General Secretary

April 2013 | 08.04.2013

Prisons for Profit? We don't think so


This is an article which appeared on the Morning Star website ( on Monday 25 February 2013.

Right-wing think tank Reform caused a media stir last week with a report claiming that private prisons are better than public ones.

Press releases claiming Reform is independent and non-political are clearly false - it has received 64 donations and sponsorships from private-sector companies, including G4S and Serco, which run and have a financial interest in prisons across Britain. It was founded by Tory MP Nick Herbert in 2001 and has other links to the Conservative Party.

So it’s not too surprising that the report itself was extremely misleading, selective and fatally fl awed.

But we at the Prison Officers Association (POA) aren’t outraged by the report. We welcome the media attention as it’s about time the prison system and privatisation were debated publicly and thoroughly

We also welcome the opportunity to respond to the inaccuracies and set the record straight on Reform researcher Will Tanner’s claim that private operators succeed in running prisons better than the public-sector does.

Reform claims, for example, that the National Audit Office (NAO) report of 2003 states that private prisons and the role of the private finance initiative (PFI) in running prisons had been beneficial.

The POA doesn’t agree, but Reform isn’t lying. However, it does gloss over concerns the NAO highlighted over the use of
inexperienced employees in private prisons and a high staff turnover.

More experienced prison officers result in a safer environment for staff and prisoners - this was borne out by the NAO which noted that publicly run prisons were safer.

The NAO also worried about private prisons’ increased electronic surveillance of inmates - to reduce staff numbers - and the level of public grants provided to help private companies run prisons.

Reform also cited Ministry of Justice data to claim private prisons have reduced reoffending and are better at rehabilitating prisoners.

Even the Tory Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said this was a “simplistic analysis.”

The POA agrees with him. It’s almost impossible to compare the performance and reoffending rates of one establishment to another’s.

Prisons hold different categories of prisoners, depending on the sort of crime they have committed. And prisoners often serve sentences in a number of different jails.

Our union has no axe to grind when it comes to the three main private companies which operate in British prisons - G4S, Serco and Sodexo.

In fact we have a good professional working relationship with G4S where we have recognition rights at HMP Birmingham and HMP Oakwood. Where we’ve had discussions with Serco and Sodexo these too have been professional.

But we do have a problem with the politicians who are driving this - opening up the market in the criminal justice system and following the United States into allowing prison privatisation.

I’m afraid both Conservative and Labour governments are implicated in this. The latter has hardly been consistent.

When still in opposition Jack Straw said it was “morally repugnant to have private prisons.”

And in 1993 then shadow home secretary Tony Blair said: “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.”

He may have backtracked later but Blair raised a good point. Lack of accountability is one of the biggest problems with private prisons.

The lucrative market for building and running prisons is also a highly secretive one. Significant profits are being made out of the criminal justice system while Parliament and the public are denied the opportunity to scrutinise the contracts being handed to prison operators.

As elsewhere in the public services private contractors are making vast windfall gains from the refinancing of PFI loans. This is something which needs further investigation.

Over the last few years PFI has rightly been put under more scrutiny by the media. It is a recipe for disaster - the debt incurred may not appear on Treasury balance sheets but it still exists and builds up, meaning generation after generation of taxpayers have to foot the bill.

But concern over the use of PFI has fallen on deaf ears - Chancellor George Osborne endorses this avenue of finance not only in prisons but in education and hospitals.

This is why we need a mature, vigorous debate about both how our prisons are paid for and who runs them. Politicians may be at ease with it, but I do not think the public are happy with the concept of private prisons. As in other fields policies with no popular backing are being pushed through.

The risk posed by private prisons is significant. Private companies go where returns are likely to be greatest, meaning we could end up with a two-tier prison system in which profitable, modern prisons are run by the private sector and the public sector is left to manage Victorian establishments.

And prisoner numbers in Britain are at a record high, with overcrowding an increasing problem. The POA questions the merits of a system where companies have a vested interest in keeping the prison population as high as possible to maximise profits.

The government doesn’t acknowledge this factor - its whole approach relies on rhetoric about the “rehabilitation revolution” and “payment by results,” which it claims will drive down the prison population. But we see no evidence of a population decrease in private prisons.

What has happened to the British prison system since 1992 is one of the most underreported and unacknowledged revolutions seen in any public service.

This coalition government is keen to continue the trend, driving down costs in a race to the bottom and putting outsourcing at the heart of the criminal justice system.

If it is possible to privatise prisons then no public service is safe - sadly, that conclusion is already evident from what is going on across the public sector.

Reform’s attempts to justify all public-sector prisons being subject to market forces do not hold water. This is an area which should never have been opened to the market.

Prisons for profit are a disaster waiting to happen, the consequences of which will do lasting damage to our society. The politicians themselves will eventually reap what they have sown. Unfortunately, by then it may be too late.

Steve Gillan
General Secretary