Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/593/8032
Interview with POA leader Brian Caton
Fighting for the right to strike
Brian Caton addresses the National Shop Stewards Network conference 2009, photo Suzanne Beishon
Socialist Party industrial organiser Bill Mullins recently interviewed Prison Officers Association (POA) general secretary Brian Caton. Brian has recently decided to join the Socialist Party, after being a member of the Labour Party for many years.
How did you get into the Prison Service?
I come from a family of nine. I was brought up in Barnsley, my Dad worked as a collier. I was always a rebel at school. In fact I've got a school report which says: "If Brian doesn't improve his behaviour he will end up in prison."
My Dad was a union official when he was 16 and active in the 1960s. He was a very principled man.
I was in the army for 12½ years and I saw at first hand how devious governments of any colour can be.
My intention when I left the army was to be a probation officer. I was interviewed to be an assistant probation officer, then they scrapped those jobs.
They offered me a job in a rehabilitation hostel for drug offenders and alcoholics. But I just couldn't live on the wage. I was living in a council house but I had one child and my wife was heavily pregnant.
I passed the entrance exams for the police, prison and fire services. And because I'd been at Wandsworth prison as a potential probation officer I thought I'd go there.
I was a prison officer for 19 years from 1977. I started at Wandsworth and then went to Wakefield.
I was on the POA national executive, then in 1996 I left the Prison Service to become an assistant secretary.
What do you think about the privatisation of prisons?
Britain is the current leader in the world in having private prisons. In fact, per head of population, Wales is the world leader in private prisons. All of these have been built in the last 20 years.
Most of the companies involved with running prisons have got very long contracts. The public sector was never allowed to bid for them, the Tories just privatised them.
Justice Minister Jack Straw said there would be a level playing field for the running of prisons but then he said he's opening private prisons that the public sector will not be allowed to bid for.
We are not even allowed to bid for the transportation of prisoners. Public servants used to do all of this work.
The idea of Titan prisons - massive warehouses - was checked fully and was scrapped. But many Category C prisons have already got 1,500 prisoners, as big as Titans.
Straw is also pulling prisons together in clusters. The biggest travesty for us concerns Blakenhurst prison in the midlands, which we won back from the private sector.
Straw clustered it with Hewell Grange and Brockhill prisons, which were close to it. Now it's come up for retendering. So the other two which have never been private are now involved in a compulsory tender. He said he wouldn't do that, once again misleading the POA.
Birmingham, one of the biggest prisons in the country, has been named for potential privatisation. There is quite an active POA branch there and they took action in August 2007. So the threat of privatisation is Straw having a kick-back at us.
What do you think of the government's 'modernisation' plans?
We're not opposed to modernisation but the modernisation they are putting forward is dangerous for prison staff, dangerous for prisoners and dangerous for society.
We had the biggest turnout in a ballot ever in our history that rejected that modernisation. We're not allowed to take lawful strike or industrial action, so we go to the negotiating table at a disadvantage. They listen to what we say and then they ignore it.
We rejected workforce 'modernisation' in a ballot and now they're trying to impose it on us. This is alongside pushing forwards this market testing and privatisation. So we are in conflict with them.
I've been fortunate in having Colin Moses to work with. He's one of the few elected black trade union leaders in the country. We're both socialists and have very strong trade union beliefs. We both believe in trade unions doing the job for the members.
How do you deal with members of far-right organisations like the BNP in the union?
We have thrown BNP members out of the union, about six people. We were able to get the Prison Service to say they would sack any prison officers who were known to be members of far right organisations. In order to achieve this we constantly bombarded the Prison Service with the fact that we'd thrown people out for being members of the BNP but they were keeping them employed as prison officers. We got the Prison Service to make a declaration that if they found anyone in those organisations they would sack them. This applies to everyone who works in the Prison Service. This is part of a motion at the TUC this year.
If you get sacked for being in the BNP, if you're a POA member we won't support you.
We couldn't live with the thought of anyone with racist or fascist leanings having a key with a black person behind the door. We discussed it a lot and we decided to throw them out of the union. If we find any more we will throw them out. It's in the union rules.
Why did you leave the Labour Party?
I'm sick and tired of people saying that just because you're a prison officer you're right wing. I had three gold brooches for the amount of prison officers I have recruited to the Labour Party. I'm sad at having to leave the Labour Party but I couldn't stay in it with Jack Straw being politically dishonest to me.
I have respect for some Labour politicians and I have lots of friends in the Labour Party. Lots of my executive are still members of the Labour Party.
But being the general secretary of a union means you get face to face with people and you can ask questions that others can't. I asked questions and got waffle when I expected to be treated with respect and given honest answers.
I left a meeting at our conference with Jack Straw and made a presentation to him of a decanter from the POA to say thank you for coming to the conference. I also gave him a book entitled The Right To Strike and I said: "I've got you a third gift. You can have my Labour Party card after being a Labour Party member for 40-odd years."
I got a standing ovation.
He asked me what I was going to do now politically. I said I'll join the workers' party.
He did say that his father had been locked up for being a conscientious objector. I asked him what the founding fathers of the Labour Party would think of him now - fighting illegal wars and privatising prisons. I got a standing ovation for that as well.
What's happening now in the Prison Service?
From 1 September they're bringing in prison officers at £14,000 a year - £6,000 less than the proper rate. This will mean conflict. We've taken them to arbitration but it's all on the back of our members refusing the modernisation.
They want to scrap the principal officer grade and run prisons with people in suits. We're not up for modernisation if it means cost cutting, cutting our wages and conditions, and the conditions for prisoners.
If prison officers can't rehabilitate, all they can do is confine. That looks like what they really want us to do.
When we send those prisoners back into society under those circumstances, they will rape, rob and murder again. If we can't attempt to rehabilitate them or tackle their mental health problems, drug or alcohol problems then we're wasting our time sending them to prison.
We've said let's have an integrated system where prison officers and probation officers work together. Where non-custodial sentences deliver the same programmes as in the prisons but out in the community. But we can't do that with overcrowded prisons, filling them up with people who are mentally ill.
These things are part of the POA's policies. We argued these points with Labour in opposition. They said they would talk to us when they got into power but 12 years later they haven't done anything.
Cameron's lot will cause a massive increase in crime. They will lock people up for longer, try to cut the prison budget and privatise.
One of the things about the day's strike that we took was that we said: "You push us too far and we'll strike." No law will stop working people saying I will withhold my labour.
My members don't want to break laws but we don't want bad laws either. I'll be arguing at the TUC that for any union to be able to bargain properly with the employers, the union membership must be able to withdraw their labour.
In The Socialist 16 September 2009:
No Job Cuts
War and occupation
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party women
Socialist Party review
International socialist news and analysis