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It’s summertime, and time for a new Gordon Ramsay project.  Chef and television presenter extrordinaire Ramsay has worked on several projects on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few years, but this time the workhorse may have bitten off more than he can chew.

The premise of the show follows in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver (Project 15 / school dinners) and James Martin (fixing hospital food accross the UK), where a known presenter enters a public institution and attempts to effect social change.  In this iteration, Ramsay has entered Her Majesty’s Prisons – specifically Brixton penitentiary – on order to improve work habits and attitudes of serial offenders.  The intention of the show is unclear – he is not there to improve the quality of food served to the prisoners (although despite his protestations against the relative comforts of teh prisoners, he does improve their food in the very first episode) – but rather he is there to develop certain skills in a number of men who appear to have never worked a full ‘straight’ week.

In the course of the first episode, Ramsay and the viewer are introduced to a number of figures, a man who has faced an incredible 79 convictions, an affable chap who in his own words spent a life ‘duckin’ and divin’ in order to get by, and a brigade of me so inured to the routines of the institution that even the slightest changes to their daily lives risks riot.

And therein lies the problem with the show.  Ramsay must present these men as no hopers, in order to triumphantly transform them into talented workers by the show’s end.  The series becomes critical of the individuals, rather than a system that has failed them.

My problem with Ramsay’s prison nightmares is not so much in his intentions which are ostensibly to improve the lives of men with very little motivation or life skills, but rather its insistence on their confinement being the inevitable outcome of their individual failings – failings which Ramsay will redress over the subsequent 12 weeks.  The men are not, the show implies, in jail becasue they live in a massively flawed society and economic system that privliges the wealthy (why isn’t Bob Diamond a fellow inmate?) but rather they, because of their massive flaws, are unable to exist in society.

Unfortunately, Ramsay repeatedly promotes the myth that prisoners somehow have it easy.  This is the same belief system that posits that those on benefits or anyone who is in part, or wholly subsidised by the public sector (including public sector employees) is somehow living in luxury and exploiting a flawed system.

Ramsay laments that prisoners are treating the prison like some sort of perverse hotel – with five choices of (appalling) meals each day, and 21 hours of lounging around in their rooms watching television and playing video games.  Ramsay questions how a criminal, with such soft treatment in confinement, could ever learn the skills of ‘hard graft.’

There is a rather odd idea being presented here, that prison is a more comfortable life than labouring in freedom.  This is surely perverse.  Either Ramsay is right, in which case, our economic system has failed us wherein there is less reward in honest labour than in doing porridge, in which case surely it is not the prisons that need fixing but rather society itself; or, conservative institutions such as The Telegraph, are misrepesenting prison as a soft option, in order to fulfil their own ideological agendas.

But surely there is something to Ramsay’s point.  Why aren’t prisoners labouring anymore?  Why are they in confinement for all but 4 hours in a day?  Why have prisons become simply a holding pen rather than reform penitentiaries?  Successive government cuts have resulted in an American style prison system in which convicted felons are simply housed, rather than provided with labour, skills and social training so that they can be returned to productive society.

In the last twenty years, the prison population of England and Wales has doubled.  Since 1993, prison populations have risen from 40 000 to surpass 80 000 in 2006.  It seems that jailing has become a new national pasttime.  We have begun incarcerating for crimes that in the past warranted fixed penalty fines.  We are filling jails at a much faster rate and all the while, arguing that those prisoners are having a lovely time of it.  Part of the problem is that there is big money in prisons.  Private, for profit groups have been earning contracts to administer prisons – there are currently 11 such prisons in the UK.  But regardless of the profit motive, it is substantially cheaper to provide prisoners with television and video games than it is to provide them with job training, labour skills, counselling and social skills.  Rather than rehabilitating prisoners, the new jails work hard to placate prisoners as cheaply as possible.  The result being that penitentiaries do whatever they can to keep the inmates quiet, rather than to prepare them for a return to society.  But there is also a profit motive in jailing.  Each prisoner represents a substantial amount of money – the cost of each prisoner per year has now reached £41 000, that represents £32 million per year of government money being placed into the hands of jail administrators.  With that amount of money, it seems prisoners could be given more to do than watch television.  With Ramsay’s training and providing inmates with both kitchen and business skills (inmates also learn to sell what they make), perhaps this is the start of a return to prison apprenticeships.

Occupying inmates is one thing – but with a captive audience, perhaps there are better uses of prison money and Ramsay seems to have hit a nerve.

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