The position of Secretary of State for Justice is a relatively new one, dating from the Blair years ("Tough on crime ..."), but the periodic announcement of another crackdown on prisoner perks is surely as ancient a fixture of the British political scene as Black Rod or the National Debt. As night follows day, the media once more express appalled shock that prisoners are allowed television, their own clothes and still do not work 16 hours a day. But no one ever asks why there appears to be such craven back-sliding between these presumably successful initiatives.
The standard response to this idiocy is to note that perks are an important feature of rehabilitation, i.e. rewards for good behaviour, but this merely serves to shift the debate to a calculation of how tough the behavioural criteria should be - how much the prisoner should "earn" it - which can only ever lead to calls for greater toughness. Even pointing out that the most objectionable perks, such as Sky TV and gyms, are more likely to be provided by new-built private prisons, or that rehabilitation is not in the financial interest of the private sector, misses the point. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary ("I am the law"), isn't having a pop at Serco or G4S, but nor does he doubt the desirability of rehabilitation (this must always be maintained as an ostensible policy goal, the better to contrast with "rot in hell" diatribes directed at egregious criminals). What he is responding to is the evolution of the British workplace.
Every significant change that occurs in the operation of prisons reflects changes in the wider world of work. Prior to the industrial revolution, gaols were largely occupied by debtors (essentially held ransom) or those awaiting trial. Most crimes either led to the gallows or (from the 17th century) transportation and indentured servitude. The penal system treated people as property or collateral. The decline of transportation after American independence led to the "hulks", anchored old ships (originally used for French naval prisoners of war) that housed convicts assigned to onshore hard labour during the day, which famously featured in Dickens' Great Expectations.
While Christian notions of humane treatment played a part, Victorian prison reforms were largely driven by a desire to extend the efficiency of the factory system to the penal economy, with the ideal of a self-financing system always just out of reach. As industry became more sophisticated and skill-based, so prisons moved away from the "silent system" and other rigidities and towards the rehabilitation of the criminal as a productive worker. Open prisons appeared in the 1930s, coincident with the growth of light industry and team-based manufacturing. Penal servitude, hard labour and flogging were abolished in 1948, to bring us in line with the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Since then, the practice of prison management has largely followed fashions in general business theory, notably in respect of employee cooperation (pastel paint schemes) and motivation (perks are pay for performance). It is commonly assumed that the gradual improvement in the treatment of prisoners reflects a moral trend, i.e. we're becoming more humane and compassionate, but it would be more accurate to say that it reflects a change in our own circumstances and thus our expectations of what constitutes punishment.
The prison environment is always a correlative of the work environment, but it's worth remembering that those responsible for rehabilitation (i.e. the "professionals" rather than the warders) are operating within a whitecollar paradigm. Among the wider population, prisoners are ranked alongside low-wage manual workers, so we expect them to be subject to the kind of environment now common in supermarkets rather than offices. We expect prison to be like a shit job without the saving grace of a home life. As shit jobs get shittier, so conditions for prisoners will get worse.
The specific perks that have caught the attention of Chris Grayling are intimately bound up with recent changes in the workplace. The gradual erosion of the business dress code has been matched by a literal lack of uniformity in prisons. The ready access to TV is an echo of the increasingly common assumption that office workers can wear earphones or stream news on their computers while working. TVs running BBC News 24 or Sky News are now a common sight in offices, and not just in receptions or rest areas.
The restriction of these particular perks has a strong class aspect to it, being the withdrawal of what are seen as white-collar benefits from largely blue-collar inmates. The popular distaste for prisoner perks also reflects prevailing social norms, thus we get upset about prisoners having "office parties", which we assume are Saturnalian orgies, though we seem less bothered when they're justified in therapeutic jargon as "arts activities" (we secretly despise team-building exercises, apart from covert pub crawls, so we're happy to inflict these on prisoners).
Grayling was quite open about the contrast: "It is not right that some prisoners appear to be spending hours in their cells and watching daytime television while the rest of the country goes out to work". In a society where increasing numbers are condemned to the cells of their own homes through unemployment or inadequate wages, where TV really is the cheapest opiate, it becomes necessary to accentuate the differences between the criminal and the merely poor, even if those differences are (as ever) slight. Liberty means the right to watch Jeremy Kyle at your leisure.