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G4S: A tale of two troubled prisons

Privatisation's flagship African jail is beset by kidnap, rape and stabbings. In Oakwood Prison, England, hooch, drugs and violence thrive. What's the problem? For-profit prisons? Or G4S?

Clare Sambrook
7 October 2013

There's trouble at Mangaung Correctional Centre, near Bloemfontein, South Africa. Last Wednesday four inmates seized a female guard and held her hostage for 12 hours. The next day another guard was stabbed at the maximum security jail. The union blamed rising violence on G4S, the company that operates the jail under a 25 year government contract.

The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union claimed that G4S had sacked more than 300 guards for striking in protest against dangerous conditions. The sackings left the remaining workers and inadequately trained reserves at the mercy of 3,000 inmates, the union said.

G4S denied that staff-prisoner ratios had been jeopardised, insisting that replacement warders had plugged the gap.


credit: Wits Justice Project

Last month the union sent G4S management a detailed complaint listing 30 assaults on its members. The rape of a nurse in her consulting room, four attacks with boiling water and sixteen stabbings were the "tip of the iceberg", the union said. The complaint (in my possession) accuses G4S of purging and intimidating union officials at the prison.

In May this year researchers at the Johannesburg-based Wits Justice Project got their hands on a confidential government report that listed 62 Mangaung inmates who were detained in single cells for periods ranging from two weeks to three years, against prison rules.

Last week G4S Africa head Andy Baker told South African media:

"The Mangaung Correctional Centre has an impeccable track record in maintaining the safety of both inmates and employees." 

In Britain G4S braces itself ahead of what is likely to be a shattering report tomorrow from the Prisons Inspectorate on its flagship PFI prison — Oakwood, which opened in April last year.

Oakwood, a Category C Prison in the West Midlands, newly built to hold more than 1600 men, has been beset by problems from the start. The first prisoners moved in before the builders had moved out.


This past August, Oakwood's Independent Monitoring Board reported that:

  • • A "very high level of staff" had little or no prison experience, and high rates of sickness left too few staff for front-line duties.
  • • Cell furniture was made of cheap fibre-board that was easy to break up into weapons.
  • • The stairwells, out of sight of CCTV cameras, were perfect for assaults.
  • • Hooch, drugs and mobile phones were plentiful; it was easy to throw contraband into the grounds, there being only one perimeter fence instead of the usual two.
  • • Self-harm was a worry — several prisoners had gone over the landing railings; there were no nets. [PDF]

G4S says Oakwood's 'vision' is to be ‘The Leading Prison in the World’ within five years.


Mangaung Prison, which opened in 2001, South Africa's first public-private partnership, is "world class", G4S executives told investment analysts in London last year.

Three years ago the South African Crime Quarterly invited G4S South Africa managing director Frikkie Venter to argue the case for private sector prisons. 

Remarkably, he said: 

"I think the first thing is that the concept is not strange in South Africa. In the 1800s the private sector was involved in mine prisons."

Then he ran through the usual arguments: "The state needed wanted an arrangement where they could pay off a prison, like you pay off a mortgage," he said.

The private sector:

"has the ability to be more innovative, not be bogged down by red tape, and the private sector can change its systems overnight to ensure service delivery. Government doesn't have that flexibility within its systems."

Venter asserted that a system of financial penalties ensured that taxpayers' interests were protected:

"Included in the contracts were penalties if the service provider did not deliver as required. So at these PPP prisons service delivery is guaranteed through a punitive structure."


How does that work in real life?

The Department of Correctional Services has issued 29 penalty notices totalling £90,000 against G4S for incidents of violence at Mangaung since 14 September. Last week Andy Baker insisted that each breach was an "unavoidable accident" and G4S would be contesting the penalties.

In a statement issued yesterday, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said:

"It ought to be a national scandal that private companies are being handed huge amounts of taxpayers' money to profit from this rehabilitation process. It is even worse when these companies sack workers for raising issues regarding the conditions that they work under."

Touching upon the company's work with the Israeli government, COSATU claimed: "G4S's modus operandi is indicative of two of the most worrying aspects of neoliberal capitalism and Israeli apartheid; the ideology of 'security' and the increasing privatisation of what have been traditionally state run sectors."

COSATU went on:

"Security, in this context, does not imply security for everyone, but rather, when one looks at the major clients of G4S Security (banks, governments, corporations etc) it becomes evident that when G4S says it is 'Securing your World', as the company slogan goes, it is referring to a world of exploitation, repression, occupation and racism."

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