Privatising punishment

I believe people sentenced by the state to imprisonment should be deprived of their liberty and kept under lock and key by those accountable primarily and solely to the state.Labour Party Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair, 1993

Labour will take back private prisons into public ownership – it is the only safe way forward.
John Prescott 1994

Within a week of being elected in 1997, Home Secretary Jack Straw reversed Labour’s pre-election position and announced that all new prisons would now be privately built and run. Since then punishment has become big business. In September 2008 the press announced that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), a charity supposedly committed to campaigning for less use of imprisonment, had joined a consortium bidding to run two new prisons. Nicki Jameson reports.

During the 1980s right-wing think-tank the Adam Smith Institute had recommended to the Conservative government that it follow the example of the US, which was beginning to use private contractors to manage prisons. The Tories duly began experimenting with privatisation and by the time Labour took power four prisons and three immigration detention centres were being privately run.

Today there are 12 private prisons in Britain with another four in the pipeline (not counting the three proposed ‘Titan’ prisons). All four notorious ‘Secure Training Centres’ (prisons for children) are privately run, as are seven out of the ten immigration removal centres, with a massive increase in immigration detention capacity planned. Transport between prisons, from prison to court and from detention centre to airports, where asylum seekers are violently forced onto planes and deported, have all been put out to tender, as have court security, home detention curfew (tagging) and provision of prison workshops, education, catering and shop facilities.

Helping prisoners vs ‘managing offenders’
In 2004 the government set up the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). NOMS is an additional layer of bureaucracy on top of the already bureaucratic Prison Service and Probation Service. It has introduced to the criminal justice system an appalling and insidious new jargon in which, as ex-prisoner and writer Erwin James succinctly put it ‘instead of people who need help, encouragement, guidance, support – we have only “offenders” who must be managed and monitored’. However, the main purpose of NOMS is to break down all areas of ‘offender management’, and in particular those functions hitherto carried out by the Probation Service, into chunks for which ‘services’ can then be ‘commissioned’.

Profiting from punishment the corporate way
Repression is a lucrative business. The current main players are:
• Serco – a massive company, operational in everything that can possibly be ‘outsourced’, with contracts everywhere from Brize Norton airbase to the Woolwich Ferry. It runs four prisons, two immigration detention centres, one ‘Secure Training Centre’ and a tagging scheme.
• Kalyx (formerly UKDS) – a subsidiary of French multinational Sodexho, the company which ran the degrading food voucher scheme for asylum seekers, introduced by the Labour government in 1999. It currently runs three prisons, including Bronzefield women’s prison, and one detention centre, and is a partner in Addiewell Prison (Holdings) Ltd, which is due to open a new prison in Scotland.
• G4S (formerly Group 4 Securicor) – the world’s largest security services company, employing 440,000 people. It was formed by the merger of Securicor and Group 4 Falck in 2004 and also owns the US-based Wackenhut Corporation. It runs two prisons in England and one in Wales, as well as three detention centres (see article on Dungavel, page 16), and since 1999 has held the contract for inter-prison escorts.
• GEO – currently manages Campsfield immigration removal centre and is looking to expand. GEO Group Inc was founded by George C Zoley, former director of the Wackenhut Corporation, and is keen on bidding to run one of the Titan prisons.

Profiting from punishment the charitable way
In addition to the overtly profit-making private companies, a vast number of ‘Third Sector agencies’ and charities are already contracted to run a massive number of facets of the criminal justice system, including hostels, housing advice, ‘resettlement’, employment training and alcohol and drug awareness courses. Even the Howard League for Penal Reform runs ‘Barbed’, a ‘social enterprise’ in Coldingley prison, ‘intended to generate profits that will be ploughed back into the Howard League [and to] shine the light towards a future when long term prisoners get training, real work experience, pay tax and save for a pension, and build a new crime-free life’.

It was therefore not altogether surprising when it was announced that NACRO and drugs charity RAPt are involved in a bid by G4S and building firm Galliford Try to manage two new prisons in London and Liverpool. A rival bid has also been made by Serco, ‘social care charity’ Turning Point and ‘crime reduction charity’ Rainer Crime Concern. The pathetic promise of Chief Executive Paul Cavadino that NACRO ‘remains opposed to the government’s strategy of expanding the prison system’ rings hollow when in the same breath he says that ‘the best way of ensuring that we can provide a resettlement service is to be... involved in designing the regime’.

Where there’s misery, there’s brass
The bidding war for the three planned ‘Titan’ prisons has yet to begin, although plenty of interest has already been shown by greedy profiteers who see an opportunity for making yet more cash from repression. While the Carter Review of Prisons (see FRFI 201) recommended three prisons for 2,500 men each, the consortia that responded to the Home Office consultation on the Titans have set out their stalls to build prison complexes that will house up to 3,600 each.

Private involvement in state punishment can never be progressive and ‘charities’ that participate in bids to run prisons line up firmly on the side of those campaigning for more incarceration, whatever gloss they put on it. The current government is charting a course towards more imprisonment and more repression, and is looking for the cheapest way to do it. Any movement against this in the future will not only have to take on the government itself but will have to confront the well-paid lobbyists of the private consortia whose profits are tied up with oppression and who will always argue for more prisons, more detention, more monitoring, more curfews, more controls, as for them misery means money.

FRFI 205 October / November 2008


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