Most people serving sentences in British prisons are required to work, and the last 200 years have seen a shifting variety of reasons. In the 1770s the reformer John Howard believed that work "of the hardest and most servile kind" promoted repentance for sin. Twenty years later the philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisaged his ideal "panopticon" prison as a profitable factory. Several times in the 19th century a crime wave was followed by official views that prisons were too soft; and, after the 1877 Prison Act brought them all under central government control, the work done by most prisoners was intended as mainly punitive and deterrent.
Sir Edmund Du Cane, chairman of the Prison Commission in the harsh closing decades of the Victorian era, wrote that the purposes of convict labour were deterrence, reform and - fortunately accompanying the first two, he said - helping to make the prisons self-supporting.
In the 20th century, as the treadwheel, crank and oakum picking vanished and prison conditions became more humane, sewing mailbags gradually gave way to other kinds of work, and increasing numbers of inmates received some vocational training. But every few decades have seen some kind of official inquiry into prisoners' work: what should it comprise, how should it be organised?
Nowadays prisons provide a great diversity of jobs. There are workshops for engineering, furniture making, desktop publishing and repairing wheelchairs, to name only a very few. But there are not enough of these. Nearly half the prisoners who work are occupied in unskilled tasks like cleaning just to keep the prison going, and they work for only a few hours a day. Others do routine unskilled assembly work of a kind that has almost disappeared from outside industry. As the outside working world has changed, the mismatch between prison jobs and labour markets outside has grown.
There is plenty of evidence that worthwhile employment is one of the biggest influences in helping discharged prisoners to avoid serious crime. Not all people leaving prison want a legitimate job but the majority do, and for the same reasons as the rest of us. They want not just a livelihood, but work giving self-respect, interest, a sense of achievement, of making things happen. Prison inmates too would like to get some of these satisfactions from their work but very often they do not, and their earnings average less than pounds 8 a week. Vocational training courses in prisons have long waiting lists.
Prison staff and prisoners are confused as to the purposes of prisoners' work. In fact the Prison Service would like to provide more worthwhile jobs for inmates with training which looks forward to their future. But prison managers' efforts are hampered by the enormous pressure of having to house a prison population which in six years has shot up by 50 per cent. Work and training are disrupted as inmates are shunted around the system in the search for vacant spaces, and resources are diverted to preventing escapes.
This pressure springs from public attitudes: from the expectation that great numbers of offenders shall be locked up. Of course some must be, but the courts could deal with many others in less expensive ways. Then prison staff could spend time and resources on those who remained, providing positive programmes including work and training which would prepare them better for eventual inclusion in law-abiding society.
The Prison Service needs public support in its desire to do constructive work with prisoners, and ex-prisoners need support from the public, including employers, in trying to rebuild their lives. How much support are we willing to give?
Frances Simon is the author of `Prisoners' Work and Vocational Training' (Routledge, 11 March, pounds 16.99)