Prisons work better in public hands

We rely on prisons to help keep us safe. But cuts and privatisation have put our prisons under increasing pressure over recent decades, putting both inmates and staff in danger.

The history

Our prisons look after over 85,000 people. When they're working well, they can help offenders to rehabilitate back into society so they can stop being a risk to the public and rebuild their lives. When they're working badly, they are violent, dangerous places for both prisoners and staff.

In 1992, Wolds Prison in Yorkshire became the first modern European prison to be run by the private sector. G4S, the company that ran Wolds Prison, was later stripped of this contract. But, by 2023, the number of our prisons in the private sector had grown to 14 in England and Wales and two in Scotland.

At the same time, government cuts have had a devastating impact on our prisons - this powerful article explains how. It tells the story of Ben who committed suicide in Nottingham prison. The coalition government cut prison budgets by 20% and the number of prison staff fell by almost 30%. Since then, there have been further government drives to make cuts through privatisation and understaffing.

The result has been catastrophic. Across England and Wales, overcrowding in prisons is becoming the norm. Prisoners will soon be held in police cells because there's nowhere else for them to go. Between 2009 and 2019, deaths in custody in English and Welsh prisons increased by 86%, while serious assaults on staff increased by 228%. Private prisons tend to be more overcrowded - cutting staff numbers can boost profits.

Who owns our prisons?

Of the 15 privately run prisons in the UK, G4S and Serco each run four and five respectively, while French food service firm, Sodexo, now runs six. All of these companies have proven that they are not up to the task of running our prisons.

Serco - the private outsourcing company given control of test and trace - was responsible for one of Scotland’s biggest Covid outbreaks in 2021 as almost 300 people tested positive at its Ayrshire prison.

Meanwhile, an independent enquiry in 2021 revealed gross negligence at Sodexo run HMP Bronzefield after an incident in 2019 in which a baby died after a teenage girl had been left to give birth alone in a cell.

The story of G4S running HMP Birmingham is one of the clearest demonstrations that prison privatisation simply does not work. In April 2019, the government terminated its contract with G4S to run Birmingham prison after it was described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons as the worst prison he had ever been to. In 2023, G4S admitted that it had failed in its running of the prison.

Key facts

To find out more about the state of our prisons, visit the websites of the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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Photo used under Creative Commons licensing, thanks to skeptical view