Aramark – The Prison Service’s Company Store
In the 19th century, Irish immigrants in Argentina, who fled there to escape poverty and starvation, were lured to huge and remote estancias [ranches] with the promise of work. Here, isolated and vulnerable, they were rapidly forced into debt by the over-inflated prices of the company store, and many were compelled to sign away their very freedom and become company slaves. A “lucky” few escaped, but still far from home they were forced to live a desperate life, searching for discarded food in the bins of Buenos Aires or selling their bodies for a crust of bread, many eventually succumbing to starvation, and dying in gutters far away from their native land. Similar scenarios were played out elsewhere. The company store is a cornerstone of freebooting capitalism, earning it a special place in the pantheon of working-class hatred. It features in literature and song. With this and the workhouse there’s little wonder that to this day most working class people still have an all-pervading fear of debt.
Company stores undoubtedly still exist to exploit workers on the wild frontiers of capitalism, and it’s not all that long ago that British pit-villages were subject to this enforced monopoly. When it comes to actual enslavement though, modern first-world capitalism is generally more subtle, seducing us into a lifetime of wage slavery by the creation and manipulation of desires for an ever-growing range of commodities. However, there’s one place in the world where slavery is still regarded as entirely acceptable, indeed where it is flourishing as never before, led like so many things by the ubiquitous forces of American capital. Having plundered the third world with impunity for so long, first-world capitalism has now turned its attention to the incarcerated working class in its own prisons, potentially a rich source of exploitable labour.
For all the talk of the liberties supposedly enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights and the domestic Human Rights Act, many of them evaporate in the fine print, and prisoners are given few rights at all. Even forced labour is considered entirely acceptable.
As in prisons elsewhere, compulsory work has long been an intrinsic part of the British penal experience, but the prisoncrats have rarely had the audacity to imagine they could turn a profit from a belligerent workforce. All that has changed with the establishment of a Prison Industrial Complex based upon the American blueprint, a model of repression being taken up across Europe and beyond. For much of the past decade, British prisoners have been subdued and manipulated, coerced and tricked into a compliant state, not least through the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) Scheme, one of the state’s more subtle and ingenious methods of subjugation. Prisoners are now ripe for exploitation by private capital.
The private prison companies are making profits as never before; they have a big investment in New Labour’s Draconian penal policies in every sense, initially subsidising a massive prison building programme, while reaping enormous profits in return. Group 4′s Altcourse Prison, for example, has paid for itself in only 3 years, with the next 22 years of its contract being pure profit for the company.
Increasingly, these companies are also able to make a fast buck from forced prison labour, doubly exploiting those they incarcerate. Last year prison labour made £52.9 million for private companies and for the State.
The token remuneration prisoners receive for their labour is still remarkably small, with prisoners earning pennies rather than pounds for an hour’s work, but even these pitifully small wages are seen as fair game by capitalism.
Intrinsic to the IEP scheme is the restriction of incoming property and commodities; in some gaols prisoners cannot even have so much as a postage stamp sent in. At the same time prisoners are required to purchase more and more things than ever before, because of cutbacks in prison spending, subsidising their own incarceration. Though sometimes the “needs” created are false ones, in many prisons it is even necessary for prisoners to buy their own toilet cleaner, and they are increasingly having to feed themselves.
So-called “special orders”, which allowed prisoners to purchase goods from other sources, were outlawed some years ago (when the IEP scheme was introduced) so everything has to be purchased from the prison canteen, the penal equivalent of the company store. Even remand prisoners are being prevented from having the most basic items sent in, and with prisoners in England and Wales spending £500,000 per week on canteen goods this monopoly is another attractive proposition for the ever-greedy forces of capitalism.
The private prison companies are in an ideal position; they own the prisons, they own the workshops, and they own the company store. Prisoners not only spend their pitiful wages at the company store, but their own money, or money sent to them by friends and family (which the IEP scheme rations so as to encourage greater work productivity and overall compliance.)
Currently, however, the vast majority of British prisons are still in the hands of the State, with private companies being increasingly reluctant to take on crumbling Victorian gaols rather than build their own (which offers far greater long-term profits.) But even here, the company store monopoly is an attractive proposition for a greedy company, and over the past few years one outfit has become ubiquitous, running prison canteens up and down the country – a company called Aramark.
Aramark are yet another US import grown fat on the misery of incarceration. In the States they are contracted to do prison catering and cleaning, just as they are here in addition to running prison canteens (Aramark also operates in detention centres.) Exploiting prison labour directly and indirectly, Aramark has an annual turnover of $7.3 billion, making a profit of $1.6 billion, over the past 6 years. The company boasts that it treats its customers as “long-term partners” and claims to be a “company where the best people want to work.” Unfortunately the prisoners who are forced to pack prison ration packs for Aramark have little choice in the matter, and by the look of their canteen workers they don’t have a great deal of choice either.
Aramark has been assured of a total monopoly over their captive clientele, and consequently insist that individual prisons enforce the strictest possible rules so that they profit from absolutely everything a prisoner purchases. Aramark has been handed (or rather sold) a captive hold over prison policy.
When Aramark takes control of a prison canteen, prices go up (sometimes doubling) and the quality and range of goods comes down. The high mark-up “Happy Shopper” brand (and to a lesser extent their own house brand) is Aramark’s stock-in-trade, but in some cases they are even selling prison-issue items.
Prisoners’ spending is predictable, particularly as it is being limited to a smaller and smaller range of products, and orders have to be placed anything up to a week in advance. Goods are brought in to the prisons pre-bagged for distribution, reducing costs to an absolute minimum. No need for advertising, no need to have stock sitting around for months, no need for friendly sales staff. Prisoners are offered a stark choice- buy here at these prices or you go without. We’re not even allowed to choose birthday cards ourselves. Consumer legislation is routinely ignored by Aramark, and prisoners are prevented from complaining directly to the company about the poor service and blatant exploitation they are forced to contend with.
Like the other parasites who exploit the slave labour of prisoners, Aramark represents capitalism in its crudest form. Such companies have us where they’d like everybody- forbidden trade unions, denied all employment rights, punished for not working hard enough, locked in a cell at night, ready to work again the next day, with profit sucked out of us in every possible way.
Following their re-election, New Labour quickly made bold claims to take a tougher line on the abuse of monopolies, yet they have encouraged one to be created within the prison system, just as they have encouraged the exploitation of prisoners in every other sense. What a coincidence that Aramark’s head office is situated in the Millbank Tower [Site of New Labour HQ]..
For those of us behind bars, nothing’s changed since the earliest days of capitalism, but that’s not to say that we can’t fight back. The exploitation of prison labour for profit has only become viable because of the compliance of prisoners. Work strikes, go-slows, and sabotage are some of the best weapons we have, and solidarity action against our exploiters by supporters outside could make a massive difference, as with the recent occupation of Hepworth Plumbing.* When combined, these things and others make a captive work force look less attractive to greedy companies. While prisoners have previously tried to organise petitions and boycotts against Aramark canteens, the company is considerably less vulnerable to action by prisoners than they are to activists outside prison. We need to be able to attack every aspect of the Prison Industrial Complex, and challenge all those who seek to profit from the misery of imprisonment. Contrary to the song, we don’t owe our souls to the company store.
September 2001. Segregation Unit, Armley Prison, Leeds. .