Running prisons for profits: ‘a commercial rather than a humanitarian debate’

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Running prisons for profits: ‘a commercial rather than a humanitarian debate’

Many still argue that prison for profit is wrong in principle but the debate is over as jurisdictions across the world seek ever cheaper solutions to their obsession with incarceration, writes John Podmore. Innovation and the transfer of risk are added to the arguments in favour of private jails but reduced cost – or rather the perception of it – remains the prime motivation.

  • John Podmore is an author, freelance consultant and journalist. He worked in the Prison Service for 25 years and governed three prisons – Belmarsh, Swaleside and Brixton. He spent three years as an inspector of prisons. He left the service in March 2011 receiving an award from the High Sheriff of Greater London for outstanding work in criminal justice in London.
  • The painting is from the 2010 Koestler Trust exhibition (The Yard 2030 – Maghaberry Prison, Northern Ireland, Commended for Oil/Acrylic Painting 2007) -see HERE.

Unfortunately political dogma has replaced evidence-based policy in this emotive area of criminal justice. There has been little research and none commissioned by Whitehall. The most coherent comes form the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. It concluded that in England and Wales the best run private prison is better than the best state run prison but that the worst is worse than the worst state run facility, hardly the best basis for the expenditure of billions.

New players
Comparisons are not easy. Until the transfer of HMP Birmingham last year to G4S, private jails in England and Wales have been new, purpose built facilities. Some of those private jails had lost out in subsequent re-tendering processes to state-sponsored bids but it was Birmingham that burst the dam when it fell to the Nick Buckles empire.

Since then an additional nine prisons (only one privately run) have been put out to tender and the glacial commercial process is about to be concluded having been delayed repeatedly to avoid Olympic security debacles, party conferences and cabinet reshuffles. The US presidential election may prove to be the perfect cover under which the results will be announced.

It is likely that most of the nine will end up in the hands of G4S, Serco and a range of other multi-national conglomerates, or ‘new players in the market’ as they are often described. Only time, good quality research and transparency will tell us whether these new contracts will provide decent prisons, value for money, innovation and the transfer of risk (if, in the worst case scenario, Birmingham burns to the ground will G4S pick up the full costs of a rebuild and temporary location of over a thousand prisoners, or do an ‘East Coast mainline rail franchise’ and simply hand the ashes back to Government?). Will we know in time that the contracts were properly set, managed and delivered and lessons of incompetence in the MoD, railways and Olympics be learned? Fingers crossed.

It is important that penal reformers engage in what is unfortunately a commercial rather than a humanitarian debate. Most are more comfortable with the latter but the former is inescapable at a time of severe economic stringency.

Prisons need to be improved but cost less. It is the inconvenient truth of criminal justice. The solutions are out there but they require that very rare trait these days. Political courage. The Corston proposals for women in the criminal justice system are simple, more humane and cheaper. David Cameron has talked about the importance of resettlement but we only have three resettlement prisons despite the fact that we release between 60,000 and 80,000 prisoners per year.

They cost much less than closed secure jails. And we could stop treating all prisoners the same as evidenced by the parliamentary hypocrisy over votes for prisoners. There are thousands of people in prison who are not serial killing predatory paedophiles. Many are simply members of the public (and Parliament) passing through.

But there are commercial debates being lost as well. It was rumoured in the days of Ken Clarke that after this round of competitive tendering a further 20 or more existing (mainly public sector) prisons would be market-tested.

No easy answers
This has been a sword of Damocles across the entire service militating against improvement. Incentive by fear went a long time ago. If we want to reduce costs by competition there are ways beyond the ‘whole prison’ approach. Health, education and drug treatment are already provided by external agencies through competitive processes. Facilities management (the very costly maintenance of the prison estate) and catering is almost wholly in-house, completely at odds with the rest of the world. There are other functions in prisons which could be considered and where small inroads have been made such as in communications, telephony, stores management, health and safety, cleaning. I visited an Australian jail where they were considering the privatisation of perimeter security.

There are no easy answers but alternatives to mass privatisation which takes an age, has no proven value and destabilises the sector should be sought. There are huge dangers. You do not get catering wrong in a jail! Maintaining a building means maintaining security. But as in any large, diverse sector public sector organisation there are things which could be done better to save costs and improve jails. It requires a bit of lateral thinking but crucially it also requires the development of a skill set lacking in the public sector and exploited ruthlessly by the private sector. These are skills of procurement, contract setting and management, business acumen and commercial law. These are skills for which many, not least prison Governors will need to embark on a steep learning curve. New structures will have to account for them.

It is however important to realise that being commercial and business-focused is not at odds with decent, humane, safe and secure prisons. To assert as much is naive and detrimental to the needs of the prison system and expectations of the public.