Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Review: The Everlasting Staircase: A History of the Prison Officers’ Association 1939-2009

From the September 2008 issue of Socialism 2008.

By David Evans with Sheila Cohen, Pluto Press, 2009, £15

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

WHEN PRISON officers went on their first ever nationwide strike two years ago, it propelled their organisation, the Prison Officers Association (POA), into the spotlight as, ironically, their leaders were threatened with imprisonment if they did not call off the action. Yet the history of trade unionism within the prison service goes back way further than this action or even the formation of the POA in 1939. Until now, it has been a relatively unwritten story, so the publication of a fairly comprehensive history is most welcome.
David Evans begins his narrative with the coming into being of the modern prison in the late 19th century and the attempts of the newly-created salaried gaolers to resolve their grievances. While a few attempts were made to form a trade union organisation in the early 20th century, it was not until the setting up of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) in 1913 and the Prison Officers Federation (POF) in 1915, that this was achieved. Both unions were illegal, as a Home Office standing order was interpreted by then home secretary, Winston Churchill, as meaning that prison officers should be treated like the police, soldiers and sailors and banned from organising a union.
However, the NUPPO-organised walkout of the Metropolitan police in August 1918 over pay changed everything, with the government verbally backtracking over pay, conditions and the right to form a union. The apparent success of the action led to NUPPO and the POF merging. Yet, within a year of this apparent success, the government felt strong enough to pass the 1919 Police Act which once more took trade union rights away, at the same time attempting to buy off police officers with a substantial pay increase. NUPPO organised strike action in protest, but this was badly undermined with only a small number of police officers coming out as well as a few prison officers in Birmingham and 70 from Wormwood Scrubs. All those who took action were dismissed. The additional disillusionment following the failure of the 1924 Labour government to reinstate the strikers severely disappointed many who had been involved with NUPPO.
Instead of trade union rights, prison officers were left with an ineffectual representative board and, for the next 20 years, pay and conditions deteriorated, steeling the determination of prison officers to secure trade union rights once again. Despite the earlier association with police officers and the fact that the Police Act was used by the Home Office to designate prison officers as having police constable status and so banning them from forming a trade union, the struggle for union rights in the prison service has more in common with those of civil servants. Indeed, it was two leaders of the Civil Service Clerical Association who assisted in spearheading the POA’s right to exist and represented the fledgling POA in negotiations.
The newly-formed POA quickly reached a very high density of membership within the prison service, covering all prisons in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It quickly expanded in 1942 to win rights to represent staff at special hospitals such as Broadmoor. The period after the second world war saw a massive expansion of the prison population, almost doubling between 1945 and 1950. Prisons became overcrowded, with prison officer numbers failing to keep up with the increased population which, when combined with reforms improving prisoners’ conditions, began to breed resentment.
As Evans explains, it was not because prison officers were fundamentally reactionary, as some would claim, but that many of the improvements in conditions came without increasing staffing levels to ensure the safety of both prisoners and staff. This is not to say that the POA did not support improvements in prisoners’ conditions. For example, the POA was instrumental in ending ‘slopping-out’ and forcing the prison service to invest in integrated sanitation. But the overcrowding and extra duties imposed on officers led to the situation in the 1970s and 1980s where prison officers were required to do massive amounts of overtime just to keep prisons functioning.
The period from the late 1960s to the late 1980s was full of POA disputes and struggles which there is not the space to go into here. Importantly, however, this was when the POA discovered one of its most potent dispute tactics: refusing to admit prisoners above the Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA) limits, which highlighted both prison overcrowding and understaffing. There are also other interesting points that Evans raises, such as how prison officers treated the Pentonville Five dockers imprisoned for trade union activities, for instance, by leaving their cell doors open.
But it was the confrontation with the Tory government of John Major in the early 1990s that shaped the major concerns of the POA in recent years. Continued overcrowding of prisons led in 1993 to refusals to accept more prisoners at Hull and Preston, the latter already operating at 200% of the CNA. The Home Office went to court to seek an injunction against this action, and the judge, as well as ruling the action illegal, went further than the Tories in declaring that the POA was not a trade union. This was formalised by the Tories in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which instituted the infamous section 127 which criminalised calling for prison officers to take industrial action.
Combined with this was the beginning of prison privatisation. Even the Thatcher government thought this was a step too far. But, in the early 1990s, starting with Wolds remand prison and court escort services, the Tories began opening up prisons and related areas to privatisation as well as privatising any new-build prisons. Not only did the privatised prisons attack the pay and conditions of staff, they also refused initially to recognise the POA. Instead, they recognised the scab Prison Service Union, which had been set up by disgruntled ex-POA officials, in ‘sweetheart’ deals. Faced with the market testing of public-sector prisons, the POA decided to organise within privatised prisons and fight for their return to the public sector. The POA’s campaign has been partially aided by some privatised prisons returning to the public sector after private mismanagement, as well as the embarrassing failure of any private-sector tenders to run Brixton prison when it was market tested.
Despite assurances from New Labour in opposition that it would fully reinstate prison officers’ trade union rights and reverse privatisation of the prison service, the POA has been let down on both counts. This led to the POA general secretary, Brian Caton, tearing up his Labour Party membership card at the 2009 POA annual conference. Trade union rights were partially restored on condition that the POA signed up to a no-strike agreement. However, such were the appallingly low pay offers that prison officers were receiving (even compared to other public-sector workers) that the POA pulled out of the agreement and undertook national strike action in 2007. The Ministry of Justice then reinstated the Tory legislation banning strikes by prison officers. This has led to the POA calling for the TUC to organise general strike action against the anti-union laws, as well as bracing itself for the possibility that the courts will be used against it if the POA is forced to take action to defend its membership.
Overall, the book is a very detailed history of the POA. However, there are several areas where more detail on particular issues would be welcome, as well as some areas which are not commented on, such as the alleged influence of the National Front in prisons and the POA in the 1970s. Also, on some points, the narrative is a little confused, jumping backwards and forwards in time rather abruptly. This is partially due to having to cover the specific intricacies of the issues the POA was dealing with in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But these criticisms should not put off anyone who is interested in the POA from reading this well-researched book.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Interview with POA leader Brian Caton - Fighting for the right to strike

Below I have reproduced an interview with POA General Secretary, Brian Caton from this weeks issue of the Socialist. Whilst I think the article is very interesting generally, it does also answer some of the questions I raised in the book review published recently in Socialism Today (which will be published on here at the end of the month).

Socialist Party industrial organiser Bill Mullins recently interviewed Prison Officers Association (POA) general secretary Brian Caton. Brian has recently decided to join the Socialist Party, after being a member of the Labour Party for many years.

How did you get into the Prison Service?

I come from a family of nine. I was brought up in Barnsley, my Dad worked as a collier. I was always a rebel at school. In fact I've got a school report which says: "If Brian doesn't improve his behaviour he will end up in prison."
My Dad was a union official when he was 16 and active in the 1960s. He was a very principled man.
I was in the army for 12½ years and I saw at first hand how devious governments of any colour can be.
My intention when I left the army was to be a probation officer. I was interviewed to be an assistant probation officer, then they scrapped those jobs.
They offered me a job in a rehabilitation hostel for drug offenders and alcoholics. But I just couldn't live on the wage. I was living in a council house but I had one child and my wife was heavily pregnant.
I passed the entrance exams for the police, prison and fire services. And because I'd been at Wandsworth prison as a potential probation officer I thought I'd go there.
I was a prison officer for 19 years from 1977. I started at Wandsworth and then went to Wakefield.
I was on the POA national executive, then in 1996 I left the Prison Service to become an assistant secretary.

What do you think about the privatisation of prisons?

Britain is the current leader in the world in having private prisons. In fact, per head of population, Wales is the world leader in private prisons. All of these have been built in the last 20 years.
Most of the companies involved with running prisons have got very long contracts. The public sector was never allowed to bid for them, the Tories just privatised them.
Justice Minister Jack Straw said there would be a level playing field for the running of prisons but then he said he's opening private prisons that the public sector will not be allowed to bid for.
We are not even allowed to bid for the transportation of prisoners. Public servants used to do all of this work.
The idea of Titan prisons - massive warehouses - was checked fully and was scrapped. But many Category C prisons have already got 1,500 prisoners, as big as Titans.
Straw is also pulling prisons together in clusters. The biggest travesty for us concerns Blakenhurst prison in the midlands, which we won back from the private sector.
Straw clustered it with Hewell Grange and Brockhill prisons, which were close to it. Now it's come up for retendering. So the other two which have never been private are now involved in a compulsory tender. He said he wouldn't do that, once again misleading the POA.
Birmingham, one of the biggest prisons in the country, has been named for potential privatisation. There is quite an active POA branch there and they took action in August 2007. So the threat of privatisation is Straw having a kick-back at us.

What do you think of the government's 'modernisation' plans?

We're not opposed to modernisation but the modernisation they are putting forward is dangerous for prison staff, dangerous for prisoners and dangerous for society.
We had the biggest turnout in a ballot ever in our history that rejected that modernisation. We're not allowed to take lawful strike or industrial action, so we go to the negotiating table at a disadvantage. They listen to what we say and then they ignore it.
We rejected workforce 'modernisation' in a ballot and now they're trying to impose it on us. This is alongside pushing forwards this market testing and privatisation. So we are in conflict with them.
I've been fortunate in having Colin Moses to work with. He's one of the few elected black trade union leaders in the country. We're both socialists and have very strong trade union beliefs. We both believe in trade unions doing the job for the members.

How do you deal with members of far-right organisations like the BNP in the union?

We have thrown BNP members out of the union, about six people. We were able to get the Prison Service to say they would sack any prison officers who were known to be members of far right organisations. In order to achieve this we constantly bombarded the Prison Service with the fact that we'd thrown people out for being members of the BNP but they were keeping them employed as prison officers. We got the Prison Service to make a declaration that if they found anyone in those organisations they would sack them. This applies to everyone who works in the Prison Service. This is part of a motion at the TUC this year.
If you get sacked for being in the BNP, if you're a POA member we won't support you.
We couldn't live with the thought of anyone with racist or fascist leanings having a key with a black person behind the door. We discussed it a lot and we decided to throw them out of the union. If we find any more we will throw them out. It's in the union rules.

Why did you leave the Labour Party?

I'm sick and tired of people saying that just because you're a prison officer you're right wing. I had three gold brooches for the amount of prison officers I have recruited to the Labour Party. I'm sad at having to leave the Labour Party but I couldn't stay in it with Jack Straw being politically dishonest to me.
I have respect for some Labour politicians and I have lots of friends in the Labour Party. Lots of my executive are still members of the Labour Party.
But being the general secretary of a union means you get face to face with people and you can ask questions that others can't. I asked questions and got waffle when I expected to be treated with respect and given honest answers.
I left a meeting at our conference with Jack Straw and made a presentation to him of a decanter from the POA to say thank you for coming to the conference. I also gave him a book entitled The Right To Strike and I said: "I've got you a third gift. You can have my Labour Party card after being a Labour Party member for 40-odd years."
I got a standing ovation.
He asked me what I was going to do now politically. I said I'll join the workers' party.
He did say that his father had been locked up for being a conscientious objector. I asked him what the founding fathers of the Labour Party would think of him now - fighting illegal wars and privatising prisons. I got a standing ovation for that as well.

What's happening now in the Prison Service?

From 1 September they're bringing in prison officers at £14,000 a year - £6,000 less than the proper rate. This will mean conflict. We've taken them to arbitration but it's all on the back of our members refusing the modernisation.
They want to scrap the principal officer grade and run prisons with people in suits. We're not up for modernisation if it means cost cutting, cutting our wages and conditions, and the conditions for prisoners.
If prison officers can't rehabilitate, all they can do is confine. That looks like what they really want us to do.
When we send those prisoners back into society under those circumstances, they will rape, rob and murder again. If we can't attempt to rehabilitate them or tackle their mental health problems, drug or alcohol problems then we're wasting our time sending them to prison.
We've said let's have an integrated system where prison officers and probation officers work together. Where non-custodial sentences deliver the same programmes as in the prisons but out in the community. But we can't do that with overcrowded prisons, filling them up with people who are mentally ill.
These things are part of the POA's policies. We argued these points with Labour in opposition. They said they would talk to us when they got into power but 12 years later they haven't done anything.
Cameron's lot will cause a massive increase in crime. They will lock people up for longer, try to cut the prison budget and privatise.
One of the things about the day's strike that we took was that we said: "You push us too far and we'll strike." No law will stop working people saying I will withhold my labour.
My members don't want to break laws but we don't want bad laws either. I'll be arguing at the TUC that for any union to be able to bargain properly with the employers, the union membership must be able to withdraw their labour.

Brian Caton is speaking at the Socialist Party's Socailism 2009 event.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Upcoming Attractions

Right, now I've setup the new blog (see its time to figure out what to do with the old one. Should I delete everything non-crime and criminology related? Should I just post my own stuff or do some reposts on it off other articles that I think are interesting on this subject? Who knows, I'm gonna mull that question over for a while.

What I do want to do is get some new material up on the blog. Posts perhaps aren't gonna be all that frequent (maybe once a week on average), but I have got some things I did want to post.
For example, I came across a few pieces by James P Cannon in his book Notebook of an Agitator on crime which I want to post some commentary on. I want to post up some more material on Haiti as well as examining 'humanitarian' intervention in some other places too.
One piece that is finished and will be posted up at the end of this month is a review I have written for the current issue of Socialism Today ( The book is a history of the Prison Officers Association called The Everlasting Staircase by David Evans with Sheila Cohen. If you're interested you can get a copy of this months issue from the website above or your local Socialist Party branch.

Friday, 4 September 2009

New Blog

I've done it - I am going to split this blog in two. I'm still in the process of figuring out how that works completely, but from now on this blog will just feature posts on crime, criminal justice and other related issues.
For everything else, please see my new blog - And Now For Something Completely Sectarian

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Some Thoughts On Blogging

Like an idiot I have once more left the review I was going to post here on my laptop - so instead I originally quickly plugged some new blogs by Socialist Party members.

But then I got thinking about the blog. When I started the blog, I did want to write criminology posts, but also to comment on stuff around me. Both of which I think are dead useful, but of late, I feel a compulsion to keep churning out posts, some of which I know aren't that good quality at all and also I tend to frequently repost stuff too.
The problem I find is that often a lot of the crime related stuff tends to be more polished stuff that is intended for publication somewhere, whereas often I like to rant about other things, yet I feel that sort of thing lets the blog down. So I'm toying once more with the idea of splitting the blog into one which is to do with me, and a more specialised one on crime. We'll see in the next few days if I go through with it

Anyways, back to the blog plugs

First off there is Grinning in Your Paradise - written by a comrade who describes himself as hopping between Sheffield and Cambridge.

Then there is Everyones' Favourite Comrade - this one is written by a comrade in Cardiff who has set up the blog "for several reasons which include, to more orientate and structure my rants, to encourage my to write and read regularly as I get distracted easily and generally to get my specific views out there!"

Finally, I just wanted to once more plug again Proper Tidy - if you're looking for socialist analysis of the key issues in North East Wales look no further!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Meme: Political Firsts

I was gonna post up a review of the Naomi Klein based documentary last night, but I've left it on my laptop at hom :( So instead, I'll do this meme I've been tagged in.

First political experience: Would have to be the 1997 General Election. Unlike the other versions of this meme I read, we had no mock polls and my parents aren't of any particular political persuasion (in fact as far as I can tell they vote for whichever candidate of the main 3 parties lives nearest to them). I do remember the children of our local Labour councillors who lived round the corner from me going out chanting Vote Labour!, but I kinda didn't see any difference between either Labour or the Tories.

First vote: 2004 European and council elections, given this was not long too long after the invasion of Iraq, I voted for the parties standing that appeared to be most against the war. So I voted for RESPECT in the European Elections and the Lib Dems in the council elections. By the time of the following general election I'd found my political way a bit more and voted Socialist Alternative.

First demo: To my shame rather than participate in the walkout on Day X i stayed in college cos I was screwing up so much in Maths. However, I did go to an anti-war gig on my birthday in early March 2003 and then went on a later and much smaller protest in Huddersfield where I did a little rant on a megaphone about the invasion of Iraq being all about oil.

Last vote: Would have been the European elections where I voted for No2EU: Yes to Democracy and contributed to us winning 1.1% of the vote. This was the first time that Socialist Party members in North West Wales have ever campaigned in an election - if you exclude student union ones.

Last political activity: I've just come back from a Troops Out of Afghanistan demo which we called off halway through cos it was raining. Apart from Socialist Party stuff, I guess the last other stuff has been selling papers outside Billy Bragg and Mark Steel gigs in Caenarfon (including to the artists themselves!).