"After resigning from my prison library job, a fiasco I'll tell you about in a future post, the prison tried to put me in a workshop." Danny Cash walks us through why he refused, and what he is doing now.

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Photo Credit: marissaorton/Flickr

Photo Credit: marissaorton/Flickr

The author of this article is a life-sentenced prisoner serving a minimum tariff of 13 years, who communicates with Urban Times via letters which are transcribed to be published online. He describes Notes From The Other Side of The Wall as a kind of ‘Blogumentary’, offering a unique and topical insight into prison as a microcosm of society. Danny Cash is a pseudonym.

It won’t come as a surprise to my regular readers to learn that I care passionately about the lot of prisoners here in the UK, particularly indeterminate – sentenced prisoners with no definite release dates. I am proud to be among those fighting for the right to vote, for instance. There comes a time when you simply have to make a stand regardless of circumstance or imposition. Sometimes a cause is worth fighting for even if defeat is inevitable. Principles always carry a potentially heavy cost, particularly so in prison.

Take these last few weeks. After resigning from my prison library job, a fiasco I’ll tell you about in a future post, the prison tried to put me in a workshop.

The prison workshops, or sweatshops, are effectively slave labour units. These really are modern day penal servitude, alive and well in the twenty-first century. Companies like Dextra Lighting Solutions and DHL somehow get away with having prisoners work for them, for what equates to pennies an hour, thus boosting their corporate profit margins.

These companies and others like them would no doubt claim prisoners’ wages are set by the prison, but they know how much they pay the Prison Service, and in turn how little the prisoners actually receive. They are therefore knowingly and wilfully complicit in this exploitation.

The reason that they are able to get away with this slave labour is two-fold; firstly, the outside world doesn’t care. They think prisoners should be made to work, not realising the full implications of prisoners being exploited in this way. Secondly, the prisoners themselves become complicit in the exploitation. Many prisoners have drug and alcohol addictions so the chance of working for a private company and earning ten or fifteen pounds for a weeks work is very alluring, especially when the average wage of an ordinary prison job is just six or seven pounds a week. That’s what makes this sort of exploitation so deplorable. The Prison Service and companies like Dextra and DHL are knowingly complicit in exploiting some of the most vulnerable members of our society. There can be no excuses.

But what are the aforementioned implications of this modern day slavery?

Photo Credit: marissaorton/Flickr

Photo Credit: marissaorton/Flickr

Well, this legalised slave trade is extremely pernicious to society for two primary reasons: firstly, giving these jobs to prisoners is ultimately damaging to the local economy. In simplistic terms if the prisoner receives £10 or £15 for a week’s wage that pittance most likely eventually finds its way to the prisons approved suppliers. If, instead, the jobs went to members of the local community, even at minimum wage, that would then be £300 or £400 per employee being ploughed back into the local economy across a much broader range of services and suppliers, this stimulating the local economy. This is basic economic theory.

The second reason, though, that this slavery is so pernicious is this; imagine the prisoner who is being paid less than a labourer in the third world. Aside from the cancerous erosion of his self-esteem from being exploited in this way, whether he realises it at the time or not, the incarcerated slave has no chance to save even just a few hundred pounds to aid his eventual reintegration into society. Instead he will be lucky to leave prison with much more than his £47 discharge grant. What do you think he will most likely do a few days later when that inevitably runs out? What will his first thoughts be? What’s the way he knows best to survive when he has nothing? That’s right, straight back to his old ways.

I’ve always worked in prison, but always in prison-based jobs such as wing clearing, kitchens and the library, never for the profit margins of a corporate company. I will not be coerced into working for companies who are knowingly complicit in exploiting prisoners. As I told the Governor in a letter refusing to go into the workshop, I owe a debt to society, not Dextra PLC. I also made clear in the letter that if the prison forced me to work for Dextra under the threat of punishment, as they were intending, I would contact my solicitor and have him bring legal action against the Prison Service and Dextra PLC. I wasn’t sure of my exact legal standing but my instinct told me that the Prison Service couldn’t legally compel me into working for an outside company for what amounts to slave wages.

The prison have since relented and I’m now a wing cleaner earning £7.50 per week, specialising in cleaning bars and ledges, which is about as skilled as the work in the sweatshops. I don’t have money sent in, I don’t like to burden my family more than absolutely necessary. So all I have is my prison wage, hence I don’t have money for some of the treats other lads can afford, like sweets and biscuits. I can barely afford essentials like toiletries and stamps and I certainly can’t afford to save anything toward my resettlement fund, but my principles are in tact. They’re costly, but I personally think they’re worth every penny.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments section below. Urban Times will relay constructive comments to Danny Cash.