The iniquity of privatised prisons

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The iniquity of privatised prisons

Proof #4 cover: 'No Comment', Koestler Awards 2017

In the midst of Labour’s proposals to nationalise everything that isn’t firmly in the hands of corporate hegemons, it can be easy for proposals that are both laudable and practical to escape notice.  Labour’s intention to bring prisons back into public ownership is one such example, a praiseworthy commitment which recognises that privatisation is not an unalloyed good, with market forces not necessarily a route to higher standards and lower costs. More importantly,  however, is that it acknowledges (even if implicitly) that there are certain services which the state has a moral imperative to operate. (Image is from Proof magazine, issue 4).

The genesis of private prisons was with Margaret Thatcher’s government, who sought to privatise the prison estate in the hope of exposing it to market efficiencies and shrinking the size of the state.  There are now 15 privatised prisons in the UK, with 14% of the prison population detained by one of three corporations- G4S, Serco and Sodexo.  Meanwhile, despite their manifest failure to effectively run prisons, these companies have been further welcomed onto the terrain of the state, operating immigration detention facilities, and until recently, the probation service as well.  

Our prisons are drug-infested, overcrowded and poorly maintained, havens for further criminalisation, and privatisation has done little to remedy this.  HMP Birmingham fell into such chaos earlier this year that G4S was stripped of the contract, whilst prisons like Doncaster have squeezed in as many inmates as possible, with the levels of overcrowding there at 152%. Given figures like this, it is hardly surprising to see that rates of violence are higher in private prisons, nor to see that reoffending rates are rising across the board, with those incarcerated for less than twelve months still more likely to offend upon their release than not.  

Nonetheless, whilst private companies are culpable, they are only responding to a government policy that opened prisons to market forces.  In privatising the responsibilities of the state, the government is acknowledging that prisoners will be used as a means of making a profit, and that profit will be the focus of the company.  Whilst it would be admirable to see companies refuse to run prisons on the basis that it is immoral, it seems hopelessly naive to expect them to do so.   

To expect the state to prevent companies from running prisons, however, is not hopelessly naive.  The notion that the state has higher responsibilities, beyond that of mere profit, is not a novel one, but a view espoused by thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Hamilton. In the context of prisons, the state is responsible for punishing inmates, but also, more importantly, for rehabilitating them, an obligation that must take precedence over economic savings.   

Nor does the fact that state run prisons are as inadequate as privatised justify privatisation. Even if the economics and efficacy supported privatisation, allowing private companies to detain individuals would still violate their human dignity, allowing them to become a mere means by which a company can make a profit.  In a civilised society, we do not allow people to decide to hold others captive.  I cannot be detained by my bank for failing to pay off a credit card debt, nor by a neighbour for stealing his wallet.  Only the state can authorise detention, and only the state should be able to enforce such a decision. 

As part of our social contract, we agree to abide by the laws of the land, acknowledging that we may be prosecuted and imprisoned, should we break them. In agreeing to this, the state does not get the right to delegate away its responsibilities to whoever it sees fit, as though its responsibilities are mere commodities.  Much as we would view with scepticism the state privatising the army, or the police force, so we should view privatisation of prisons.  Such roles are unique to the state, part of our relationship with it, and with our fellow citizens.   

Such a relationship was recognised by Israel’s Supreme Court, where Aharon Barak declared that privation went against Israel’s Basic Law, offending the dignity of those detained.  Similarly to the UK, Israel had sought to privatise prisons to reduce state expenditure, but the privatisation was struck down, the Court declaring that prisoners do not lose their ‘constitutional right to human dignity’, and that privatisation undermines the ‘public purposes that…give it legitimacy’, with imprisonment instead reduced to ‘becoming a means for a private corporation to make a profit’.  

The relationship between the citizen and the state is a complex one, and cannot be reduced to a crude monetary value.  In allowing citizens to become a means of making a profit, it degrades their humanity, stripping them of their dignity, reducing them to mere figures on a spreadsheet.  Reducing people to this means that when the numbers no longer add up, the motivation to act falls away, as we saw with Grayling’s attempted privatisation of the probation services, where the attempts to save money saw probation officers rarely meeting with probationers, a cut in officer numbers, and a bailout from the government of £500m, before the policy was reversed.

At a time when making easy, vote-winning promises is all to tempting, Labour should be credited for adopting a policy which may not be welcomed, but which is right. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should embrace such an approach, recognising that the private sector is not a universal cure, and that there are obligations which cannot be reduced to figures on a Treasury calculator.