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The inside story
The Everlasting Staircase: A History of the Prison Officers’ Association 1939-2009
By David Evans with Sheila Cohen, Pluto Press, 2009, £15
WHEN PRISON officers went on their first ever nationwide strike two years ago, it propelled their organisation, the Prison Officers Association (POA), into the spotlight as, ironically, their leaders were threatened with imprisonment if they did not call off the action. Yet the history of trade unionism within the prison service goes back way further than this action or even the formation of the POA in 1939. Until now, it has been a relatively unwritten story, so the publication of a fairly comprehensive history is most welcome.
David Evans begins his narrative with the coming into being of the modern prison in the late 19th century and the attempts of the newly-created salaried gaolers to resolve their grievances. While a few attempts were made to form a trade union organisation in the early 20th century, it was not until the setting up of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) in 1913 and the Prison Officers Federation (POF) in 1915, that this was achieved. Both unions were illegal, as a Home Office standing order was interpreted by then home secretary, Winston Churchill, as meaning that prison officers should be treated like the police, soldiers and sailors and banned from organising a union.
However, the NUPPO-organised walkout of the Metropolitan police in August 1918 over pay changed everything, with the government verbally backtracking over pay, conditions and the right to form a union. The apparent success of the action led to NUPPO and the POF merging. Yet, within a year of this apparent success, the government felt strong enough to pass the 1919 Police Act which once more took trade union rights away, at the same time attempting to buy off police officers with a substantial pay increase. NUPPO organised strike action in protest, but this was badly undermined with only a small number of police officers coming out as well as a few prison officers in Birmingham and 70 from Wormwood Scrubs. All those who took action were dismissed. The additional disillusionment following the failure of the 1924 Labour government to reinstate the strikers severely disappointed many who had been involved with NUPPO.
Instead of trade union rights, prison officers were left with an ineffectual representative board and, for the next 20 years, pay and conditions deteriorated, steeling the determination of prison officers to secure trade union rights once again. Despite the earlier association with police officers and the fact that the Police Act was used by the Home Office to designate prison officers as having police constable status and so banning them from forming a trade union, the struggle for union rights in the prison service has more in common with those of civil servants. Indeed, it was two leaders of the Civil Service Clerical Association who assisted in spearheading the POA’s right to exist and represented the fledgling POA in negotiations.
The newly-formed POA quickly reached a very high density of membership within the prison service, covering all prisons in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It quickly expanded in 1942 to win rights to represent staff at special hospitals such as Broadmoor. The period after the second world war saw a massive expansion of the prison population, almost doubling between 1945 and 1950. Prisons became overcrowded, with prison officer numbers failing to keep up with the increased population which, when combined with reforms improving prisoners’ conditions, began to breed resentment.
As Evans explains, it was not because prison officers were fundamentally reactionary, as some would claim, but that many of the improvements in conditions came without increasing staffing levels to ensure the safety of both prisoners and staff. This is not to say that the POA did not support improvements in prisoners’ conditions. For example, the POA was instrumental in ending ‘slopping-out’ and forcing the prison service to invest in integrated sanitation. But the overcrowding and extra duties imposed on officers led to the situation in the 1970s and 1980s where prison officers were required to do massive amounts of overtime just to keep prisons functioning.
The period from the late 1960s to the late 1980s was full of POA disputes and struggles which there is not the space to go into here. Importantly, however, this was when the POA discovered one of its most potent dispute tactics: refusing to admit prisoners above the Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA) limits, which highlighted both prison overcrowding and understaffing. There are also other interesting points that Evans raises, such as how prison officers treated the Pentonville Five dockers imprisoned for trade union activities, for instance, by leaving their cell doors open.
But it was the confrontation with the Tory government of John Major in the early 1990s that shaped the major concerns of the POA in recent years. Continued overcrowding of prisons led in 1993 to refusals to accept more prisoners at Hull and Preston, the latter already operating at 200% of the CNA. The Home Office went to court to seek an injunction against this action, and the judge, as well as ruling the action illegal, went further than the Tories in declaring that the POA was not a trade union. This was formalised by the Tories in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which instituted the infamous section 127 which criminalised calling for prison officers to take industrial action.
Combined with this was the beginning of prison privatisation. Even the Thatcher government thought this was a step too far. But, in the early 1990s, starting with Wolds remand prison and court escort services, the Tories began opening up prisons and related areas to privatisation as well as privatising any new-build prisons. Not only did the privatised prisons attack the pay and conditions of staff, they also refused initially to recognise the POA. Instead, they recognised the scab Prison Service Union, which had been set up by disgruntled ex-POA officials, in ‘sweetheart’ deals. Faced with the market testing of public-sector prisons, the POA decided to organise within privatised prisons and fight for their return to the public sector. The POA’s campaign has been partially aided by some privatised prisons returning to the public sector after private mismanagement, as well as the embarrassing failure of any private-sector tenders to run Brixton prison when it was market tested.
Despite assurances from New Labour in opposition that it would fully reinstate prison officers’ trade union rights and reverse privatisation of the prison service, the POA has been let down on both counts. This led to the POA general secretary, Brian Caton, tearing up his Labour Party membership card at the 2009 POA annual conference. Trade union rights were partially restored on condition that the POA signed up to a no-strike agreement. However, such were the appallingly low pay offers that prison officers were receiving (even compared to other public-sector workers) that the POA pulled out of the agreement and undertook national strike action in 2007. The Ministry of Justice then reinstated the Tory legislation banning strikes by prison officers. This has led to the POA calling for the TUC to organise general strike action against the anti-union laws, as well as bracing itself for the possibility that the courts will be used against it if the POA is forced to take action to defend its membership.
Overall, the book is a very detailed history of the POA. However, there are several areas where more detail on particular issues would be welcome, as well as some areas which are not commented on, such as the alleged influence of the National Front in prisons and the POA in the 1970s. Also, on some points, the narrative is a little confused, jumping backwards and forwards in time rather abruptly. This is partially due to having to cover the specific intricacies of the issues the POA was dealing with in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But these criticisms should not put off anyone who is interested in the POA from reading this well-researched book.