Breaking Rocks

For as long as I have been in prison, I have heard other prisoners describe work in jail as “slave labour”. I used to always disagree with this on the grounds that we are paid and, if we refuse, we are not thrown to the lions. However, it was pointed out to me that whilst we may not be thrown to the lions, we are frequently subjected to other, alternative punishments such as loss of privileges. In addition, we may be paid, but so were the slaves of ancient Greece and Rome, albeit a meagre sum – not too dissimilar from the amount we receive in prison. It strikes me that different prisons have varying attitudes towards work and I have experienced most of them. What I didn’t expect was the unique approach I experienced on arrival here at Grendon.

I started my sentence aged 16 in the juvenile estate and found that work was non-existent but both education and gym were compulsory.

This makes sense on the surface. Anyone under the age of 18 was required to attend education, and a good thing too since this will have aided many such juvenile prisoners to increase their employability prospects upon release, potentially helping them to build a crime free life. Similarly, it can only be good that using the gymnasium was made compulsory. I have long believed that a holistic approach to imprisonment (including a healthy diet and exercise program) will lead to better behaviour and more effective rehabilitative interventions. However, HMP Stoke Heath took this to a different level.

When I was there (in 2002) I found that their regime insisted that all prisoners must attend the gym every weekday morning as well as the education department every weekday afternoon. However, if you wanted to use the library (which you are legally entitled to do for at least half an hour per week) then you had to do so at 10am on a Thursday morning and, no, using the library was not accepted as a reasonable absence from the gym. In other words, if you exercised your entitlement to the library, you would receive a de-merit (landing you on the lowest privilege level of the prison regime) for not attending the gym. When I asked an officer why this was he told me that a prisoner reading books doesn’t help the officers to maintain control but at least if they tire a few out in the gym they are less likely to have the energy to fight each other later.

In the Young Offender (18 to 21 year old) estate, nothing was compulsory at all. If you wanted to attend education, put an application in. Otherwise, stay in your cell.

There were a few people who exercised their right to not work and simply slept all day or watched their in cell televisions and played on their computers. However, these people were by far in the minority. When we were given a choice over whether we wanted to work or not, most of us chose to do so. We wanted to engage, to spend our time in some purposeful activity. In fact, it was far more common to find someone who had been removed from work for some reason (such as unruly behaviour) who would be begging for the chance to get another job and get out of his cell to do something productive.

What made this possible was that although there were no industrial workshops such as those you see in adult jails, there were enough education classes and vocational courses that everyone in the jail could be in employment. This is far from the case in many adult prisons.

Most adult prisons I have been in have a minimal education provision, often comprised of functional literacy and numeracy, IT, and less than half a dozen other classes.

It would seem that the budget for adult education has been slashed so far that doing anything more than this is no longer an option. Even here at Grendon, a place I had expected to have offered a wide range of mind expanding courses, the list of what is on offer is beyond minimal. What is worse, in high security jails such as Wakefield and Frankland, the needs of the prison population are different to those found in most local prisons such as Pentonville, Leeds, and Liverpool. In local prisons it has been found that most prisoners are in desperate need of basic skills and that the average reading age is very low indeed. But in high security jails a large element of the population are in prisons for very serious one off offences, otherwise having led relatively law abiding lives, often with a reasonable level of education and fairly stable employment history. These people do not require basic skills courses, they would benefit more from personal development courses and qualifications geared more towards the therapeutic benefits of the arts. Yet due to Ministry of Justice policy, basic skills are nearly all that is on offer. They are only interested in being able to show that x amount of prisoners were enrolled onto courses aimed at helping them to read, write, and count.

Perhaps the worst part of this is that every few years the required qualification is changed and even if you have a degree in English, if you cannot now prove that you have a certificate in Literacy, Functional Literacy, Literacy for Everyday Life, or whatever qualification they are calling for this week, you are required to take the course again.

Unlike most Juvenile and Young Offender prisons, adult jails tend to employ more people in industrial workshops than anywhere else.

Often this is making items of prison issue clothing or furniture or cleaning the establishment. This is something high security jails do better than their education provision. They know that keeping high risk prisoners locked up all day is likely to lead to more disruptive behaviour, so they provide enough employment positions for most of the population to gain a job. However, what they also do is force you into work whether you want to or not. You do not have a choice. If you are unemployed for long and don’t apply for a position yourself, you are liable to find yourself allocated to a workshop you might not like. Refuse to attend and you’ll get an IEP Warning, landing yourself on the lowest privilege level of the prison regime once again. Keep refusing and you’ll face adjudication, resulting in further punishments.

I hear that this too is different to many local prisons. There you are unlikely to be allocated to work without applying for it, instead being left to fester in your cell. This is mainly due to the fact that there are far less employment positions there than there are prisoners. They simply don’t have the jobs to give out. Some prisons even operate a job share scheme whereby one person has the job in the mornings and another one holds the position in the afternoons. Again, where prisoners are not forced to work, they tend to want to. In the high security estate where you are made to work, many people object to it.

Prisoner pay rates are beyond a joke. The prison service is required to pay us just £2.50 per week if we are in work or prepared to work.

Most prisons do pay more than this, but not a lot more. The average wage of prisons I have been in is around £10 a week. When you deduct the money required for toiletries such as toothpaste and soap etc., and then take off a few pounds for telephone credit and stamps so that we can keep in touch with our families, there is often very little left to spend on anything else. Here at Grendon the wage is £8.11, £1 of which is then taken back each week to pay for the televisions we are provided. In my 17 years inside I have paid nearly £900 for a TV that would have cost me less than £50 if I had been allowed to buy it outright.

There are a few prisons (mostly those that are contracted out to private companies who then invite other companies to come in and set up a profitable business) where wages can be much higher. However, these are few and far between. High security jails also tend to pay more. At Wakefield the average employed wage was £14.47 and at Frankland it was nearly £20. But there are only half a dozen or so high security jails around the country.

What unites all jails is that you are either allocated to a job and then told afterwards, or you must put an application in for a certain job and will then be informed of the decision once it has been made.

Not here at Grendon though. Here it is different. Everyone here is expected to work cleaning the prison, unless they have one of a few select jobs. These include working as a laundry worker, a kitchen worker, or the storeman (ensuring that cleaning materials and prison issue clothing is kept in stock and distributed correctly). If you want one of these jobs then, when there is a vacancy, it is written up on the white board in the wing office and you may put your name next to it to apply. The staff then vote on who should get it and, if you are successful, you hold the job for a fixed period of time (four weeks on the assessment wing or six months on the therapy wings).

But the story doesn’t end there. On top of the paid roles, there are also a number of ‘rep roles’ to be taken care of and, although they are not paid, prisoners are expected to engage in at least one or two of them each. Some of these are relatively easy (such as Plants Rep — ensuring all of the plants on the wing are watered), whilst others involve a bit more responsibility (such as chairing the wing meetings), and some are a fair amount more work (such as Entertainment Rep — putting on a varied selection of events for the prisoners to attend and, hopefully, enjoy). The unusual thing is, it is the other prisoners who decide who gets these positions.

Once a week the wing will have a business meeting and any rep roles that are available are brought up one at a time. The last person in each job then details what the job entails and what they got from it, including any challenges. Anyone who wants to volunteer may put their hand up and three volunteers must be found. If there is less then someone else may nominate a person, and if there are more than a preliminary vote will take place to decide which three should be considered. Once the three are decided, each one must explain why they want the job and respond to questions from the other prisoners. Finally, a vote is carried out to decide who will be given the position.

In no other jail I have ever come across are you required to do a further rep job in addition to the paid work you carry out. Many make rep roles available, but they are always on a voluntary basis, not an expectation. What is more, I have certainly never experienced other prisoners having so much power over my employment. In 17 years such things have been the exclusive remit of a select board of prison staff, even the wing officers rarely have any input, let alone other prisoners. But it makes sense. Prisons that require you to work are disempowering since they take away your free choice to say no. Prisons that are happy to leave you in your cell due to a shortage of jobs are disempowering since they take away your free choice to say yes. Prisons that insist on your attendance at work, education, or the gym are disempowering since they take away your free choice to say “But what about the library?” Grendon expects you to work, but they leave it up to you what job you put yourself forward for, they allow you to present a case to the community for why you should get that job, and they keep the voting process entirely transparent. This is empowering. You have a say over the community you live in, as does everybody else. But I have to admit, it is going to take me some time to get used to it. Still, it beats breaking rocks.

One thought on “Breaking Rocks

  1. Excellent & balanced account of modern Prison work. Thanks for this Adam. Also, “..better than digging a ditch”.

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