Captive labour

In its efforts to build a prison-industrial complex based on the US model, partly in response to prison rebellions and riots in the 1970s and 80s, British governments have endeavoured over the past three decades to restructure the prison control and discipline system in a way that both subdues prisoners into a compliant state and exploits this captive workforce to generate profits. There are no exact figures for the number of prisoners earning money for such mind-numbing activities as sorting and packaging for up to 10 hours a day, but the prison workforce is estimated at 10,000 people in 370 workshops across England and Wales.

Part of this effort was introducing the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme in 1995, which encouraged “hard work and other constructive activity” by introducing a system of privileges that are “earned by prisoners through good behaviour and performance” and are “removed if they fail to maintain acceptable standards.” Under Rule 8, even the right to possess tobacco and to smoke is an ‘earned privilege’, which can be taken away for breaking any of the myriad prison rules listed in the Prison Discipline Manual. Most of the work available, by the authorities’ own admission, “provides little training, qualifications or resettlement activities for prisoners.”

According to the Prison Service Order 4460, all prisoners who participate in “purposeful activity” must be paid. Their rate, however, is not subject to the national minimum wage (£5.80 per hour). The minimum wage in UK prisons is £4 per week, as it has been for the past 20 years, with the average pay estimated to be £9.60 per 32-hour week, or 30p an hour. Prisoners are not paid in cash but, instead, receive credits that can be used to buy items such as tobacco, stamps and phone cards. In 2008, Gordon Brown vetoed plans for a modest increase in inmates’ pay to £5.50.

Many big companies are known to have exploited prisoners’ cheap labour to produce their products, including Sainbury’s for packing their plastic spoons and Virgin Airways for packing their entertainment headphones. Monarch Airlines, Speedy Hire, Travis Perkins and book publisher Macmillan are also known to have used prison workshops.

For over two years, freelance journalists Phil Chamberlain and Richard Cookson have investigated the contracts private companies hold with prisons (see According to them, more than 100 smaller companies are using prison labour in England and Wales to produce a wide range of products, from holiday brochures, novelty name tags and balloons, to industrial mouldings and security chains. Even the NHS and the Ministry of Defence are said to have used goods produced by prisoners.

With a total estimated value of £30m a year, these contracts are arranged by a Ministry of Justice department known as Prison Industries. The details are often subject to intense secrecy, with HM Prison Service doing its best to refuse Freedom of Information requests for the names of companies involved. The justification (‘commercial confidentiality’) is that public identification of these companies may harm their business and lay off workers.

Under a contract with DHL and Booker that started in October 2008, 500 low-risk prisoners selected by the Prison Service on the basis of ‘good behaviour record’ began working in 17 workshops to supply prison canteens across the country. The service was designed on a hub-and-spoke model, a distribution system arranged like a chariot wheel, similar to the way parcel courier services work. The previous prison canteen supplier, Aramark, had reportedly used Category D prisoners at HMP Blantyre House in Kent to pack canteen supplies for all Kent prisons. For more details, see this 2008 Corporate Watch article