Earning their keep: The book ban and contemporary prisons

Discipline and Punish

Chris Grayling came under fire this week as it emerged that he had agreed to ban prisoners from receiving books from outside of the prison. As part of the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges’ scheme, prisoners will now only be able to access books from the limited prison library or through purchasing them from an approved list, no doubt drawn up by the prison’s security unit.

This move was heavily criticised by both voluntary organisations and a prominent group of authors, who rightly described the ban as ‘despicable’, ‘malign’ and ‘one of the most disgusting, mean and vindictive acts of a barbaric government’. However, this is more than just a cruel play to voters in middle England, or an isolated, pointlessly nasty policy, it is a small but integral part of the commercialisation of incarceration in England and Wales.

This book ban is a symptom of the prison service’s growing reliance on commercial labour contracts. Prisons now house low-skilled ‘prison industries’, factories where inmates are pressured to work for pay rates that are exempt from national minimum wage regulation (most earn little more than £10 a week. Yes, a week). Last year, 9,700 prisoners were employed in these industries, working a total of 13.1 million hours, their cheap labour generating vast profits for the companies contracting them. That was roughly 10% of the total prison population, leaving much room for future expansion of this malleable labour resource. As they are offered no rights, next to no pay and mundane work under prison conditions, the penal system must create incentive structures that push people into work, increasing the pool of cheap labour available for commercial contracts.

The ban, and wider scheme, therefore operate as a means to galvanise the prison population into these lucrative production lines. By forcing prisoners to pay for basic goods that were formerly free, Grayling is creating a disciplinary regime that compels prisoners to work in prison industries to access resources. Or as the Prisons Minister put it:

‘under the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, if prisoners comply with the regime they can have greater access to funds to buy books.’

Of course exploitation of this pool of cheap labour does not solely boost the profits of the companies contracting from over the prison wall. By undercutting the cost of labour outside, public prisons can attract inflows of capital that sustain them through deep budget cuts. Meanwhile private prison providers can supplement the profits contractually guaranteed to them by the state, increasing their competitive advantage when bidding for future prison contracts. In short, the book ban is not merely a cruel and vindictive policy, it is an expression of an increasingly commercialised penal system, sustained by the labour of those it locks up.


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