On 5th October 2010 Ken Clarke, the British ‘Justice’ Secretary, announced that prisoners are to be made to work a forty hour week. (British prisoners are not currently forced to work.) They may be paid a minimum wage for the work they do, but must give up some (unspecified) portion of it to victims of crime and/or charities.
So far, I haven’t heard a single dissenting voice from the nation’s media, nor the trade union movement – which does not surprise me.
Clarke’s new policy is of course being dressed up as being in the best interests of prisoners and society. It is supposed to alleviate boredom, encourage prisoners to get used to hard work, teach transferable job skills, blah, blah, blah…. But just like everything government does, the initiative relies upon an ancient and very successful controlling illusion: that government always acts in our best interests. It doesn’t of course, and never has. It acts in the interests of the tiny handful of plutocrats who truly pull the strings.
As is normally the case with politicians’ speeches, it seems that Clarke’s performance was rich in oratory and poor in detail. But let’s take a little look at Clarke’s proposal in as dispassionate a way as I can muster.
1. The Practical Argument
British prisons are notoriously overcrowded places with very little spare space in or around them. Where exactly is all this work going to be carried out? Are the scarce recreational and educational facilities that currently exist in prisons, such as exercise areas and classrooms, to be transformed into places where people are to be forced to do something they might not want to do? And what provision will be made for the subsequent loss of those facilities i.e. how would prisoners get any exercise at all, or learn the few useful skills they can currently acquire, once those meagre facilities are converted into sweatshops?
How exactly is this new regime to be administered? Many prisons currently require prisoners to be locked up in their cells for nearly all of the day – no doubt as the most cost-effective means of administering the system. How exactly is that regime to be changed so that people no longer need to be so confined?
2. The Ethical Argument
Ethics is of course largely irrelevant to our government (the one and only morality it acknowledges is subservience to the plutocrats who rule us); but that doesn’t mean the morality of forcing people to work should not be examined – quite the contrary: if our trusted leaders ignore it, along with the nation’s media and supposed champions of the worker – the trade union movement – then obviously someone else must do the job.
Our labour is intimately connected to our freedom, and it is one of the very few things we can significantly control – albeit not easily, for most of us. Many people spend most of their waking hours working, so it stands to reason that the more control we have over the conditions under which we work the more freedom we are able to exercise. Prisoners obviously have no freedom. If Mr Clarke was suggesting that prisoners should be free to choose whether to work or not – i.e. they would not be discriminated against in any sense if they didn’t so choose – I wouldn’t be writing this article: I wouldn’t need to. But that is not what he is saying. He said prisoners will be made to work.
There’s a perfectly good word for prisoners who are made to work: slaves. For most people, the ethical argument begins and ends in that simple fact.
c. The Economic Argument
Since it became an unofficial American state, our government does very little unless it produces a profit somewhere along the line for the plutocrats. On the face of it, converting prisoners into slaves makes no economic sense. We might think the fundamental premise behind ‘making prisoners work’, is that there is work for them to do – otherwise work is obviously being created just for the sake of creating jobs, something which is supposedly anathema to the New Capitalists who rule the planet. The fact is, however, that there’s little enough work available for non-prisoners, let alone those who must be made to do it. So one might reasonably wonder where all these jobs are that must be so plentiful they can fully occupy the nation’s sizeable prison population.
The one clue given appeared in a BBC report which suggests Clarke intends somehow to convert factories into prisons – as happens in some other great democracies such as Brazil for example, or China. That might explain how the work will be produced, but does it produce a sound economic argument?
As I said Clarke’s speech was typically light in detail, so we’re left on our own to try to join the dots.
If existing factories (which are presumably in already in working order) are to be converted into secure prisons, existing prisons will… do what? Perhaps they’re to be used just to provide sleeping accommodation for the slaves, who are to be transported each day between prison and factory? And this is in the nation’s and the factories’ economic interests?
I am of course being slightly ironic. England has a great history of exploiting slave labour. It became a wealthy country by using two different but related tactics. Firstly it made things in factories (at home as well as abroad) where the conditions for workers were arguably the worst in recorded history. Secondly it used its laws, reinforced by its naval and military might, to ensure the products of those factories dominated the domestic market, and had free access to foreign markets – usually to the total exclusion of anyone else.
After the Second World War, English imperial control took a nosedive, which meant that markets for its products (foreign and domestic) collapsed. The government could have resisted much of the subsequent demise of manufacturing by taking a more aggressive stance on imports; but no, not while huge profits could be made by exploiting virtually free (and union-light) Asian labour. Directors of factories made huge fortunes for themselves by killing off British industry and switching operations to Central and Eastern Asia. It was of course short-sighted, but who cares? It’s all about filling your boots today – fuck the future.
So today England now finds itself in a position where it simply cannot compete with India and the Far East – unless it can somehow re-create a slave labour force which is even cheaper to run than Asian sweatshops are. It has no chance, of course – even under prison conditions. It will inevitably cost more to produce something in a British prison than it does to produce it in Asia. It will also cost the government far more to administer a slave labour prison factory in anything vaguely like a humane manner than it would cost it simply to run a prison. So what on earth can be the economic sense behind such an idiotic proposal?
Catherine Austin Fitts, the one time director of a Wall St investment bank, and a Federal Housing Commissioner during the reign of George I, explains on her website exactly how American corporations profit from the prison business – it’s a truly obscene little story.1 Given that the British government is basically a department of the United States government, which is itself joined at the hip with Wall St., it comes as no surprise to learn that our so-called ‘Justice’ minister (who is no stranger to the inner workings of the British Treasury) intends to copy our American role model.
The economic argument turns out to be a very simple one. It basically boils down to the same old story: more taxpayer pounds diverted into the bottomless pockets of corporations. American prison corporations worship ‘growth’ just like any other corporation, and the way they grow is by increasing their volume of prisoners – with the willing assistance of the state. What these prison-factories actually produce is irrelevant. Clarke’s proposal means that British prisoners themselves are to be exploited, exactly as American prisoners are, just like any other commodity; but at public expense, for private profit. An obvious implication is that the numbers of prisoners must inevitably be made to increase, for maximum ‘growth’ – the raison d’etre of all corporations.
Clarke’s speech was all but ignored by the media through the use of one of their more common tactics: ‘distraction news’. If it weren’t for the fact that I just happened to hear the briefest of mentions about Clarke’s new policy whilst listening to a fringe rock music radio station I wouldn’t have known anything at all about it. Because on the very same day as the return of slavery was publicly announced the Tories also informed a largely indifferent nation that child benefit would no longer be payable to rich families, and this was the non-event that the nation’s media locked on instead, successfully diverting our attention away from Clarke telling us about a far more serious outrage.
There’s absolutely nothing to commend Clarke’s proposal. His existing American role model proves without doubt that forcing prisoners to work as slaves in no way improves their later employment prospects. Instead of our taxes being used to improve prison conditions, to rehabilitate and help provide meaningful work to people once they leave prison, they are used instead to enrich corporate directors.
All this from someone rejoicing in the title Minister for ‘Justice’?