The growth of what some have described as the “prison industrial complex” and the unleashing of economic free market forces upon the prison system by a government ideologically-driven to sell off or “out source” virtually every state function has created the spectre of a prison population utilised as essentially a source of cheap, forced labour for an increasingly avaricious neo-liberal capitalism. There is no starker example of organised modern slavery.
In the US, the epicentre of the prison industrial complex, the exploitation of cheap convict labour takes place on an industrial scale and in poor urban areas, especially districts with a majority poor Afro-American population, prisons are increasingly replacing factories as places where the criminalised poor are confined and exploited by multi-national security corporations.
In Britain, whose criminal justice system is becoming almost a mirror-image of it’s American counterpart, the exploitation of cheap convict labour by private companies is increasingly as is the ownership of entire chunks of the prison system. More and more prisoners are dealt with and treated not as offenders to be rehabilitated but as a source of considerable profit for an economic elite not hamstrung by wishy-washy concepts such as public service or moral conscience in the treatment of prisoners.
Paradoxically, however, the creation and exploitation of a working class behind bars might also create the potential for the collective organisation and self-empowerment of prisoners as a group and a movement capable of radically reforming the prison system itself. A possible example exists in Tegal prison in Berlin where prisoners have formed the first union for prisoners that is campaigning for the introduction of a minimum wage and a pension scheme for prisoners. Prisoners at Tegal jail work regular shifts in workshops, which their union says makes them “de facto employees, just like their colleagues outside the prison gates”. Oliver Rast, a spokesman for the union, said “Prisoners have never had a lobby working for them. With the prisoners‘ union we’ve decided to create one ourselves”.
In Germany, as in Britain, prisoners are excluded from the national minimum wage and national pension schemes. Prisoners at Tegal jail earn between €9 and €15 per day, in Britain prisoners are paid considerably less than that.
The Tegal prisoners union is registered as an association without legal status but claims to have the mass support of prisoners within the jail who signed a petition in support of union.
There have been attempts in the past to organise union-like structures amongst prisoners, but they were usually short-lived and ceased to exist once “ringleaders” were segregated or transferred to other prisons. In Britain in the early 1970s an organisation called Preservation Of The Rights Of Prisoners (PROP) was created by a group of ex-prisoners and radical criminologists who coordinated with prisoners inside long-term jails a series of protests and days of action that established PROP as an authentic voice of prisoners. The response of the prison authorities was predictable and took the usual form of straightforward repression – the “ghosting”, or transfer, of “ringleaders” to other jails or their long-term segregation in punishment units “in the interests of good order and discipline”. Unfortunately the repression succeeded and PROP faded away. Still a very young organisation PROP’s presence in prisons was confined to a relatively small group of individual activists; once they were removed from the mainstream population PROP’s presence was also removed.
The administration at Tegal prison in Berlin have adopted a similar punitive approach towards the prisoners‘ union and Oliver Rast, who was sentenced to prison in 2009 for his involvement in the revolutionary organisation Militante Gruppe, has been targeted as a “ringleader” and his cell repeatedly searched and documents relating to the union confiscated. Sven Lindemann, a lawyer representing the prisoners union, described the searches of Rast’s cell as attempts to intimidate his client.
It is of course the fear of self-organisation and collective empowerment amongst prisoners that motivates the response of management and staff at Tegal prison towards the prisoners‘ union, and it is a fear shared by prison systems the world over. Jailers do not distinguish between the activities of a prisoners‘ union committed to seeing prisoner workers afforded the same rights as workers often employed by the same companies outside, and what are considered more gratuitous acts of protest by prisoners; it is the spectre of prisoner collective empowerment that unnerves those operating an institution and system intrinsically designed to completely disempower prisoners.
In fact, the struggle of prisoners at Tegal prison to form a prisoners‘ union transcends the prison walls and finds common cause with an increasing number of people now struggling to exists in a society increasingly polarised between the obscenely rich and the desperately poor, and where security of employment and a living wage are myths of the past.
The trade union movement, or what remains of it, should recognize that prisoners have a legitimate right to form unions and stop their exploitation as a source of cheap, forced labour; indeed the trade union movement should recognize a strong mutual interest with prisoners‘ unions in stopping the use of cheap convict labour as an alternative to providing secure and reasonably paid employment.
Whilst the formation of the prisoner’s union in Tegal prison is perceived by the prison’s management as a potential threat to it’s “good order and discipline”, the positive empowerment it has created in the lives of the prisoners involved will more than anything eradicate the sense of alienation and social exclusion that originally drove their “offending behaviour” and replace it with a strong feeling of solidarity with the lives and struggles of ordinary working class people everywhere.
Articulated in the language of the liberal middle class, Frances Crook, chief executive of the UK’s Howard League For Penal Reform praised the Berlin initiative: “We want prisoners to develop civic responsibilities, learning that work pays is a key stepping stone towards that goal. Why shouldn’t they form a union to help them on that path?”
What is truly inspiring about the creation of the prisoners‘ union at Tegal prison is that in an institution and place that so symbolises the complete exclusion of the “other” or that portion of the population so existentially removed from ordinary society, a movement exists that seeks common cause with the struggle of ordinary people as well as a common humanity.