Interview with the Campaign Against Prison Slavery

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Recently Joe Black of CAPS, one of the most knowledgeable anarchists involved in prisoner solidarity work, was interviewed for the lefty rag Solidarity (organ of trot group Workers Liberty). Its a wide ranging interview covering diverse prison and prisoner-resistance related topics, and well worth a read, so we’ve cut and pasted into our blog below. You can read the original online version here if you think you can handle exposure to WL! We also recommend a visit to the CAPS website where there is plenty of info, facts and politics.

Interview intro:

With proposed government reforms set to increase privatisation within the British prison service, and with prison officers taking illegal strike action in recent years, the issue of what attitude socialists should take to prisons, incarceration and capitalist “justice” more widely has come to the fore. Solidarity’s Daniel Randall discussed some of the issues with Joe Black of the Campaign Against Prison Slavery, an activist group fighting for prisoners’ rights from an abolitionist perspective.


Interviewer Dave Randall (DR): Tell us something about your campaign; what are your aims? How do you organise?

CAPS was formed in 2002 by ex-prisoners, prisoners families and a number of groups involved in prisoner support and solidarity to campaign against forced labour in prisons generally and the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS) in particular, the system of rewards and punishments, brought in in the aftermath of the Strangeways prisoner rebellion and the Woolf Report inquiry into it, a system designed to ensure control over and the compliance of the prison population.

The campaign was initially based on an affiliations and subscriptions model to try and encourage trade union participation in the campaign. However, apart from a handful of union branches and the odd trades council, there was little interest and the TUC itself was “continuing to develop its policy on prison labour” and proved a dead end. This was of no surprise as trade union leaders like Derek Simpson (Amicus) was calling prisoners “the scum of the earth” at the time (in reference to Aramark moving its prison canteen warehouse and packing work into prisons, resulting in his members losing their jobs).

Our focus then changed to challenging the firms like Aramark that were directly involved in the exploitation of prisoner labour. The high street hardware shop chain Wilkinsons was chosen as a high profile target, with regular pickets and leafleting outside stores. Parallel to this was the building of our online database of firms who use Contract Services, the prisons industries arm that deals with workshops production and activities for private companies. This relied initially on prisoners and ex-prisoners coming forward with this information which necessitated getting news of the campaign directly to prisoners, which was difficult in the early days.

This proved easier in Scotland, partly from the smaller centralised nature of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) but also because we had SPS employees providing us with information on the firms using workshops in the 11 Scottish prisons. The Prison Service in England and Wales (HMPS) proved a much harder nut to crack because labour contracting is decentralised, with individual governors in the 133 public and 11 private prisons having a great deal of autonomy on say wages paid within the overall IEPS structure (they are called directors in private nicks and are even more of a law unto themselves). This has made the system much more difficult to crack, especially with the use of Freedom of Information request until very recently, but that’s a story for some other time.

DR: How much of an issue is slave-labour (or near-slave-labour) in British prisons? Are you confronted with a preconception that it’s a “foreign” problem, confined to third-world prisons?

How much of a issue slave labour in UK prisons is is a bit of a moot point; everyone is affected by it but, because of the widespread lack of solidarity amongst prisoners, which is in large part due to the effects IEPS has had on prisoners, – something I’ll return to later – there is little concerted opposition to it. Prisoners complain and often rebel on an individual level but that’s about it.

Maybe I should explain how the system works and why it is akin to slavery. There are only a limited number of jobs available for prisoners – cleaning, kitchens, laundry and the various prison workshops, which make everything from prisoners’ socks and y-fronts to their cell furniture and doors and bars – enough for only a third of all prisoners and these tend to be concentrated in the training prisons. Therefore the possession of, and hard work in, a job can be used as a reward for good behaviour and compliance with the prison regime. This is the essence of the IEPS. Almost everything from the right to smoke, extra visits, phone calls and letters, to wearing ones own clothes or the right to hire an in-cell T.V. All are earned privileges, as are the different wage levels for any job given. All these can be taken away for non-compliance, such as refusing to work.

Then there are the additional punishments available under Prison Rules, which are invoked for things such as refusal to work. Prisoners have no choice of job or even attendance of education classes; of whether they work or not. Hence the slavery element and wages can range from a basic £4 for a 32-hour week up to a small number of jobs in private prisons that can earn £20 plus, only for the select well-behaved few. The average wage is around £8-9, depending on how one works it out. Some jobs are in Contract Service workshops doing mostly low skill assembly and packaging work for private companies.

And if consciousness of the issue of the compulsion element in prison labour is low inside prison, it is even worse outside where the ‘all prisoners are scum’ attitude is even more prevalent than it is amongst prisoners themselves. So I would say that no one cares whether it is a UK or foreign problem. Nobody worries about their cheap tools that finds their way into High Street poundshops are made by a Chinese prison labourer or that that pack of cheap screws that they’ve just bought in a DIY store was packaged by a British prisoner earning 40p an hour.

Unfortunately, the tabloids’ attitude to prisoners is almost universal, even amongst so-called radical groups and those ostensibly dedicated to promoting working class solidarity and struggle.

DR: Are conventional worker-organising responses possible in the context of prison labour? How can prisoners forced to work for little or no pay organise?

I’ve already mentioned the general lack of prisoner solidarity, both inside and outside prisons. The lack of solidarity between prisoners can firmly be put down to the change in prison culture post-Strangeways. To that end, the government’s twisting of Woolf’s proposal of a compact between prison and prisoner into IEPS has been successful in putting down resistance in UK prisons, that and the inevitable effects of the Thatcherite attack on idea of society in general.

In the past organisations like PROP (Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) and, to a lesser extent, RAP (Radical Alternatives to Prison) have helped prisoners organise and resist the imposition of repressive prison regimes but this sort of organisation is much more difficult nowadays. For a start, the prison system is so much bigger; prisoners in different prisons are prevented from communicating with each other, let alone organise. The latest attempt to do so is the Association of Prisoners (AoP), which CAPS has been working with on a number of issues. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been things like organised work strikes but they have been few and far between and prisoners are usually forced into individual protests.

Up until recently there has been a de facto ban on prisoners organising. The passing of the Human Rights Act 1998 put paid to that, protecting as it does the right to freedom of assembly and association. The AoP have sought to take advantage of that but the Prison Service’s response has been to try and limit that association to individual prisons and then only with a keyholder (governor or screw) in charge, rendering it largely meaningless. The AoP have just sought to challenge that restriction with a letter to the Director General of the Prison Service. What effect the outcome to this will have on the ability of prisoners to organise is difficult to say, but it will no doubt be a long drawn-out struggle as the Prison Service will seek to maintain “good order or discipline” i.e. control, at all costs.

DR: Do you see yourself as part of the “abolitionist” movement? Presumably some people would argue that fighting for reforms around the specific issue of prison slavery cedes ground to the idea that prisons should exist, just operate more humanely/”fairly”. (I don’t agree with this argument myself or think it’s implied by your campaign; I’m just playing devil’s advocate.) What are your thoughts?

CAPS has always argued it case from an explicitly abolitionist standpoint, its supporters have been largely drawn from anti-prison groups and it has mainly worked with abolitionist organisations like No More Prison and CoRe (Communities of Resistance). We of course have had links with prison reform organisation such as the Prison Reform Trust and the Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards, some no doubt because we challenge their positions and reformist organisations always seek to co-opt that which they find challenging.

There has always been an argument used against single issue campaigns that they detract from the wider struggle but, like many such campaigns, the aim of CAPS is to focus on one area of capitalist society in order to show up the inherent contradictions in the system. And arguing for an end to compulsion in prison work and education, for proper training and skills learning rather than, as you put it, near-slave-labour, is in no way buying into the ‘Prison Works’ ideology.

For example, our efforts to highlight the situation in Scottish prisons, naming-and-shaming the companies involved and forcing them to cancel contracts in large number because the feared ‘bad publicity’, thereby showing how little pride they really had in working with prisoners. This has had a direct financial effect on the SPS, forcing them to change tack and initiate a proper skills-based Contract Services set-up. Now, this may not have had a dramatic effect on wider prison conditions but it has focus Service minds on how they train and educate prisoners. Unfortunately, the problems of the prison system are so monumental that it is merely scratching the surface but we never set out to solve their problems, merely cause them more.

DR: From your website it’s clear that there are some anti-capitalist implications to a lot of your arguments; do you think prison abolition is something achievable under capitalism or will it only be possible to eradicate prisons in a post-capitalist society? If the former, what immediate alternative to prisons do you advocate?

Crime is essentially a product of capital and the majority of laws ultimately seek to maintain social inequalities, protecting the wealthy and privileged from those who might try to take away their ill-gotten gains. The vast majority of people in prison have always been from the working class and the rich and powerful rarely enter its gates. Even when they do it is normally after being caught stealing from someone richer and more powerful – one only has to look at the term ‘white collar crime’ to see the truth of this. Therefore it is logical to assume that the abolition of prison is only possible in a post-capitalist society.

A huge amount of crime is drug related. Most ‘acquisitive’ crime, burglaries and shoplifting, in this society are carried out to feed drug habits, not empty stomachs. Add that to the fact that the drugs trade operates in the classic capitalist mode, creating the necessary supply and demand, exploiting a market largely created in response to social breakdown and the failures of capitalism to make everybody a millionaire or a celebrity or whatever other aspirational folly is being pedalled. The same is largely true of violence: of assault, rape and even murder.

Which brings us to the classic question, “What about murder in a post-capitalist society?” There will always be accidental injuries and deaths caused by individuals, just as there will always be conflicts between individuals and, to a lesser extent, groups but surely in a truly healthy post-capitalist society there will be ways to de-escalate such conflicts and prevent potential unwanted outcomes. And in a world without societal inequalities, a world without need, there will be no need to find illicit ways to acquire capital.

Inevitably there will be homicides but they will not be endemic and can be ‘punished’ by expulsion, for example, as there will be no need to ‘make an example of someone’ in the same way that if there is no crime there is no need for the so-called ‘deterrent effect’ of prison (surely one of the most inane concepts ever invented).

DR: There’s some debate on the radical left and within the workers’ movement about whether prison officers – whose union has been relatively militant recently and has been led by people who identify very explicitly as socialists (its previous general secretary was a member of a revolutionary group!) – are workers or part of the armed machinery of the state in the same way that police and soldiers are. What’s your view on this?

Prisons, as I’ve already stated, are by and large used as a weapon to keep the working class compliant, to protect the rich and help maintain the structural inequalities in our society; to keep a lid on the fermenting unrest within it. And prison officers are an essential part of the machinery that keeps prisons functioning. That they and most of the rest of the workers movement look upon them as being ‘workers in uniform’ is delusional to say the least. They are obviously a “part of the armed machinery of the state”, and in that, effectively an enemy of the working class. The POA certainly want to lock as many of them up as possible to maintain and extend their membership.

That is not to say that all screws ate ex-coppers and soldiers who go into the ‘profession’ to brutalise and abuse prisoners, there are many that genuinely think that they are helping people get back on the ‘straight and narrow, to be better more productive members of society. Just as there are any who do it to try and save the sinners and their mortal souls.

It is a really sad indictment of the state of the trade union movement that they should try and put the POA forward as their saviours, exactly the sort of people that would have been recruited as strike breakers in days gone by. I’m with Ricky Tomlinson on this one.

DR: What do you think are the implications of the government’s current policy on prisons and imprisonment? What demands should activists be fighting for in response?

The prison system is in crisis and has been for decades. All sorts of sticking plasters have been applied, including IEPS, to try and keep it limping along, as it has gotten ever more bloated under successive ‘bang even more of ‘em up’ style governments. The Prison Service in England & Wales has already had to put up with 3 successive year on year cuts in their budget – one of the consequence of which has been the ending of Friday afternoon education, training and association. Instead, prisoners are locked in their cells and many remain banged up from Friday lunchtime to Monday breakfast apart from meals, the odd shower or bit of exercise. All to save £6.4m from the budget!

Another attempt at cost cutting was the so-called Workforce Modernisation programme, creating a 2-tier prison officer pay structure by reducing the training and pay that new screws get. The POA, the alleged saviours of working class militant trade unionism fought this and lost.

Add to all that the overcrowding crisis which has been exacerbated by the ever increasing number s of indeterminate sentence prisoners who are unable to take the behaviour modification courses they need to attend before being considered for release but can’t take because the Prison Service can’t afford to provide them. Not to mention the fact that prison sentences have been getting longer – the number of people sent to prison for 6 months or more has doubled in the last year.

Now, top it all off with a need to find 25% ‘savings’ in the £2.2bn HMPS budget… And what have you got? Chaos. How they are going to find the savings is anyone’s guess. One thing that is sure, with staff costs amounting to 80% of the whole budget, POA members are going to be directly in the firing line.

Obviously, the idea of not jailing people on shorter sentences could save some money. Napo, the National Association of Probation Officers, have claimed that the government could save £350m if they were to end sentences of 6 months or less but would then need £50-60m to recruit the necessary probation officers to supervise the replacement community sentences. Yet the ending of sentences of less than 12 months would also be likely to result in a shift towards longer sentences and a negation of the hoped cut in the prison population.

Clearly the big winners in all this will be the outsourcing firms who stand to profit from what is effectively a massive plan to further privatise the criminal justice industry. The already run a number of prisons, prisoner escorting and contracts within the courts system. They also are poised to takeover any ‘failing’ probation service franchises following Labour reforms. All these moves have been driven by the desire to cut costs, not to mention pave the way to a seat on the board when they lose the next election or retire. One such move, the re-tendering of the prison education contract has resulted in a strike this week by UCU [University and College Union] members against the imposition of contract changes and job losses as their employers, The Manchester College, try to find savings as they discovered they over bid for the contract.

This I think is the big threat; the slippery slope towards an ever more American-style Prison Industrial Complex and that people should definitely be campaigning against. Not because I think the state should be the body providing these ‘services’ but because private industry should not be profiting from the misery of prisoners in any form.