Prisons, privatisation, and profit

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Bristol ABC has received a copy of an excellent article tracing the privatisation programme of British prisons, and the profit motive behind it. Luckily for the profiteers, the British Govt PLC is expanding prison capacity, and asking them to get rich helping with it. Unluckily for us, it means more of us face the misery of prison conditions.

The article is written by a long term anti-prison activist, Bra. It can also be read in its original format at ‘Last Hours’ here.

Prison privatisation – alive and kicking

On the 27th April the Ministry of Justice announced the abandoning of their £2.9 billion plan for three Titan jails, each holding 2,500 prisoners. These massive prisoner-warehouses, designed as a quick fix for the ever-expanding prison population of England and Wales, were supposed to be built and run by the public sector. However, rejection of the plans by just about everyone in anyway involved in prison issues, coupled with the current global financial crisis, has seen the Titan plan replaced by one involving a massive extension of prison privatisation and ‘market testing’ within the criminal justice arena. (1)

The new plan calls for five new jails, each holding 1,500 prisoners, to be built at a cost of £3.1 billion. The first 2 of these mini-Titans will be at the former Ford Motor Company site in Barking and on the former psychiatric hospital site at Runwell, near Colchester. Both will be designed, built and run by private security companies on 25-year contracts and open by 2013. The mini-Titans are in addition to previously announced plans for nearly 5,000 additional places by 2011, including 2 private sector 600-place prisons at Belmarsh West & Maghull, Liverpool.

Additionally, the market testing of 7 existing prisons was announced: 2 of these are the ‘failing prisons’ at Birmingham (better known as Winston Green)(2) and Wellingborough; the others had previously been open to competition and would again be at the end of their current contracts(3). If the whole programme were followed through on it would result in the UK having the largest private prison population by percentage in the world. At the same time, and almost completely unnoticed, the government announced the extension of its bizarre ‘privatisation by stealth’ project, previously piloted in 2008, of allowing Probation Boards to gain Trust status in the same way that Academy schools and NHS hospitals previously have. Those Boards that then failed to cut the mustard and gain Trust status would face the possibility of full privatisation. Not to be outdone, the Tories plan to take the Trust status one step further and extend it to the prisons themselves, but more of that later.

“Privatisation is not just a diversion from the agenda of prison reform; it is fundamentally flawed in principle and is now being pursued for reasons which have nothing to do with efficiency or prison reform but are simply an obsession with the idea of privatisation itself…it will be not just a profound error of principle but a massive and tragic waste of an opportunity to get on with the real agenda – the reform of an antiquated and outdated prison system from which this country desperately wishes to escape.” – Tony Blair, Hansard, 3rd February 1993.

The concept of privatised prisons, like many of modern venture capitalism’s most pernicious ideas, originated in corporate America. When Nelson Rockerfeller, the then governor of New York, in 1973 called for a mandatory sentence of life without parole for all convicted drug dealers, everyone thought it was a good idea. Nobody however anticipated the massive overcrowding and prison unrest it would precipitate throughout the US prison system during the early ‘80s.

Later that decade, when a newly elected Reagan launched his own populist ‘War on Drugs’, the crisis deepened and a massive prison-building programme was seen as the only solution. And the cash registers of US big business started ringing in anticipation of the killing to be made.

Private prisons started popping up all over the US, creating what today is a multimillion dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions, website and mail-order catalogues. There’s even something called the Corrections Yellow Pages listing items such as the “violent prisoner chair”, the “body orifice security scanner” and razor wire with trade names such as Supermaze, Detainer Hook Barb, and Silent Swordsman Barbed Tape. 15 years ago there were only 5 privately run federal prisons in the USA, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now there are over 100, with more than 82,000 inmates (equivalent to the total prison population of England and Wales).

These prisons have became such a popular money-spinner, especially in the Southern states, that there is now a glut of prison places, or beds as they like to call them. However, these large, often dormitory style, buildings only remain profitable if they function near capacity and almost all companies now have to employ ‘bed brokers’ to maintain inmate numbers. Some of the profiteers have even resorted to bribing judges to increase the number of people they sentence to help keep their prisons profitable(4) and private prison lobbyists remain some of the most active and financially powerful at both State and Federal levels.

A Very British Affair
In the UK prison privatisation has taken a different route, not least because the 2 countries have very different state structures. And whilst the centralised criminal ‘justice’ system in the UK precluded the same type of collusion between local judiciary, legislators and the private companies, that hasn’t stop the likes of ex-Home Secretary John Reid (2005-07) from becoming paid consultant or board members of some of the private prison companies.(5)

The origins of private prisons in the UK can be traced back to a mid ‘80s report from the Adam Smith Institute(6), although little attention was paid to it at the time even by the pro-privatisation Thatcher government(7). However, it was to serve as a blue print for Tory prison privatisation plans, precipitated when the UK prison system started to suffer its own crisis of overcrowding and riots at the end of the decade. By the time the ’91 Criminal Justice Act, which allowed for the contracting out of management of new prisons & detention centres (so-called Public Private Partnerships), had been brought in in direct response to the Strangeways uprising, the UK’s first ever private prison contact had already been awarded to Group4 to run HMP Wolds.(8) Two more PPP prisons, Blakenhurst and Doncaster, followed in 1994.

Whilst still in opposition in the mid ‘90s Labour appeared to be fully against prison privatisation: “(It) is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration. This is surely one area where a free market certainly does not exist…(a Labour government will) bring these prisons into proper public control and run them directly as public services.” – Jack Straw March ’95. Yet within a week of being elected in 1997, Straw, the new Labour Home Secretary, reversed Labour’s pre-election position and out-Toried the Tories by announcing that is was now official government policy for all new prisons to be privately built and run. This was also applied to the Home Office immigration detention estate and transnationals like Corrections Corporation of American, Wakenhut, SERCO and G4S fell over each other in a complicated dance of competition and alliance to get the best seats at the table.(9)

Lock ‘Em Up
Profits from HMP Altcourse in Fazakerley, Liverpool (run by G4S), the first prison to be built under the private finance initiative in 1997, were so enormous that the companies building it recovered all their costs in less than two years. This has left them with 23 years of pure profit from the construction, plus extra profits to come from the running of the £247m prison for 600 local inmates.(10)

In New Labour’s dash to occupy the Tories’ moral low ground, not only did they don the Emperor’s new clothes of prison privatisation, they also pursued the Murdoch press’ agenda of mass criminalisation and hence mass incarceration. Since 1997, 3,600 new criminal offences have been created by this government, the average crown court custodial sentence has gone from 22.4 to 25.2 months and the UK prison population has risen by 36% (whilst the total population has increased by only 7%). In 1997 the UK locked up about 125 in every 100,000 inhabitants, now it is 151 in every 100,000, a 21% increase.

New Labour have themselves built 8 more PPP & PFI prisons (some 6,055 new places), doubling the private prison population they inherited(11) to about 11% of all prisoners (11% in England & Wales and 18% in Scotland)(12), a much higher percentage than the 7.2% in the USA. Under Labour’s latest plans this would increase to 14.5% by 2013, with the possibility of 5,190 further privately run places via the competition process, a total of 18,390 private prison places or nearly 20% of all prisoners, 3% higher than the current private prison league leader Australia.

Lock Even More Of ‘Em Up
So what stands in the way of the progress of Labour’s plans? One would have thought those staunch proponents of working class solidarity the Prison Officers Association would be on Labour’s side. After all, more prisons = more screws. And initially the POA supported the Titan prisons scheme, but even they ended up opposing it because of the planned staffing levels. In fact the POA are more than a little miffed that whilst the prison population has rocketed under New Labour the number of screws has stayed almost static.(13) On top of that, Labour are currently seeking to introduce many of the practices that the private companies have established in the private nicks. Under the so-called Workforce Modernisation (WfM) programme existing public sector prison staff would become “residential officers”, while a new lower ‘skilled’ and paid “operations officers” grade would be created as part of a new £50m pay deal. WfM was originally meant to be implemented in April this year but has been put back till September as 84% of the POA pay ballot rejected it.

It also of course looks highly unlikely that the Labour government will come out of the next General Election in power. Which means that the Tories will inherit the nicks that are already in the process of being built and 6 of the 7 new competition contracts will already have been decided (it is unlikely that the 3 remaining mini-Titans will have progressed far enough to be uncancellable). But the Tories have their own plans. These include building even more places that Labour and they plan to bring total capacity up to more than 100,000 by 2016. This would be financed by selling off 30 Victorian inner city jails for redevelopment,(14) though where they are going to put the 36,000 prisoners from these nicks whilst the new ones are being built is anyone’s guess.(15)

Contract Services
Another potential Tory innovation is around a prison privatisation area that I have not raised yet – making prisoners work to raise state capital. It’s big in America where they even have call centres sited in maximum-security prisons.(16) Under the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, prisoners can earn wages (a basic rate of £4 a week) for undertaking work or training. Yet there are less than 27,000 work places available across the prison estate. 60% of these are in are in Administrative Tasks (cleaning, food production & serving, etc.), the rest in prison workshops. About 4,700 of these work on Contract Services making, repairing or packing products for private companies at an average wage of around £8 for a 32 hour week. This brings in £6.1m a year in profits to government coffers from the public-run prisons in England and Wales, which is not much when set against a £2bn Prison Service budget. But the government believes that ever little counts. Now, that self-styled prisoners’ friend Jonathan Aitkin has suggested in a Centre for Social Justice report(17) that the number of Contract Services (as well as other workshop) jobs should be doubled by an incoming Tory government. The Lib Dems would trump that by tripling the numbers of workshop places!(18)

Trust In Trusts?
Which brings us back to Labour’s plans to introduce competition into a small number of prison operation contracts and allow trust status across all Probation Boards. True to form, the Tories want to go the whole hog and introduce competition between the prisons themselves by making every public sector prison in England and Wales (excluding the 8 high-security jails) an independent fee-earning Prison and Rehabilitation Trust. These trusts would be paid by results, with a bonus if the offender is not reconvicted within two years and individual prison governors would be able to decide when individual prisoners were released under a new min-max sentencing policy.(19) So maybe the spectre of prison operators bribing judges to send more people to their jails here in the UK will not be such a far-fetched idea in the very near future!

(2)Even changing its name could not disguise the fact that it was a basket case
(3)Manchester, Buckley Hall, Blakenhurst [HMPS run], Doncaster and Wolds [SERCO & GSL respectively] (4) Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan received $2.6 million for sending juvenile suspects to prisons operated by the companies Pennsylvania Child Care and Western Pennsylvania Child Care for such misdemeanours as publishing an internet parody of a teacher and slapping a friend during an argument.
(5) In Reid’s case G4S.
(6) The ASI had first suggested prison privatisation in 1984 and subsequently published Nick Elliott’s Making Prisons Work in 1988.
(7) Some UK companies had seen the writing on the wall and in 1987 a British company, UK Detention Services Ltd. (UKDS) was formed as a joint venture between British companies McAlpine and Mowlem and the Corrections Corporation of America.
(8)Originally part of the so-called ‘Step-by-step” approach, the next 2 prisons were ordered before any evaluation could be made of what was still an experiment.
(9) See & for some background on the tangled web of relationships between some of these companies.
(11) Some 11,260 places though the current number stands at about 9,100 as Buckley Hall and Blakenhurst have had to be taken back under HMPS control. When New Labour came to power there were 3 private prisons in operation [2190] and 3 more [3015] in pipeline.
(12)With Scottish devolution the Scottish Prison Service have split from HM Prison Service in England and Wales
(13)Apparently this has meant they have even less time to do their Sudoku and Crossword puzzles.
(14)Reading Jail as Oscar Wilde Tower anyone? Maybe they could put in a community treadmill for the full authentic Victorian nick experience.
(15)No announcement has been made on who will build and run these but a PFI process seems inevitable.
(16)Companies know that once they have provided the training they have a captive workforce – for 20 years to life!
(19)See Eric Allison’s Guardian article for a critique.