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Over the last 20 years private prisons have become a significant feature of the correctional landscape in the United Kingdom. There are currently 13 private prisons run by G4S, Serco and Kalyx and the UK now has a higher proportion of prisoners in private hands than even the US.
Prison privatisation was driven by many pragmatic factors: overcrowding, pressure on prison budgets, and no doubt some desire to reform inadequate prison systems. But the ideological belief that ‘free market privateers’ would be able to incarcerate more people more efficiently were just as important in this development.
The market testing process, that first allowed private companies to bid for four prison contracts alongside the public sector, began – surprise, surprise – under former Labour justice secretary Jack Straw. The strong opposition to this policy came from those who held a different belief: namely that imprisonment is an essential state function, and on the basis that the profit motive would conflict with the welfare of prisoners.
The Prison Officers Association (POA), not an organisation that believes much in the rights of prisoners or their access to justice, said in April this year that it had launched high court action after G4S was awarded the contract to take over Birmingham prison (and a new ‘super size’ prison next to Featherstone). They warned of a national strike over the privatisation issue – to do with member’s terms and conditions – and said there were contingency plans (not denied by Ken Clarke) for the army to be drafted in to run prisons in the event of industrial action. While Serco, which runs Doncaster prison, another private sector build, will become the first prison to be run under the payment by results system and would work with volunteer organisations to deliver results
The basis of the POA claim and angst is that G4S had an unfair advantage in the bidding process arising from the fact that the former head of the National Offender Management Service (Noms), Phil Wheatley, joined it months after leaving his post. The POA say Wheatley’s knowledge of the internal process of Noms (and his being Straw’s sidekick in ‘Market Testing‘) put in-house bids made by state sector managers and staff at a disadvantage.
G4S operates in 110 countries and has nearly 600,000 employees worldwide. It runs four prisons in England and Wales. Wheatley was described by G4S as an ‘associate’ helping them with ‘strategic advice around the development of its global offering’ and was not part of any bidding process. However he also happens in tandem with his G4S role to be part of a review team, set up to report on the conditions, management and oversight of the prisons in Northern Ireland, where none are currently privatised. A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Prison Service said there was no conflict of interest and the advisory committee on business appointments had also found no issue with Wheatley’s new role.
When he was head of Noms, Wheatley was of course highly critical of privately run jails, saying: ‘Private prison operators have brought little innovation to the management of custody and that the gains, such as they are, have come from using fewer staff, paying lower wages and providing less employment protection for staff.’ No doubt that was glossed over during his G4S interview and the discussion of ‘global offering’ whatever that phrase actually means. However Wheatley’s assessment of private run jails was pretty accurate at the time. In 2003 the National Audit Office evaluated the performance of privately operated prisons in the UK in a report entitled ‘The Operational Performance of PFI Prisons’. ‘PFI’ stands for ‘Private Finance Initiative’ and the executive summary said: ‘Performance of PFI prisons against contract has been mixed.’
That was being somewhat kind given all but one of the PFI prisons had incurred financial deductions for poor performance and Ashfield, a private-run prison opened in 1999, had had to be re-taken control of by the Prison Service for five months in 2002, after concerns about the safety of prisoners there. The report concluded that whilst PFI prisons tend to be better than public prisons in areas related to decency and regimes (such as the purposeful activities available to prisoners) they performed less well in other areas, such as safety and security.
In short the use of the PFI was neither a guarantee of success nor the cause of inevitable failure. By 2009 the situation had not improved much, if at all, when data obtained by More4 News showed that, in respect of the Ministry of Justice’s own Prison Performance Assessment Tool (PPAT) targets, four of the then 10 private prisons scored the second lowest rating of 2, ‘requiring development’, and only one above an assessment of “serious concern.”
Readers of my blog’s will not be amazed to hear that my own view is that the continued expansion of the prison system, the numbers of people we lock up and the types of crimes we lock them up for, and the continued and increasing incarceration of children and vulnerable adults especially, is a national disgrace. However if we do need to lock people up then there are certain functions which are the undiluted responsibility of the State.
It is one thing for private companies to provide services to the prison system but it is an altogether different matter for bodies whose motivation is primarily commercial to have coercive powers over prisoners. Whilst certainly no fan of the POA, the business of keeping prisoners safe should not be abrogated to anyone other than government servants albeit and – this is where the POA and I might quickly diverge – staff within prisons, employed by the State, should have to undertake significantly higher and longer levels of training than they currently do before being let loose on prison landings.