parties have let the public down with their policies and attitudes concerning our prisons. We have a record prisoner population of more than 85,000 costing more than £2bn a year and a re-offending rate among released prisoners of around two thirds. By any measure this is failure on a grand scale. These are the facts Ramsay and every other tax payer and victim of crime should be focusing their anger on.

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Filed under About Food, Corruption, Justice, Poverty, Sustainable Politics

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