We need control over our prisons – keep them public
The government began privatising British prisons in the 1990s, starting with Wolds Prison in Yorkshire in 1992 - the first modern European prison run by the private sector. Today, there are 16 private prisons across the country – accommodating 15% (14,286) of the UK’s prison population. This is a higher proportion than in the US, where the figure is around 9%.
Yet despite the professed advantages of privatising our prisons – such as better prison management – evidence increasingly shows the opposite; damaging effects such as overcrowding, higher costs and reduced inmate and staff safety are to name but a few problems.
What you need to know
Private prison contracts in the UK are currently held by 3 for-profit companies – Serco, Sodexo and G4S. All are international corporations, with substantial multi-billion annual turnovers.
- According to the Ministry of Justice, two of the three worst performing prisons in the UK are run by private companies: Oakwood, one of the largest in the country, by G4S; and Thameside by Serco.
- Private prisons have held a higher percentage of their prisoners in overcrowded accommodation than public sector prisons every year for the past 17 years. Over a third of people in private prisons were held in overcrowded accommodation in 2014–15.
What are the effects of privatisation?
Untrained staff, worse security
The National Audit Office highlighted the lack of experience among staff in private prisons which can have an adverse effect of the safety of inmates. This is connected to the lower wages offered by private prisons – in 2011, these were 23% lower than comparable public sector roles.
Notably, HMP Oakwood and HMP Thameside have been criticised for their poor performance – with reports of increasing levels of assault among inmates. Inspectors were extremely critical of HMP Oakwood following its first inspection – observing “unacceptable risks and very poor outcomes for the prisoners held at that time”. In 2014 the government was accused of covering up an incidence of ‘full-scale riot’ in HMP Oakwood.
Private prisons are more likely to hold prisoners in overcrowded accommodation than public sector prisons – and have held a higher percentage of prisoners in overcrowded accommodation for the past 17 years. Over one third of people in private prisons were held in overcrowded accommodation in 2014-15.
Impact on inmates
Prisons are failing to reduce the proportion of reoffenders returning to prison – which has only continued to rise in recent years. Private prisons often claim to be focussed on rehabilitation – G4S openly claims that it encourages inmates to work 40 hour weeks (for £2 a day) to enable them to become more employable post-release. However, this method of rehabilitation has been criticised for ignoring the fact that inmates require support, education and guidance.
Higher costs for the public
23% of the government’s prison budget is spent on private prisons – but private companies don’t run 23% of prisons. Rather, 16 of 150 prisons in the UK are run privately, housing 15% of our national prison population.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform:
"If the Ministry of Justice is looking at modelling cuts of a further 25% to 40% to the department's budget, then these figures suggest the solution does not lie in privatising more prisons. Despite the problems that benchmarking has brought, the public prisons have driven down costs thanks to their ability to make savings at scale."
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform:
"There could not be a more damning indictment of the government's fanatical obsession with justice privatisation than its own performance figures. Last autumn, the justice secretary hailed G4S Oakwood as an example of what the private sector could achieve in prisons. We agree. The prison, ranked joint-bottom in the country, is wasting millions and creating ever more victims of crime."
Lessons from overseas
The United States
Despite the attested benefits of privatising prisons – that cheaper operating costs will lower costs to the taxpayer – these have not materialised in the United States. Last year, the two largest for-profit prison companies – the CCA and GEO groups – posted an annual revenue of over $3.3 billion. And although costs to the government remain the same as publicly operated prisons, private prison employees receive less training and lower pay and benefits. Under-qualified staff pose a danger to themselves and the inmates they are responsible for. In 2001, for example, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency reported a higher incidence of assaults on prisoners by guards at private prisons than those that are publicly owned. Alongside this, private companies spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying and supporting the campaigns of “tough-on-crime” political candidates - as more prisoners mean greater profits. From 1980 to 2009, for example, the prison population of the GEO Group rose by 1,600%. Harsh sentencing laws fill prison beds, with the most vulnerable – the young, poor, immigrants and people of colour – making up a disproportionate number of those prisoners.
In April this year, private prison operator Serco had been ordered to pay $8 million to the New Zealand Corrections department over its management of Mt Eden Prison. The department took over management last year after allegations of assaults and organised fight clubs. Previously, Serco had been served with 55 breach of contract notices since it took over running the prison in 2011 – paying fines of $1.4 million.
What can you do?
- Find out more at the Prison Reform Trust.
- Find out more at the Howard League for Penal Reform.
- Write to your local MP.
Yes! I want public services for people not profit.
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