Published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 214 April / May 2010
In August 2007 the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) staged a one-day national strike in defiance of laws outlawing industrial action by prison officers. This and subsequent wildcat actions were eagerly seized on by the selection of British left groups which had long been courting the POA and generally applauding the ‘struggles’ of ‘workers in uniform’, including the police. Foremost among the cheerleaders is the Socialist Party (SP) and in September 2009 POA General Secretary Brian Caton announced his defection to the SP from the Labour Party. Caton is now a prominent speaker for SP-backed electoral grouping the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
The Everlasting Staircase is written for the express purpose of positioning the POA in the leadership of ‘militant’ trade unionism in Britain in the face of mounting public sector cuts and privatisation. Its authors are Caton’s predecessor as General Secretary and an academic specialising in trade union history. It was commissioned by the POA itself and does not purport to be impartial.
FRFI has been among the few voices on the British left consistently to point out that it is nonsense to simply view police and prison officers as ‘workers in uniform’. Engels and Lenin* explained the creation of ‘special bodies of armed men’, such as police and prison officers, as an intrinsic part of the apparatus constructed alongside the division of society into antagonistic classes. Trotsky agreed, although many of his followers today do not, clinging instead to examples of armies and police that have gone over to the side of revolutionary movements. While it is true that in a revolutionary situation this would be both necessary and inevitable, Britain today is so far removed from such a situation as to render these examples entirely irrelevant.
‘A union which has given true leadership to the whole working class movement’
The Everlasting Staircase chronicles the POA’s development from 1865, when the Prisons Act officially defined the role of prison warder, through the years of pre-union staff associations and underground organisation to its official formation in 1939 and right up to the 2008 TUC conference, where Brian Caton spoke emotively in support of low-paid public sector workers and against anti-trade union laws, exhorting the supine TUC to strike against the government’s ‘unacceptable pay restraint on public sector pay’. The book ends quoting him:
‘The POA will continue its campaign and fight to get the whole of the Labour Movement to straighten their spines and stand up for new laws that take away the restrictions on strike and industrial action.
‘Our simple message to other unions is “Don’t think that your members cannot deliver on strike action – they can.”
‘Please recognise that if you don’t ask them – they never will.
‘CHOOSE FREEDOM – BREAK BAD LAWS’ (p249).
In the eyes of the book’s authors, this call to arms demonstrates that ‘the POA stands proud today as a union which has given true leadership to the whole working class movement.’
Trade union history
Read on its own terms, the account is of some historical interest. The problems of prison staff in relation to pay, staffing levels, housing and prospects of promotion are documented, as are the machinations of successive governments to prevent industrial action by prison staff. Initially prison officers were treated in the same way as the police and banned from forming trade unions; however in the early 20th century an underground prison officers’ union was gradually formed and made links with militant trade unionists in the civil service. Eventually, the POA was created, with the government of the day concluding that treating prison officers as civil servants was a preferable way of dealing with them.
The book takes us through the period of Thatcher’s attack on the unions (including an account of the POA taking court action against the Tory Party following a party political broadcast which gave the erroneous impression that it had supported a motion put to the TUC by Arthur Scargill! – p106), to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which made it illegal for prison officers to strike. The Labour Party promised to overturn this if elected, just as it promised to end prison privatisation. It reneged on both. The POA then signed a ‘voluntary no strike agreement’ in return for pay claims being dealt with by a succession of unsatisfactory review board mechanisms. Why exactly the ‘militant’ POA signed this agreement at all is a matter for speculation; however relations between the union and the Prison Service became rockier and ultimately broke down completely, resulting in the strike action of 2007.
The other side of the story
This is all very well, but even during its pre-history while the union was being formed in secret, the POA’s ‘militancy’ was couched entirely in terms which depended on depicting prisoners as wild and dangerous and liable at any moment to get uncontrollably ‘out of hand’ (p51).
This potential violence of prisoners is the POA’s main leverage and it plays on and exaggerates the threat at every opportunity. This has led it to oppose any reform of the system or relaxation of the strictest rules. Well before the introduction of the current dispersal system or close supervision centres, the POA ‘had been agitating for years in favour of the segregation of troublemakers in a small prison on their own’ (p62). In Scotland prison officers went on strike against the closure of the barbaric Inverness cages (p94). In relation to the north of Ireland we read of the ‘solidarity’ shown in the 1970s by prison officers from England, Scotland and Wales, who volunteered to be transferred to help staff internment (pp97-99). In the late 1970s and 1980s the POA campaigned for more weaponry and riot training, resulting in the introduction of the infamous MUFTI squads which were deployed to attack protesting prisoners (p130).
The POA opposed the abolition of the death penalty on the basis that convicted murderers serving life sentences would be difficult to manage and it would lead to an increase in the murder of prison officers. The second certainly did not transpire – outside the north of Ireland only one British prison officer was killed by a prisoner in the whole of the 20th century, while many prisoners have been killed by staff
POA supporters point out that it has long opposed ‘slopping out’ and overcrowding. This is true. Although debatable in whose interests this opposition was mounted, the POA opposed slopping out from the early 1980s (p127) and in the early 1990s took direct action to ensure that no more prisoners were crammed into overcrowded, insanitary prisons by simply locking the gates and not letting any more in (p173). What happened to those locked out is not explored, but the likelihood is that they were detained in even more unsuitable conditions in police stations. The POA does not argue for fewer people to be sent to prison, but for more staff to police those who are there and more spaces in which to detain them.
The book is revealing in relation to the contradiction posed for the POA by prison reform. While the union has consistently opposed any prison regime not strictly based on punishment and containment, whenever any moves are made towards the introduction of more activities, the union also argues for its members to be the ones staffing them, claiming that their daily contact with prisoners gives them an understanding not shared by the ‘“new breed” of liberal-minded governor grades, most of whom were fast-tracked university graduates with little experience of working on the landings of a prison’ (Caton, p198).
Prisoners’ struggles for their rights
David Evans was POA General Secretary from 1982 to 2000. This period includes the miners’ strike and the biggest spate of prison uprisings ever to shake the British prison system. You would hardly know this from the book though, as although a picture of the wrecked Strangeways prison features in the illustrations, the events of 1990 are mentioned only in passing. Likewise, although there is considerable material about prisons in the north of Ireland, and in particular about prison officer casualties of the war, there is hardly any mention of the hunger strikes or protests, other than a quote from the 1979 May Report to the effect that ‘The most stressful present custodial work undoubtedly involves the staff responsible for the three H blocks in The Maze prison which house the non-conforming prisoners...the nature of these inmates’ protests is bizarre in the extreme and the filth associated with it abhorrent and degrading’ (p99).
For prisoners and their supporters, The Everlasting Staircase – ironically titled in reference to the treadmills prisoners were once forced to walk endlessly – reads like a text from a parallel universe. We see a system of mass incarceration of men, women and children, who are overwhelmingly poor and working class and disproportionately black or minority ethnic, and whose oppression in prison sometimes drives them to band together and fight back. But this piece contains no analysis of who is actually in prison and the authors appear to see all prisoners as little more than wild animals, who can be kept reasonably docile if not given too much freedom, and to view any protest action as inexplicable and frightening. For example, the conscious political prison protests of the 1970s organised by PROP (Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) are described as part of ‘turbulent years, when Britain...was swept by a... wave of strike action’ in which ‘prisoners themselves caught the protest “bug”’. A POA official complains: ‘Governors, with no inkling of what to do, met with prisoner deputations who gained in importance, thereby undermining the authority of staff’ (p83).
Similarly, for us the name of the POA is synonymous with thuggery and bullying and the stories of violence by prison staff are legion. But Evans and Cohen’s account is virtually silent on such accusations, with even POA members’ well-documented mistreatment of imprisoned fellow trade unionists glossed over and the disgraceful conduct towards the Shrewsbury Two in 1973 put down as some kind of misunderstanding (p83).
In 1998, horrific details of staff brutality at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London emerged, resulting eventually in a series of criminal prosecutions and civil claims for compensation. This is not mentioned anywhere in this account, At the time Evans publically refuted any wrongdoing by any POA member, to the extent that he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that ‘In all my years that I have been in the prison service I’ve never known a single occasion where prison officers have interfered with mail.’ Hundreds of thousands of complaints submitted by British prisoners and hours of court time attest to the ludicrousness of this statement.
POA – policing class-divided society for the ruling class
We do not subscribe to the view that trade union organisation is by definition progressive. There are countless examples of reactionary trade union activity: the strike by loyalist workers in the north of Ireland against power-sharing with Irish nationalists in 1974; the pro-capitalist Solidarnosc in Poland in the 1980s; the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela which supported the US-backed coup in 2002. The fact that the POA is strident and well organised in its own interests is not sufficient to make it progressive.
The Everlasting Staircase sets out to make the case for the POA against those who would say it is not a ‘real’ trade union and, further, to put forward its credentials as a leading force in a resurgence of trade union militancy. However, it succeeds only in underlining that the role of prison staff in capitalist society is to police the working class and oppressed on behalf of the ruling class. The authors aim to show us a vanguard of class warriors, but succeed in showing us a bunch of chauvinist thugs.
* See Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and Lenin, State and Revolution
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