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From: The Socialist issue 461, 2 November 2006: Thousands march to save NHS

Search site for keywords: Prison officers - Brian Caton - POA - Mental health

the socialist interview

Crime and punishment - the prison officers' view

PRISON OVERCROWDING is becoming a major issue, as the government seek to lock more and more people up.
BRIAN CATON, the general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association (POA) recently spoke to the socialist about this and other important issues facing his trade union.

The POA is not an organisation that says the answer is to build more and more prisons and lock more people up. There are root causes of why we're in this position. A lot of it is the fact that the Labour Party, in spite of a lot of empty rhetoric, has not dealt with the problem appropriately and has actually caused a considerable rise in the prison population.

When it was in opposition, the Labour Party said it would deal with these issues. We thought we had a potential Labour government which understood the difficulties we had.

The Tories insisted that 'care in the community' would work for mentally ill offenders. We always said it wouldn't. We feared what has actually happened. That they would close all the old psychiatric hospitals and then find there is nowhere to divert these people to.

So many people who have mental health difficulties, whether they're caused by substance or drug abuse or by poor health care in the past, will find themselves in the criminal justice system. There is nowhere else for them to go.

We pointed out to the Labour Party in opposition that if we didn't tackle the drug problem, we would see huge amounts of young men and women with all kinds of substance abuse problems coming in to our prisons.

Tough on crime

When the Labour government said they were going to be tough on crime we went along with that. But we feared they would find themselves in a three-horse race with the Lib Dems and the Tories - all trying to say they would lock up more people. And that is what has happened.

When they said they were going to be tough on the causes of crime, again we applauded that. We thought we were going to be involved in the debate. We are the largest criminal justice union and the one responsible for making sure that society stays safe from reoffending, along with our colleagues from NAPO, the probation officers' union.

We wanted to be heavily involved in the debate on these issues, of rehabilitation and tackling the social problems of crime.

Unfortunately we've been sadly let down. We've seen massive investment to be "tough on crime" and a huge rise in the prison population.

But being tough on crime hasn't meant giving us the resources to do it. We're now looking after almost 80,000 prisoners with the same level of staff that we had when there were 52,000 prisoners.

The Home Secretary stood up the other day and said he's going to bring in things like moving female prisoners to male prisons. But they already do that.

They also say they've opened another 19,000 places since coming to power but that is not the case. What they do is put two and three prisoners where one used to be.

The Home Secretary is the first home secretary for years not to meet our union. The only time we've met him was at a meal at the TUC this year where what he seemed to want to do was threaten prison officers. He said: "If you take me on, you'll lose." But I said: "If you take us on society loses."

We don't want to be seen as part of the problem, we believe we're part of the solution. I'm not interested, neither is my union, in giving great help to any home secretary.

We are interested in making sure we have a fair, just and civil society. Until we tackle the mental health difficulties and the underlying problems of crime in our society, we will not move anywhere.

We'll lock people up and we'll re lock them up when they come out. They will kill themselves and they will go out and kill other people and they'll commit more offences. We'll end up with a society where we've got a huge amount of crime committed by mentally ill and drug-dependent individuals whose problems really should have been tackled very early on.

It's horrendous for my members. We know that we are not affecting many of the people we are releasing. You ask: "How much could we have done had we got the resources and had we not kept moving people up and down the country because of the overcrowding?"

We're shuffling people all over the place. One weekend recently, police cells were used on 19 occasions - at £361 per cell per night. That doesn't makes sense. You spend £361 on a political whim of the home secretary who wants to prove he can be tougher than anyone else on crime.

I'm sure that the people who get attacked and killed and raped and robbed as a result of not tackling people's offending behaviour appropriately won't see it that way. We could have prevented a lot of crime by now if the money was spent in a better way. And a better way is not to crowd 80,000 people into a system that should be holding 54,000 or 55,000.

I have to say that I do actually believe in punishment. That it can make people think again. But that's only if they're able to think about it. If they're badly affected by drugs or they're mentally ill you're not going to get through to them by punishing them.

Many people come into the prison system and go out the other end, not experiencing any form of punishment because out in society their lives are worse than in prison. If we have to punish people they need to be able to say "I don't like this".

We got taken to court by the Tories in 1993 because we took a stand against prison overcrowding. Hull and Preston prisons were the most overcrowded in the civilised world. We found a gun in Preston prison and we'd had a riot in the visitors' room at Hull, so we locked the gates and said we can't take any more prisoners.

This was for the sake of prisoners as much as staff - we did not want to lose control. Bearing in mind it was only three years after the Strangeways riot. They passed legislation against us to make sure that we opened the gates and crammed people in.

We stood up against the privatisation of public services, in this case the prison service, and we wanted to make sure we were able to treat prisoners decently. That's why the Tories took away our trade union rights.

What do you think about New Labour now, picking up where the Tories left off?

I've been a Labour Party member all my adult life. And the majority of senior officials in the POA are Labour Party members. But they are very upset and annoyed by the broken promises made by Tony Blair and the Labour government.

I've been very close to leaving the Labour Party on a number of occasions. Prison officers were swung to vote Labour on promises. Now many prison officers and their families won't vote Labour. I don't think they'll necessarily vote Tory but they want someone who says they care about us as workers in prisons.

We support the idea of the Trade Union Freedom Bill. If they want stability from our union, then give us back our rights. Blair said he would return to the POA the rights no different to those enjoyed by other public servants - and he hasn't done it.

What do you think about the attempts to get a campaign for a new workers' party off the ground?

I think it's laudable. Some people say there's no such thing as politician which keeps their word. But I believe there are lots of people out there who will stand for parliament who are socialists.

Prison officers will look at the lies that they have been told by New Labour and they will not vote for the New Labour experiment again.

I think that the vast majority of prison officers who are Labour Party members will find it very hard to support Gordon Brown. He's behind the cuts in public services. It's his initiative that the pay review body has not awarded decent pay rises to prison officers.

I recruited lots of prison officers into the Labour Party and I'm very embarrassed about it now.

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