Shine A Light

The British state pays for private prisons... and pays and pays again

The government is embarking on large-scale privatisation of British prisons, despite research indicating that private prisons are more likely to be dangerous and more costly in the long run

Frances Crook
22 August 2011

“Despite political assumptions that the private sector is inherently superior at service delivery, private sector prisons are not necessarily better or worse than public sector prisons. When they get it right, they can provide decent and positive environments. But when they get it wrong, which seems to be more likely (but not inevitable) if they are run cheaply, they can be chaotic and dangerous places, which are not good for either the staff who work in them or the prisoners who live in and will be released from them. When things go wrong in prisons, they go wrong in very significant ways: riots, escapes, murders, suicides and so on.

“There are therefore real risks in privatising prisons on the cheap, and in re-conceiving public sector prisons on the cheapest private sector model.”

These two paragraphs are not my words. I have quoted them from academic research conducted by the foremost academic experts in the field recently published in the Prison Service Journal.

This is critically important as the government has taken Birmingham prison out the public sector and handed it over to G4S, despite the rumour being that the prison service bid was cheaper than the private sector in the first few years of the contract.

The state sector will always be more expensive as it offers better pensions for its staff – indeed in some cases, I am told, the private companies do not contribute to pensions leaving staff to make their own arrangements or rely on the state in old age, so we pay the bill for poor terms and conditions for years to come. I am told that the private companies plan to make £4 million a year profit from us taxpayers for each prison, but this is unverifiable as they say the profits are commercially confidential

The government has announced the privatisation of Lindholme, Moorland, Hatfield, Acklington, Castington, Durham, Onley and Coldingley prisons and that the Wolds will be offered for retendering.  This is a huge proportion of the prison estate and is an ideological strategy, not one based on reality or research.

Featherstone 2 prison is currently under construction and will be run by G4S. It will have places for 1,600 adult men, making it the biggest prison in the country. There is no other prison in the country that is meant to hold many more than 1,000 people.  So Featherstone 2 will be almost a Titan prison, contrary to all good practice and recommendations for safety and effective regimes. Weirdly, it is being built virtually without workshops or vocational training but has a lot of classrooms, so the company intends to put adult men into classrooms all day to keep them occupied.

Private prisons are subjected to overcrowding in the same way as state prisons. Doncaster prison, run by Serco, has places for 713 men and boys, but in April it contained 1,127 people, making it almost 60% overcrowded. So it is possible that Featherstone 2 will be overcrowded pretty soon after opening and could reach 2,000 prisoners pretty quickly.

I suggest the government takes note of expert research and the prisons inspectorate reports which clearly indicate that private prisons are often dreadful places, dangerous and costly in the long run because they contribute to increased crime.

This piece was originally published on Howard

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