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Private prison ‘cherry-picking compliant prisoners’

UK penal reform charity the Howard League claims newly opened Oakwood Prison, run by G4S, is turning away difficult prisoners and losing staff

Frances Crook
5 May 2012

UK penal reform charity the Howard League claims newly opened Oakwood Prison, run by G4S, is turning away difficult prisoners and losing staff

Last week I was talking with a few prison officers about a new prison that has recently opened and was troubled by what I heard. Privately run Oakwood prison in south Staffordshire is the UK’s newest prison and opened last month at a cost of £200 million pounds.

The G4S-run prison has been dogged with glitches since the outset. The prison was hindered by planning wrangles and protests from residents who claimed constructors had exceeded the approved height for a prison building. Days after opening, families living nearby were up in arms when they learned that prisoners could leave the prison on day release. Families living close to the jail said they knew nothing of the plans and criticised the decision.

And I have been told that staff have been leaving because of problems occurring within the prison environment at Oakwood and because they didn’t realise how close they would be working with prisoners.

The prison has been slowly accepting prisoners in batches, and will house nearly 2,000 Category C male prisoners when at capacity next autumn.
 
Prison officers are required to do complicated work with people who are often experiencing multiple, complex difficulties. If we are going to change prisons so that people are made better by the system, it is the workforce who must be at the centre and who need support to change. Prisons, like hospitals, should transform people.
 
If we want to see fewer victims and less crime, prisons should be small, well managed and staffed by qualified personnel. For the few people who require custody, prison should aspire to be a transformative experience and the prison officers are the key to this. This does not fit with the money making model that private companies employ in order to rake in millions of pounds in profit a year. The easiest way to reduce costs is by hiring unskilled staff and paying them less.
 
More worryingly, I was told that that the prison is cherry-picking prisoners. It would seem that the new private prison only wants compliant and easy to manage prisoners. It was suggested that Oakwood was sent 40 men and turned 23 away to state prisons.
 
Increasingly there are many incidences of cherry picking in the criminal justice system, something that is set to get worse as providers are paid by their results. Only last month we saw the Heron Unit at Feltham young offenders’ institution criticised for the payment by results model. This Boris Johnson-backed scheme focused on preparing young people for release after prison and selected participants who could demonstrate a willingness and motivation to change, rather than the traditional approach of prioritising resources based on vulnerability and needs.
 
If we are going to introduce the private sector into running prisons, it must be a level playing field. New private prisons must not be able to pick and choose whom they wish to have in their prison in order to turn a profit, leaving the state to pick up the expensive people left behind. We are entering dangerous territory when people in prison are viewed as profit makers, rather than people.

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