Prisons to raise £132m a year as inmates are paid below national minimum wage
By Naomi Scherbel-Ball | 26 April 2012
Exaro revealed last week how thousands of UK prisoners are being used as cheap labour by companies. They are typically being paid less than the minimum wage – as little as 22p an hour – prompting fears that the practice costs ordinary people’s jobs.
Contracts for prisoners’ labour generate £35 million a year for the country’s prison service, which is overseen by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Kenneth Clarke, who heads the MoJ as justice secretary, plans to more than double the prison workforce from 8,700, and increase the annual revenue generated to £132 million by 2021. He argues that no jobs will be lost to the community.
Companies typically pay prisons around £2 an hour. Prisons decide how much to pass on to inmates, but retain much of the pay to compensate victims and help fund jail facilities.
The details were revealed in contracts for prisoners’ labour obtained by Exaro after a series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act. One in ten prisoners across the country works under such contracts.
These workers have been kept largely out of sight. The ‘made in prison’ label is not a selling point.
But many every-day items in the supermarket, including biscuit boxes and packaging for fruit and vegetables, have been made in prisons. They are often produced more cheaply in prison than they would be outside.
And it is not just the private sector that is taking advantage of this cheap labour force.
Customers include the Manchester police, who have a £300,000 laundry contract with the city’s prison. A spokeswoman for the Greater Manchester Police said: “The prisoners volunteer to do the laundry work. They also work towards a qualification and are guaranteed a job interview when they complete their sentence. It helps with their rehabilitation.”
Until last year, the Cambridgeshire Constabulary had prisoners in the former prison in Ashwell in Rutland carrying out work on uniforms.
The Foreign Office has a contract with Bullingdon prison in Bicester, Oxfordshire for £30,000 a year to wash tablecloths from official dinners. At Bullingdon, 34 prisoners are paid £35 for a maximum 24-hour week.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: “The terms and conditions of prisoners are a matter for the Ministry of Justice.”
But most contracts for prison labour are with small commercial companies. Growing numbers of inmates have been working in food packaging in recent years.
Sharp Interpak, the food packaging company, awarded contracts of nearly £100,000 to three prisons in Canterbury, Whatton and Kingston in 2010. This was in addition to an existing contract of £50,000 with Rochester prison.
The company supplies high-street names such as Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Cadbury and McVities with food packaging for biscuits, fish, fruit, meat and ready-meals.
The online snack company, Graze, which has featured in magazines such as Tatler and Grazia, had a £33,557 contract for packaging with Bullingdon for the 2010-11 financial year. For a 24-hour week, 30 convicts received just £35 per week from the prison.
A spokesman for the company said that it no longer employed prisoners, saying: “We have not done that for over 18 months, only for a brief amount of time, and it was only indirectly.”
He said that one of Graze’s subcontractors used prison labour to make the boxes for their products. “We later learnt that they used lots of different methods of using labour, and one of them is the prison service.”
S&N Home Products, based just outside Shaftesbury in Dorset, only six miles from Guys Marsh prison. The supplier of pot pourri, scented candles, room sprays and similar products employs 13 inmates at Guys Marsh, where they each work 25 hours a week on “assembly and packaging”.
The White Company, which sells luxury goods for the home, and Morrisons, the supermarket chain, are among the clients of S&N Home Products.
Some of the largest contracts for prison labour are in the building and plumbing industry.
Travis Perkins, the builders’ merchants, has contracts with Ford prison for more than £45,600 this year. It pays the prison £1.75 an hour for the work of 22 prisoners.
The prisoners receive between 22p and 28p an hour for a 33-hour week repairing tools. The prison uses the rest of the money at the governor’s discretion to cover costs and help victim-support groups.
Richard Dey, group hire director of Travis Perkins, said: “We had heard of other hire companies using prison workshops, and we explored this further, which lead to us opening a training workshop in HMP Stocken [in Oakham, Leicestershire].” The company had “no input into the level of pay each offender receives.”
“Each offender working in the workshop has applied for the position and wants to work there. They are being trained in the repair of a wide range of equipment, which gives them a number of recognised qualifications in the hire industry. These will greatly assist them to find employment in the hire industry upon release.”
Products made by Opella, the plumbing manufacturer, are packaged in five prisons across the UK: Cardiff, Featherstone, Hewell, Long Lartin and Shrewsbury.
The company advertises on its website that its products are “produced in the UK to enable clients to minimise their carbon footprint by specifying product not shipped from distant global sources.”
Exaro contacted all the organisations with contracts for prison labour. Neither Opella nor S&N Home Products responded in time for publication. Cambridgeshire Constabulary declined to comment.
Federal Prison Industries, a company owned by the American government, generates revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars each year in the United States.
But in America – unlike the UK – prisons are only allowed to bid for government contracts.
Plans to double the UK prison workforce mean that there will soon be more people employed in jail than work for Starbucks in the country.
Additional reporting by Tim Wood.