Selling off the punishment machinery

In July 2011 the government announced that it would be tendering 15-year contracts for the running of eight previously public sector prisons. These contracts are estimated to be worth a total of £2.5bn and could see the percentage of Britain’s prison places which are in the hands of private companies increase to 20% of the total. Nicki Jameson reports.

Although both the 1997-2010 Labour government and the Conservative government prior to that flirted with ‘market testing’ state prisons, the current government is embarking on the biggest wholesale exercise to date in shifting previously state-run places of incarceration and punishment into the private sector. This is driven both by an ideological commitment to privatisation and by the desperate hope that private management will relieve the state of some of the financial burden of maintaining Britain’s vast punishment apparatus.

The prisons up for tender are all Category C men’s prisons and, with the exception of Coldingley in Surrey, are all in the north of England. Low security closed prisons are the most easily ‘saleable’ parts of the prison system, as those managing them need to worry neither about the stringent security demanded in higher security prisons housing Category A and B prisoners, nor about monitoring day release, home leave, working-out schemes and the other features of Category D open prisons.

Seven private companies have been vying for the contracts, including massive international security firms G4S and GEO, the latter having teamed up with road maintenance operator Amey (owned by Ferrovial, the Spanish group which runs Heathrow airport) to form GEOAmey. Also bidding for a slice of the pie are French catering company Sodexho – infamous among asylum seekers to Britain and their supporters for running the Labour government’s humiliating food voucher scheme – and Interserve, which specialises in support services and construction. Like G4S, Interserve boasts of the high level former employees of the Prison Service and National Offender Management Service whom it has poached to advise on or lead its bids. The deadline for submission of tenders is the end of April 2012; the victors will be announced in October and the contracts begin operation from early 2013.

Private/public and public/private

The ‘market-testing’ bidding process is not quite as simple as straight-forward privatisation, as in the current exercise the Prison Service itself is also bidding to continue running the prisons it now manages and all the bids are being made by consortia of organisations. Consequently even the public sector bids have private components, and vice versa.

The complicated and farcical nature of this process was highlighted in early March when the governor of Lindholme prison in Doncaster locked probation staff out of the prison. A bid to run Lindholme, as well as neighbouring Hatfield and Moorlands prisons, has been submitted by a consortium consisting of G4S, South Yorkshire Probation Trust and housing charity the St Giles Trust. The Prison Service therefore viewed the presence of probation staff as potentially compromising to its own bid, which in turn is being made in ‘partnership’ with private facilities management and property services company Mitie and ‘third sector’ organisations the Shaw Trust and Working Links. Although the dispute was resolved and the probation staff re-admitted a week later, the conflict could potentially have resulted in hundreds of prisoners being deprived of reports which are crucial to their applications for recategorisation or parole.

The governor’s actions were supported by the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) which, like the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), opposes the privatising of prisons. The unions correctly point out that the main way in which the private sector bids attempt to undercut one another and succeed in profiting from imprisonment is by having fewer and lower paid staff than in public sector prisons. Their concern, however, is limited to protection of their own jobs and working conditions, and the POA in particular never hesitates to use scare stories, vilifying prisoners as dangerous and deranged and warning of how such cost-cutting will apparently lead to mass escapes and riots.

Labour’s legacy

The proportion of prison places which are run by private companies in Britain is already the highest in the world at 15% – compared to 9% of the US’s massive prison estate. This is entirely down to the Labour government; within a week of Labour being elected in 1997, Home Secretary Jack Straw reversed the party’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 Britain. At that point four prisons and three immigration detention centres were being privately run; when Labour left office in 2010 there were 11 private prisons in England and Wales and two in Scotland, with more in the pipeline. All four of the notoriously abusive Secure Training Centres (STCs) for children are privately run, as are nine out of the 12 immigration removal centres and all custodial transport between prisons, courts, detention centres and airports, as well as court security, home detention curfew (tagging) and the provision of prison workshops, education, catering and shop facilities.

Labour presided over a massive increase in the prison population, from 60,131 prisoners in England and Wales in 1997 to 84,073 in 2010. By the end of Labour’s time in office, 154 out of 100,000 people in England and Wales and 153 out of 100,000 in Scotland were behind bars, and this did not include those incarcerated in immigration detention centres, mental hospitals and STCs, or those who had been released from prison but were subject to electronic tagging, curfews or other supervisory measures. Labour’s 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which came into force on 4 April 2005, made wholesale changes to the sentencing structure, ensuring that virtually anyone convicted of a violent or sexual offence received an indeterminate prison sentence for public protection (IPP). Prisoners can only be released from these sentences once the specified minimum tariff period has expired, after ‘proving’ to the Parole Board that they have reduced the risk of reoffending – an almost impossible task from within prison. By May 2011 there were 3,500 post-tariff IPP prisoners languishing in gaol.

A conundrum the government is powerless to resolve

The ConDem coalition government inherited this vast punishment machine, along with the task of reconciling its ‘tough on crime’ stance with the pressing need to make swingeing budget cuts. In December 2010, as Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke set out his plans to fulfil these objectives, including plans to abolish the IPP sentence, we wrote in FRFI: ‘Behind all these plans there lies a conundrum that the government is powerless to resolve. On the one hand, the relentless drive to cut public spending means that there is less money available for the machinery of punishment. On the other hand, the very same programme of cuts will viciously attack the working class and the resultant desperation and resistance mean that the government cannot realistically allow itself to reduce the prison population. Indeed, there is every possibility that, instead of falling, the number of people behind bars could actually increase.’

This has of course been proven to be the case. On 4 August 2011, when the Metropolitan Police gunned down Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, sparking off a wave of revolt across England, prisons in England and Wales (not counting immigration detention centres) held 84,884 prisoners. State vengeance on ‘rioters and looters’ ensured that by 12 August it had risen to 85,324, by 19 August to 86,054 and by 26 August to 86,233. It remains at this level, with 86,848 prisoners as of 9 March 2012. As police forces publish yet more rogues’ galleries of riot suspects and criminal trials continue, the aftermath of the August uprising looks set to affect the prison population for a considerable time.

No to profiteering from punishment

Although the physical conditions in some private prisons are better than in many old state prisons, and the bully-boy attitude of POA strongholds is often replaced by a less aggressive staff attitude, the regimes in most privatised prisons are poor and the medical provision is universally bad. Whatever the situation in individual institutions, private involvement in state punishment is never progressive. All the companies currently vying for contracts to take over public sector prisons have a material interest in keeping those prisons open and full, and in lobbying to build yet more prisons, pass more punitive laws and sentence more people to imprisonment. This includes the charities that participate in bids to run prisons, whatever gloss about assisting rehabilitation or education they put on their involvement.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 226 April/May 2012


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