NO PLACE IN PRISON SERVICE FOR RACIST BIGOTS SAYS POA HEAD
Colin Moses, National Chair of the Prison Officers' Association, talks to Searchlight about his life and political development and the fight against fascism and racism. Interview by Maureen Foster.
I feel immediately at home when I arrive to interview Colin Moses, the national chair of the union. He picks me up from the station, introduces the workers, shows me around the building and gives me a guided tour and history lesson along the picture gallery of past national chairs and general secretaries of the POA. He then organises getting the kettle on.
Colin Moses became the first black leader of his union when he was elected in August 2002 and only the second black trade union leader ever elected in this country. Now he stands alone, since the retirement of Bill Morris, former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union.
Colin was born in North Shields and raised in the shipyard communities of the North East. He was the youngest of eight children of a merchant seaman from Sierra Leone and an English mother. He doesn't remember his father, who died when he was three months old. He remembers having to face racism at a young age, "I grew up in a mainly white community but there were other mixed race families living near us. I remember racism early in my life - much of it, I believe, borne out of ignorance, some of which was enshrined in the beliefs of the 1950s and 1960s."
The shipyards and pits were the backbone of North East communities when he was growing up and he started his working life in the shipyards. Colin is a socialist and comes from a family of committed socialists. He believes strongly that black people should "be with the left" and that "socialism is the only protector of people with colour".
Colin joined a union when he was just 15 and says, "I felt an immediate affinity with the union; I enjoyed the senses of fraternity. Being of African heritage, as a young person I read James Baldwin and Malcolm X and actively sought out every piece of African history I could find. From an early age I had an interest in politics. I wanted to forge an identity."
In the 1970s he joined the merchant navy as a chemical engineer and later travelled extensively in West Africa, visiting his father's birthplace in Sierra Leone. Apartheid South Africa and the Southern states of the US were also on his list of destinations. He is sure that visiting these countries helped shape his political viewpoint.
"I saw people living in the face of fortitude who kept their ability to be proud. In places such as South Africa and in the southern states of the USA in the early 1970s black people faced massive and brutal discrimination in their day to day lives, yet maintained their pride and resilience."
When I ask him about racism in the navy he explains, "there was a massive amount of racism in the British merchant navy in those days. They still ran a hierarchy of white officers and black crew - often referred to as the 'native' crew". He remembers that "during this time I read a lot and attended many lectures about the struggle for racial equality in the USA and was inspired by people like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King and the writings of Paul Robeson".
Later he joined a North Sea exploration company. In 1997 he joined a chemical industry becoming chief engineer and was elected shop steward and a convenor of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. He recalls, "I immediately liked the fraternity the union offered and I grasped the strategy of promoting equality". Around this time his brother Ted was an active member of the Anti Nazi League and got Colin involved in the fight against fascism on the streets of his local community. He asserts, "I've always believed that the struggle for equality in the UK is a struggle to break down stereotypes put in place as long ago as the days of empire".
When I ask him why he became a prison officer, he explains, "I joined the Prison Service in 1986 after Margaret Thatcher did a lot of damage to heavy industry in the North East and I was made redundant". His family all had an input into the decision. "I did a lot of soul searching and had long discussions with my family and one of the things we talked long and hard about was that people working in the Prison Service were seen as having right-wing views." He was also concerned about working in a closed society with regard to recruiting black people.
He worked first at Castington and from 1992 at Holme House and Low Newton Prison in Durham. He progressed through the ranks to become a Principal Officer in 1996 and was elected to the POA National Executive Committee (NEC) in the same year. He says he was encouraged by his peers to stand for the NEC and that "after 16 years in the Prison Service I know that the vast majority of people in the service are decent professional people whose names have been tarnished by the few".
Colin says he is proud and honoured to have been elected as head of the POA. "It is a positive milestone in the union's history and I hope it is a beacon to other black people to get equality of opportunity in the Prison Service."
I ask him about the claims that members of his union have been or are BNP members. The Prison Service has in recent years carried out internal investigations into allegations of brutality and racism by prison officers.
Colin is clear: "The Prison Service has a ban on prison officers being members of the BNP". He explains, "members of extremist parties are not employed by the Prison Service. When Martin Narey was Director-General of the Prison Service he adopted this policy and this has been reinforced by the current Director-General, Phil Wheatley."
He says the POA fully endorses this policy. "I have campaigned against racism in the Prison Service for years and will continue to be a champion of equal opportunities for every single employee of the Prison Service." He is tough on the issue. "If we find any POA member who is a member of the BNP, they will be expelled from the union immediately."
The POA has a history of expelling fascists. In 1994 it expelled Christopher Hopewell, a one-time leading member of the National Front and an officer at Wandsworth Prison. Colin says Searchlight was a great help in providing information to assist the expulsion. Hopewell stood in a European Parliamentary by-election on a bring back hanging campaign, which was a cover for his NF activities. He had links to a fascist organisation, the Friends of Oswald Mosley, and the notorious Holocaust revisionist historian David Irving.
From that time on, Colin asserts, "the POA have been forthright that there is no place in the Prison Service for racist bigots". He remembers an article in the Sunday Mirror showing Hopewell dressed in Nazi uniform and says: "we contacted Searchlight who had a file on his activities".
Hopewell appealed to the 1994 POA conference, which upheld his expulsion, but this was before the Prison Service adopted its present policy and he kept his job.
Colin remembers that as recently as the 1990s there were very few black prison officers and virtually no black governors. He maintains that Prison Service recruitment campaigns have brought about changes. However they have not gone far enough - there are 138 prisons in England and Wales and not one has a black governor. Half of all prisons have no black staff at all.
Colin aims to encourage more people from all backgrounds to join the service and move up the ranks to become governors. He aims "to promote zero tolerance of violence in prisons towards staff and inmates and to give greater recognition to the role played by prison officers in the criminal justice system".
He believes that the BNP is active in prisons and that a significant number of the prison population are in the BNP. He says "the BNP use prisons to recruit their thugs, their foot soldiers. They are becoming increasingly subversive in how they target, particularly young people, with their evil message." Colin is keen that the Prison Service devises a scheme to tackle racist behaviour just as it has schemes to deal with sex offenders. He says otherwise these racists and fascists simply infect other prisoners and use the BNP's propaganda to do it.
He also warns that when the BNP try to sell themselves on doorsteps, they campaign on a law and order ticket and "put down the majority of crime to ethnic minorities". He feels this should be "strongly contested by the criminal justice system which should be seen to be equitable".
I ask him about current legislation that creates problems for trade unions expelling fascists. On this he is very clear: "The government should assist trade unions to abolish section 174 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act to allow trade union rule books to have precedence over legislation. We have the right to write our own rules, it goes without saying within our principles of equality." He is emphatic that trade union rule books should state clearly that no member of the BNP will be allowed to be a member of any trade union.
He is clear that the BNP is a fascist organisation and its views are totally at odds with trade unionism. Fascists he says "have never supported trade unions and have sought, throughout history, to destroy the trade union movement. It is inconceivable that the BNP want to be part of the trade union movement to advance workers rights. They want to join the trade union movement to undermine and destabilise it."
Colin is committed to adding the voice of the POA to other unions to urge the TUC to mount a national campaign to identify and expel members of the BNP from trade unions.
In the light of the work that needs to be done Colin applauds and endorses Searchlight's Operation Wedge; Protecting and Educating Youth against racism, launched this month. The first publication, Signs of hate, will be supported by a website to which people can subscribe. Colin welcomes the project as a useful tool in the fight against racism and fascism in prisons, especially in juvenile offenders' institutions.
Colin is keen for the POA to support and recognises "the work of Searchlight supporting work against racism and fascism in communities". He is keen to acknowledge "the role of Searchlight providing information to trade unions, including my own, to expose fascist infiltrators. In the fight against fascism". he says "Searchlight has the full support of the POA."
This article appeared in Searchlight Magazine December 2003.