Article published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 199 October/November 2007
Some commentators on the left were quick to pronounce prison officers the new vanguard of the working class. The Respect Party’s George Galloway’s praise was fulsome: ‘Everyone should support the POA in this battle…In taking action despite the unjust anti-union laws and in refusing to cave in, the prison officers union has set an example for the entire labour movement. Everyone must rally to their side.’
There is no doubt that the POA is under attack; with an ever-increasing prison population, the government wants a cheap, compliant workforce to run the machinery of imprisonment. In the light of privatisation in other sectors and the continuing attack on public sector workers, whenever the POA is attacked or takes action, part of the left proclaims the union’s progressive credentials and demands that all socialists side with it against the government.
So should socialists ‘rally to the side’ of the striking screws? Or should we pause for a minute and consider what the POA really is, what kind of ‘union’ it is, what class forces it actually represents. Can the demands of prison officers for better pay and conditions really be equated with those of teachers, nurses and other public sector workers? And can there ever be common cause between the gaolers and the gaoled?
While both the government/Prison Service and the POA are in the business of locking up prisoners, they do not have the same priorities. However, neither side is progressive and, in defending the interests of its members, the POA has frequently taken up positions that are more reactionary than those of the state. It has an uncompromising, militaristic tradition and has repeatedly eschewed liberal, rehabilitative approaches to imprisonment in favour of open aggression towards prisoners.
Up until the 1980s, whoever was nominally in charge, all British gaols were in effect ruled by the iron fist of the POA. Since then, the union’s power has been eroded: the 1987 Fresh Start agreement ended lucrative overtime arrangements and enforced a 39-hour working week; escort and court duties were taken over by private contractors and private prisons are staffed by members of other unions or no union at all. The Tories removed prison officers’ right to strike in 1993, formalising this in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. When Labour came to power in 1997, it promised to repeal the relevant clause; however it then made a voluntary no-strike agreement with the POA on the basis that pay would be decided by an independent review board.
The POA is no ordinary union: it is a vicious, racist, anti-working class organisation, notorious for the brutality of its members against prisoners. Its current claims that its members are overworked and prisons understaffed may appear to have some resonance as the British prison population climbs towards 100,000 but there has never been a time when the POA did not call for more prison officers and proclaim its members were in terrible danger from crazed violent prisoners. In 1983 when 38 Republican prisoners made a spectacular escape from The Maze prison in the north of Ireland, the POA blamed lack of resources even though the prison had 1,000 prison officers for 600 prisoners.
In July 2007 the government gave a detailed reply to a parliamentary question regarding staff to prisoner ratios over the past ten years. This revealed that the ratio of staff to prisoners had fallen slightly in nearly all male prisons, risen slightly in all female ones and that in the three highest security prisons (Full Sutton, Long Lartin and Frankland), although it had fallen very slightly, It remained in the region of one member of staff per prisoner.
As for the dangers faced, former Home Secretary David Blunkett was applauded at the 2003 POA conference when he announced that the minimum life sentence tariff for the murder of a prison officer would be increased from 20 to 30 years. In fact, despite the violent deaths of many prisoners at the hands of prison staff, no prison officer has been killed in an adult prison in Britain since the 19th century.
There have been some superficial changes to the character and role of prison officers over the last 20 years. Although the 1991 Woolf Inquiry into the Strangeways prison uprising refused to investigate allegations of staff brutality, Woolf made it clear he wanted to ‘modernise’, ‘develop’ and ‘enhance’ prison officers’ role. This led to the banning of officers’ militaristic peaked caps, an expansion of ‘personal officer’ schemes and more involvement of prison officers in report-writing and paperwork.
This ‘modernisation’ has been reflected in the union. While in the 1970s open National Front membership was rife among POA members, the union today has a black Chairman, Colin Moses.
But underneath it is pretty much business as usual. Indeed report-writing has become a supplementary and cleverer method of oppression than the old fashioned brutality of earlier years. Although prisoners are still beaten in segregation units, with longer sentences and more parole and other reviews, any prison officer who wants to can destroy a prisoner’s chances of early release with a few well-chosen comments on a form.
The union shamelessly covers up for the brutality of its membership against prisoners. In 2003, when the Prison Service settled civil cases taken by 14 prisoners, who at Wormwood Scrubs in 1995-9 were subjected to sustained beatings, mock executions, choking and torrents of racist abuse by prison officers, the POA complained that its members were being ‘scapegoated’ and called for a public inquiry to ‘clear their names once and for all’.
The POA also continues to campaign for increased weaponry with which to inflict physical pain. In particular POA members in prisons holding children are agitating to be issued with extendable batons.
And it does not protect the weak, even among its own ranks. In 2005 former POA member Carol Lingard won a record £477,000 payout at an industrial tribunal. She had reported another prison officer for planting material in a prisoner’s cell which could lead to him being attacked, and forging another prisoner’s records. Management dismissed her complaints and her colleagues bullied her until she resigned.
So, when POA general secretary Brian Caton states that ‘every officer has human rights and they include the right to withdraw their labour’ and sections of the left rush to voice their support and solidarity, we should remember that prison officers never stand in solidarity with prisoners who take protest action in support of their human rights. In 1990 when prisoners at Strangeways rose up in protest against years of oppression, brutality and degradation, the POA was first in the queue to denounce them, call them animals and tell barefaced lies about their actions, claiming protesting prisoners had committed murder and torture, in order to prevent public sympathy and destroy solidarity.
Most prison officers are from the working class but, like the police, they are hired to protect the ruling class by enforcing its laws and punishing those who do not obey them. They are the defenders of inequality and privilege. They are therefore quite different from state employees who teach, nurse or provide services that benefit the working class. Whilst it is clearly the case that the POA’s members wages and privileges are currently being squeezed because of the contradictions that the state has to deal with when needing to run a massive repressive apparatus and trying to do so at minimum cost, this does not make their struggle a progressive one, and it should not be supported by socialists.