The Development of Working Prisons: Transforming Inmates from the Lumpenproletariat to the Contingent Workforce?

Article excerpt


The 2010 Green Paper 'Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders' seeks to transform prison regimes so that they prepare prisoners for the labour market. This is a key part of a package of sentencing and rehabilitation measures which promise a 'rehabilitation revolution'. 'Prison should be a place where work itself is central to the regime, where offenders learn vocational skills in environments organised to replicate as far as practical and appropriate, real working conditions' (Ministry of Justice, 2010: 15). The development of a new type of prison--the 'working prison'--is signalled to achieve this transformation. The defining features of which will include:

* the regime and core day will be focused around enabling work;

* prisoners will work a full working week of up to 40 hours;

* education will be geared primarily to providing skills to perform work effectively and will increase the ability to get a job on release.

However, the present article shows that the alleged poor work ethic of prisoners has traditionally been viewed as a key element in their classification as the 'undeserving poor'. It then draws upon a series of in-depth interviews undertaken by the author with male prisoners at HMP Lindholme and HMP & YOI Doncaster to discuss the impact of economic transformation on their employment prospects and financial behaviour. The findings do not relate to women prisoners, whose work is often predominantly in the home in a variety of caring roles. The author argues that many male ex-prisoners have been relegated to the margins of the labour force where they spend much of their working lives in the underground economy undertaking both illegal (criminal) and otherwise legal (but undeclared) activity. The remoteness of many from the formal labour market is mirrored by their alienation from mainstream financial services. It is salient to note that most interviewees were white and that those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds may be further disadvantaged in the labour market.

This raises important questions about the role of prison in the post-industrial labour market and how the renewed efforts of policy-makers to develop working prisons should be conceptualised. The author argues that the development of working prisons allows policy-makers to simultaneously demonstrate that they are serious about both rehabilitating and punishing offenders. Moreover, the prison performs two key roles in the post-industrial labour market. First, it houses the growing surplus population resulting from capital's unceasing drive for profit and the ascendancy of neoliberalism. Second, prison has become a lucrative new market which has transformed some prisoners into an economic resource.

Prisoners and the work ethic

The perceived poor work ethic of prisoners and their potential to contaminate the 'respectable working class' has meant that they have been classified as the 'undeserving' poor. Marx & Engels (1970) regarded unemployable workers, paupers and criminals as constituting the lumpenproletariat or 'rabble proletariat'. Members lacked class identity and could act as 'bribed tools of reactionary intrigue'. Mayhew (1861; cited in Dean & Taylor-Gooby, 1992) defined the 'non-working class' as comprising individuals with physical defects, mental/intellectual defects, and moral defects. The 'dishonest poor' included criminals whose behaviour, values and rejection of work were distinguishing features. Similarly, Booth (1887; cited in Dean & Taylor-Gooby, 1992) divided the residuum into 'loafers' or the 'vicious and semi-criminal' and the 'feckless' and improvident.

The rediscovery of poverty as a social problem in the 1960s led to the resurrection of notions such as the 'residuum' or 'underclass', which were again negatively defined according to the criteria of productive work. …