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Insiders: ‘Prison exploits and mistreats us, but it cannot defeat us’

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Former prison inmates talk to Annette Mackin about the brutality of life in prison and how, despite tremendous odds, people fight back
Issue 2405
Life in prison is desperate and brutal
Life in prison is desperate and brutal (Pic: Henry Hagnas on Flickr)

The myth of prisoners enjoying a cushy life on the inside is regularly pushed by the right wing media and the Tories. We are told that prisoners lead a laid back lifestyle watching TV in their cells all day.

“It’s all part of an agenda,” Noel “Razor” Smith, a former prisoner who spent over 30 years in different jails, told Socialist Worker.

In recent weeks stories have hit the press about prisoners walking out of open jails. This has enabled the prison system to crack down on inmates. Noel said, “I’ve got a mate who is a lifer. He waited 18 years to get town visits and home leave, and last week he was told that they all have been cancelled.

“He was gutted. But the prison system can get away with this because of the false image that has been created of prisoners.”

The reality is that life inside is brutal and conditions are desperate. Last year saw the highest rates of death and violence in prison for 15 years with four alleged murders. 

Suicide and self harm are at their highest for six years, with 70 deaths in prison. These statistics expose the lie that prisons rehabilitate people.

Prisons are filled with people with backgrounds in extreme poverty and often abuse. Locking them up institutionalises violence and takes away any control people have over their own lives.

Because of all of this, prisons are a powder keg waiting to explode. 

On top of the hike in violence, inmates are crammed into crowded cells, starved and made to work long shifts for just pennies an hour for private companies.

The Tories have spearheaded changes to the prison regime which means prisoners now have to work longer hours for no better pay to be considered for release. The new changes have also banned inmates from receiving pens and paper and even additional warm clothes and underwear in the winter. They now have to pay for these out of their own meagre pay packet.


Sam Corlett at Oakwood prison outlined inmates’ conditions in a letter to Inside Time, the newspaper for prisoners and detainees, this month. He wrote, “Here the wages are terrible, the highest wage being £8.50 a week for cleaners.

“If you smoke then you can’t afford phone units or toiletries, and if you buy toiletries you cannot buy phone units to keep in touch with your family. It is a struggle to get the basics no matter how hard you work.”

He is not alone. The paper’s letters pages are full anger at the exploitation of prisoners by private businesses. 

Jon Waldron, an inmate at HMP Stoke Heath wrote, “Chris Grayling lets private companies use prisoners as slaves to do their work at a fraction of the price, saving big business money, undercutting their rivals and boosting their profits. He is no more than a slave master.

“Serious action needs to be taken to stop the exploitation of British prisoners and to pay them a proper wage for the work they do for private companies who are profiteering from our misery.”

On top of this the National Offender Management Service has ordered governors to cut budgets by £149 million a year—£2,200 per prison place. Budgets have already been slashed so much that prisons fail to provide the basics, such as toilet rolls, soap, clean bedding, towels and clothing. 

Tory changes to the “behaviour levels”—which offer incentives for “good” behaviour—have seen the introduction of a new, punitive stage. Previously there were three levels—Basic, Standard and Enhanced. A new level named Entry has been introduced for all prisoners in the first two weeks of their sentence where privileges will be restricted and uniforms will be compulsory.

Noel said, “They stopped making prisoners wear uniforms because it cost too much—so the changes aren’t about saving money. They are part of an ideological attack on prisoners.

“Prisoners are not a popular group. There’s a general election coming up. The Tories want to make themselves look tough on law and order.”

If prisoners refuse to work they are put on Basic level, a harsh measure where they are severely restricted on supplies to get by. It can take weeks to get back onto the Standard level. 

Noel said, “Prisoners have made gains over the years. The Tories want to wind that back. The wages in prisons these days average about £7.50 a week—that’s the same as when I was in jail in the 70s.”

Food budgets have been cut to the bone, leaving most jails with just over £1 per day, per prisoner, to provide three meals.  Some prisoners have put bird traps in the two inch gap of their cell window to catch pigeons to eat.

But there has been resistance against conditions. This year has seen at least three riots in prisons around the country. Last week inmates at 

HMP Grampian in Peterhead took part in a 14-hour riot. Reports say 41 prisoners joined a protest after refusing to return to their cells. The jail is the first to lock down men, women and young people in the same building. Grampian’s uprising follows that at HMP Northumberland in March, where inmates took over an entire wing after refusing to return to their cells.


In January prisoners at HMP Oakwood near Birmingham took part in their second protest in as many months. Noel said, “I know what it’s like in prison, I can see why they’re rioting.”

Poor quality of food and meagre portions were a key factor in why a riot broke out in Manchester’s Strangeways prison in 1990 with inmates protesting on the roof for 25 days. Noel was serving a jail sentence for armed robbery in Wandsworth prison in London at the time. He began a riot in solidarity with the inmates at Strangeways.

“In 1990 I began a sit down protest which ended up involving around 200 prisoners. Five prisoners tried to escape, they took on guards at every gate of the prison and each officer they met got a clump.”

Noel recalled the experience of taking control in his autobiography, A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun, “To see the arrogance slowly seeping from the officers’ faces when they realised they had almost 200 prisoners on a sit down is a sight that I’ll take to my grave.”

One former prisoner described his experience of being in a riot in Bristol in 1990. He told Socialist Worker, “Riots in prisons are a scary thing—they are violent and incoherent.

“If prisoners want to focus their protest they have to do targeted things like destroy plumbing in their cells, cut electric wires, make the wings unusable.”

On top of the cuts to prisons, the prison population has grown in the last 20 years. The Howard League for Penal Reform has found that 20,000 prisoners were kept in overcrowded cells on any given day last year. Cells built for one person are being occupied by three inmates in some cases. Noel believes this could lead to further riots later in the year.

“We’ve got lads crammed into tiny cells, if we get a hot summer this year—then that’s it,” he said.

Noel is on the editorial board of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees Socialist Worker is free to be sent to prisoners. For more information please contact [email protected] or phone 020 7819 1171

Fighting back in prison: ‘Jail is designed to make you feel alone and powerless, but I never believed that I didn’t have any power’

Ben Gunn was the general secretary of the prisoners’ union, the Association of Prisoners, until 2012. That year he was released on licence after having spent 32 years in prison since he was 14. Ben spoke to Socialist Worker about the difficulty of unionising in prison—but said prisoners can realise and use their power.

Prisoners have huge, latent power. And a union is the future to empower them.

Prisoners can be scared witless about taking on this huge machine. And the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme is designed to fragment prisoners’ interests and put individual concerns ahead of the collective.

Jail is designed to make you feel alone and powerless. Prisoners have to overcome that fear. You do not need to go toe to toe with the whole prison system at once, it is the small things. A key issue that is ripe for a union to challenge is wage slavery in prison, or forced labour. 

The law states that prisoners can work ‘in the ordinary course of detention’. But outside companies are coming in with private contracts that make a profit out of prisoners by sheer exploitation.

That is not ‘in the ordinary course of detention’. These contracts can make prison governors £60,000 a year. Prisoners refusing to work would mean these contracts would be lost.

Communicating across the prison estate is extremely difficult. In the US state of Georgia in 2010 prisoners took to their cells and refused to work. They organised and communicated through mobile phones.

There are plenty of mobiles knocking around in prisons. And prisoners need to use new media. I sent out letters that kept a blog going when I was in prison—and the governors hated it. They want to control communication. 

Prisoners organising scares the life out of the prison system. A union is a legal body the system can’t do a damn thing about. 

They have said that prisoners aren’t allowed a national union because prisoners don’t have shared interests, they can have a union on a prison by prison basis.

But prison officers have their national associations as do governors. When Grayling picks on prisons he doesn’t go for them one at a time, he goes for them as a whole.

Prisoners should take them at their word and set up a union in their prison. Go to the governor and ask how you are going to talk to your union members, how can you get out on the wing and knock on cell doors, that sort of thing.

One way to sort out grievances is to get together with everyone on your wing and talk it over. A tactic could be something simple as when the screws are taking you all back to your cells each say something like, ‘A prison is only run with the co-operation of the prisoners’.

I guarantee you before the screws are halfway down the landing, they’ll be on the phone to the governor. 

Something as simple as prisoners organising to say the same thing can really rattle the system—and empower prisoners. And it’s perfectly legal too, they can’t complain.


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