The Prison Officers Association has always been a contradictory beast.
So at their conference this week, national chairman Colin Moses attacked 10 years of new Labour's broken promises, warning Prime Minister Tony Blair that he "should be ashamed of himself."
Moses told delegates that the government had treated the POA with "derision" since it came to power, and he pointed out that Gordon Brown, who had attacked officers' wages, was unlikely to give the union its trade union rights back when he becomes Prime Minister. "Enough is enough. We must demonstrate that this union has a voice and it must be heard. …. We will continue to campaign and we will take our fight to Europe, the government and the TUC. We will join with other unions for justice and fairness."
He also pointed out, in reference to the government's increasing use of the private sector to run Britain's jails, that "public services should not be run for profit."
So far so good, this is normal trade unionism, indeed the POA is backing the RMT initiated national Shop Stewards Network, with its next conference in July.
But the POA also represents those in the front end of enforcing the repressive role of the state, and often has less than enlightened views about prisoners’ rights.
The week POA conference attacked the government's decision to allow prisoners to smoke in their cells once the smoking ban in public places and at work comes into effect on July 1 in England and Wales.
The POA complains that the exemption gives prisoners more rights than prison officers. Staff at Wakefield's maximum-security prison were banned from smoking last year when it became the first to introduce a clean-air policy. Warders cannot smoke anywhere in the jail, but prisoners are still allowed to light up in their cells.
General secretary Brian Caton told conference that prisoners should not be allowed to smoke in jail. "They have broken the law and been sent to prison as a result. That was their choice and they knew the consequences of their actions … Prisons are not hotels and it is wrong that prison staff are being treated like second-class citizens.”
The equation by the POA is entirely false that it is unfair that prisoners can smoke while staff cannot. Staff can nip outside for a smoke, and can go home each day.
It is important that prisoners have as much control over decisions about their own life and welfare as possible, this is necessary for self-esteem. As long as smoking is legal in wider society, then it should be legal for prisoners.
The difficultly is that the shift in social attitudes towards smoking has led to a widespread exaggerated misunderstanding of the real risk of second hand smoke, which has fed into the POA’s attitude. This is the government’s fault as they have colluded in exaggerating the understanding of risk in order to promote an otherwise laudable public policy objective.
The balance struck by anti-smoking legislation itself is correct over this issue, but the way that the public debate was conducted in an atmosphere of moral panic has created an issue of potentially serious friction between prisoners and staff.