I just saw a piece on Channel Four News about the rates of pay awarded to detainees in Immigration Removal Centres.
These are people who are being held either whilst their applications for leave to stay in Britain are considered or whilst they are awaiting deportation. They are not prisoners, but they are held in very similar conditions and circumstances and, whilst held, the only source of income available to them is to work for the establishments holding them for far below the minimum wage.
According to the news item, they are paid approximately £1 an hour to work in the kitchens, maintenance, or even cleaning toilets. In response the Home Office highlighted one significant point which differentiates Immigration Removal Centres from maintenance prisons; Immigration detainees cannot be required to work, they are merely given the opportunity to do so if they wish to. Prisoners on the other hand can be (and often are) required to work.
However, that raises two distinct issues. Firstly, everyone requires money simply in order to survive. When you restrict an individual’s opportunity to gain such money to just one single source, then their only choices are to accept that, or not to have any money and therefore to struggle to survive at all. The Home Office might see it as giving the detainees options, but the only real options are to suffer a little or suffer a lot.
The second issue it raises is that of the situation in mainstream prisons. Whilst Detainees earn around £1 an hour and cannot be required to work, prisoners can be so required and the minimum rate of pay for those prisoners is just £2.50 per week! Now, it is rare that the actual rate of pay given is actually that low, but it does happen. In my time inside most of the prisons I have been in pay somewhere in the region of £10 per week, which amounts to approximately 40p per hour. In high security prisons the rate tends to be slightly higher at between £15 and £20 per week, approximately 70p an hour. But either way, this is far below the minimum wage. Arguably, since prisoners have been found guilty of a crime, we shouldn’t expect anything else. You might even say that, since prisoners do not have to pay rent or general bills, they don’t need minimum wage at all. But this ignores one very important fact; prisoners are not allowed to have property sent in. We are required to order general products from a weekly canteen which is provided by a private company who holds the monopoly in that area. The prices available to prisoners are far from competitive and yet the wages are minuscule, to such an extent that a single bottle of shower gel can cost you as much as a whole day’s wages!
I have heard many prisoners describe this as slave labour. I’m not sure I buy into that. At least we are paid. But it isn’t far off slavery. Refusing to work is a disciplinary offence, and there is no choice of going to work somewhere else for a better wage, you are simply made to work where you are told for a pittance. But why does that matter when it is prisoners we are talking about? Well it matters because it is prisoners we are talking about. These are people who, everyone should hope, will be released and never commit another crime again. We would hope that rehabilitation would be successful. And how likely is it that that will be the case if you fill prisoners with such resentment of the system and then release them without any savings or means of support? No. The only logical answer can be to give prisoners employment rights, pay the minimum wage, teach them the worth of work, and enable them to build savings so that crime is no longer such a necessity when they are eventually released.