At the Ottoline Club: Prison Labour

David Mitchell | January 24, 2018

In this illustrated talk Ursula Smartt (Faculty of Law) described her extensive experience of visiting prisons in Britain and abroad, and reviewed arguments for and against making prison labour as similar as possible to work in the outside world.

The Ottoline Club met on 2nd November 2017 in the Archive to hear a talk by Ursula Smartt entitled ‘Prison Labour: Salvation or Slavery’.

Those present were: Ursula Smartt (Faculty of Law), Diana Bozhilova (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Daniel Swift (Faculty of English), Catherine Brown (Faculty of English), Stephen Dnes (Faculty of Law), Mark Fabian, Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Anthony Grayling (Master), Marianna Koli (Faculty of Economics), Tim Sinnamon (Faculty of Law), Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

Ursula has pursued a research interest in prison labour for over twenty years, and her work has had a definite impact in this country: for instance, she helped draw up the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996. In this illustrated talk she described her extensive experience of visiting prisons in Britain and abroad, and reviewed arguments for and against making prison labour as similar as possible to work in the outside world.

Since very early in her engagement in this field, Ursula has been strongly persuaded of the case in favour of prisoners’ doing work that develops useful skills and delivers a profit. Any work that gets prisoners out of their cells can be expected to reduce the incidence both of suicides and of violent disorder; but above and beyond these effects, realistic industrial work, like various forms of education in prison, can be an important force for rehabilitation. Just as prisoners who at the end of long-term sentences live in semi-open institutions and do regular jobs on day release thereby have a better chance of successful resettlement, so those in closed prisons are the more benefited the more closely their labour resembles labour in regular industries.

The early 1990s saw definite movement in this direction, thanks to the Woolf Report of 1991 and the work of Stephen Tumim as Chief Inspector of Prisons. Ursula told us that when Labour came to power in 1997, the momentum fell away; and more recently, although policy changed again under the coalition government of 2010-15, the steep rise in the prison population has also had a very marked effect. One of the views which guided Labour thinking on the issue was that money spent on measures to support the widening of these opportunities for prisoners generally would be better devoted to Offender Behaviour Programmes targeted at specific subsets of the prison population. Ursula’s scepticism about this approach was supported in the following discussion by Marianna, on the basis of research she did some years ago into the effect of custodial sentencing on crime rates.

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Among the other possible objections to her line of argument which Ursula noted, two found no takers among us while a third led to some debate. No one was inclined to liken prison labour for profit to a condition of slavery, and no one found particularly plausible the idea that the existence of such work might actually be an incentive for the chronically unemployed to commit crimes. But as to whether the labour of prisoners could be reckoned often to constitute improper competition with those in the industry outside, various views were aired. On the one hand, the prisoners in effect receive well below the minimum wage, but on the other hand, their productivity is much lower as well. Mike and Marianna thought such arrangements might well be market-distorting to a degree, whereas Mark tended to doubt it. Mike also raised a number of issues about the financing of prisoners’ education, and joined with Tim in wondering whether Ursula wasn’t excessively discontented with regimes of comparatively low-skilled prison work. It had been a committed as well as a vivid talk on Ursula’s part, which supplied a very useful perspective at a time when concerns are mounting again about conditions in this country’s prisons.


David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy