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13 January 2014

Search site for keywords: Prisons - Privatisation - Prison - Competition

The underbelly of prison privatisation and the creatures who profit

Brian Caton, Barnsley Socialist Party and former POA general secretary

Private prisons and particularly Oakwood - run by G4S - have once again been in the news. The social media sites have been alive with comment from those who work in prisons, those who have served prison sentences and the perceived wise people (including myself) who have now retired from one of the aforementioned groups.

There is some common ground amongst all comments. Oakwood has been an absolute disaster. It's a very dangerous place to be and clearly cannot continue along the path it has been allowed to tread thus far.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has delivered a scathing attack on how it has been run, while at the same time the Minister for Prisons says he sees it as a model for future prisons. This contradiction involving two key figures makes worthy an examination of the philosophy of prison privatisation.

It is easy, if not a little laborious, to peel back the pages of this issue and give the reader dates, times and a history lesson including facts, figures and statistics - some of which are abused in a biased and self-serving way to justify privatisation.

I am opposed to prison privatisation. I am opposed to all privatisation of public services. But as a socialist, there is nothing difficult to understand in those statements.

There are many objections that I have been caused to use, over many years, to answer the prison privatisation experiment - because that's what it remains, an experiment. These include many issues: ethical, moral, political, financial, practical; and of course the pay and conditions of staff and the welfare and safety of staff, prisoners and society as a whole.

There are those who have argued that the so called 'competition ethos' has driven up standards and has caused change which has been to the betterment of all. I agree that there have been changes that have been hugely to the assistance of some people - those who are profit-making.

The chief architect of this 'decency' agenda was the former Director General and Chief Executive of NOMS (the National Offender Management Service), Martin Narey. Martin, recently knighted and now advisor on children to Michael Gove, made sure the competition ethos worked by handing out contracts for new prisons to privateers whilst taking a couple of poorly resourced private prisons back into the public sector, spending public money improving them, only to offer them back to the same private companies a few years later.

The big failure inherent within the whole of this costly, unevaluated charade, seems almost a side issue, and is the effect this has had on the everyday functioning of the prison system.


Many issues have been attributed to causing prison riots, but certainly to those charged with examining these matters, site overcrowding and poor care of prisoners are major contributory factors. The current 'race to the bottom' under the competition/privatisation culture is creating overcrowding and poor care of prisoners with the leaders of the prison service, having been advocates of this mess, left with nowhere to go. One thing is for certain, it will get tragically worse.

So what of those who hold the system up as a great achievement? Well they are not being hurt in riots. They are not prisoners being failed by a system that, with the planned privatisation of the probation service, will release them from prison without the necessary help and support and into a society of cuts and job losses. This will affect us all.

Martin Narey has recently taken to justifying the whole of the current mess. Firstly, when it is said that no one should profit from imprisonment, Martin's response is that he, myself and many others were paid to be in the prison service and therefore profited from incarceration. If one follows his logic, those working in the NHS profit from disease, those workers in the DWP profit from unemployment, disability and even death. He goes on to justify his beloved capitalist views by saying that if we had kept a state-owned telecommunications company no one would have mobile smartphones or the system that networks them.

I do not cite this to have a cheap shot at Sir Martin, but to allow for a clear perspective on how certain individuals can affect public services. I saw a move from "it doesn't really matter who delivers the service so long as it's a good service" philosophy through to a "public bad - private good" mantra and on to dangerous failure.

Oakwood should be brought back into public ownership, but if the government has its way the damage caused by privatisation in the prison service will live on and get worse.

Reducing wages across all public services has been aided by privatisation. The losses to the prison service of staff with huge levels of experience will not be rectified by poorly trained, badly paid recruits.

Unless and until an incoming government accepts the need to end this foolish capitalist adventure, there will be riots, there will be injuries , there will be further crime and tragically there will be deaths.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 13 January 2014 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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