Cameron’s prison reform: privatisation and asset stripping?

What exactly will the British government's plans look like in practice?

Rebecca Roberts Will McMahon
18 February 2016

Flickr/daily sunny

, CC-BY-2.0

Every so often a government minister makes a socially liberal speech that is hailed as a turning point in penal policy. In the belief that the minister can be nudged to look to the heavens for inspiration (rather than down to the gutter of the Daily Mail) the sentiment is earnestly praised by prison reformers and further encouragement is offered to keep things moving in the right direction.

Last week it was the turn of the prime minister in what the official press release described as “the first speech purely focused on prisons by a British PM in more than two decades”. He spoke of the endemic failings of imprisonment and of seeing prisoners as “potential assets to be harnessed”, and of wanting to replicate the “successes” of the troubled families programme and free schools.

Despite countless reports from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, it has taken more than five years for Mr Cameron to admit that British prisons are a national disgrace. While prison violence, self-harm, suicide and squalid accommodation are hardly anything new, there has been a palpable deterioration in prison safety and conditions since David Cameron came to office. 

it has taken more than five years for Mr Cameron to admit that British prisons are a national disgraceThe momentum behind the government’s prison reforms has been gathering pace. In speeches to the Conservative party conference in October 2015, both David Cameron and Michael Gove called for a shift in thinking and policy to address the pressures building up in criminal justice and the prison system. In a number of further speeches over recent months, Mr Gove has spoken about education, redemption and rehabilitation. In setting out his priorities for the Spending Review, the chancellor, George Osborne, also identified the country's prisons “as an example of one public service badly in need of reform”. He called for a focus on rehabilitation and training and announced a prison building programme:

“But there’s something else we need to do: modernise the prison estate. So many are relics from Victorian times, soulless, bleak places which can actually encourage a life of crime. Squalid areas where bullying is rife; overcrowded areas where people sit in idleness, nothing expected of them. And to top it all off, many of them are on prime real estate in our inner cities.

“So today I can announce that prison reform will be a key part of the Spending Review. We will start to close some of our old outdated prisons in city centres, and sell the sites for housing. In their place, we will build nine new prisons – all of which are modern, suitable and rehabilitative.”

Is this is a gentler, kinder conservatism? It would seem churlish not to welcome the PM’s most recent speech highlighting the urgency of the situation. Perhaps the man who was once so keen to ‘hug a hoodie’ has returned to his original mission? Maybe this is a recognition that the prison system is simply not working and filled with people who have a range of social problems of which law-breaking is merely the symptom that brings them to the attention of the authorities.

Those cheerleading for the Cameron reforms need to be careful what they wish for. Behind the seemingly benevolent rhetoric, the proposed reforms are about the privatisation and expansion of criminal justice, rather than a serious attempt to address the problems in our criminal justice system, or society more widely. They also replicate a number of themes present across the public sector. A number of these are present in the PM’s criminal justice reform programme that clearly signal the direction of travel.

The first is the sell-off of state assets and public land. In November 2015, the Ministry of Justice announced that old Victorian prisons were to be closed, allowing for “over 3000 new homes to be built, boosting house building in urban areas and helping thousands of working people achieve their dream of owning a home.” In what was a surprise announcement, the first one identified for closure was HMP Holloway, the only women’s prison in London. While it has its problems, it is not an ‘old Victorian prison’ – but is a wonderful piece of prime real estate. Some have raised concerns about the likely impact on women, who will be shipped out of the city away from family and friends. The sell-off of the land is part of the asset bubble that now passes for London’s housing market and will bring bijou apartments and gentrification.

The second theme is that of deregulation. Prisons are very rule bound, it comes with the territory. So seen from the standpoint of relaxing an overly detailed and controlling regime it might be tempting to see progress in calls for greater autonomy for prison governors and reductions in bureaucracy. In closed institutions there is a risk that mechanisms for accountability and monitoring may be lost. However, what counts here is creating a prison system fit for privatisation. This requires a bonfire of red tape and regulation to enable the assets in the prison estate to be realized in full and profitability to be created.

The proposal for local management begins to break the state system into smaller units that can be sold or contracted out separately.To create a market you also need to be able to find some measurement of performance to support the commodification process. As has been seen in the education system, league tables have never really been about monitoring student welfare and progress, but about measuring one school against another to encourage a market to emerge. Measuring prisons against each other will create a market that companies can participate in. The proposal for local management begins to break the state system into smaller units that can be sold or contracted out separately. 

Beyond the construction and management of nine new prisons, the community punishment market is another arena ripe for expansion. Cameron committed to a national roll out of satellite tracking by the end of the parliament. Offered as a progressive ‘alternative’ to custody, in the past community sentences have at best slowed the growth of imprisonment rates, and at worst served to expand the criminal justice system. There are also ongoing concerns about the role of the private sector in the delivery of electronic monitoring, for example, the recent Serious Fraud Office investigations into overcharging by G4S and Serco.

These themes tee up the system for an expansion of prisons and the wider criminal justice system in the context of the long economic recession that started back in 2008. The life histories and characteristics of those people who end up in prison tells us a great deal about what it is that criminal justice really does. Nine in ten people in prison show signs of a mental health problem, and over two thirds have two or more disorders. An estimated 20–30 percent have learning disabilities or difficulties that interfere with their ability to cope with contact with any kind of authority or administration. Three in ten have suffered childhood abuse and just under half came from homes in which they either experienced or witnessed violence. More than 20 per cent have spent time in care – and unsurprisingly post-traumatic stress disorder is a marked feature of the population. 15 per cent were homeless immediately prior to incarceration, with one in ten sleeping rough; just under two thirds have drug problems. One third do not even have a bank account. Over a quarter are from black and minority ethnic groups.

The violence of austerity has led to a growth in social harms experienced by growing numbers of the population. Following the financial crash of 2008, rates of homicide, suicide and also violence against women are all following an upward trend. In other words there is going to be greater demand for services that mop up the results of growing inequality and social harm. 

During a prolonged period of welfare retraction, criminal justice has become the only truly universal social service of last resort. Prisons are harmful places; they are sites of concentrated poverty and trauma and have become holding pens for some of the most vulnerable members of society, who are also the people who are the most vulnerable to capture.

A public and political debate about prison conditions is certainly long overdue. However, the planned prison building programme and roll out of GPS tagging is primarily about increasing capacity within criminal justice against a backdrop of a decaying welfare state and drastic cuts to local services. These reforms will repeat many old mistakes, while adding some new ones. Mr Cameron’s seemingly progressive rhetoric is little more than a sugar-coating to what is likely to be a very toxic pill.


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