The case against private sector involvement in prisons

September 3, 2008 at 10:22 am | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform | 2 Comments

David Wilson criticises NACRO’s bid to help a private security firm run two new prisons. Bottom line: the private sector’s sole aim is to make a profit, and when that is the case the prisoners welfare will always suffer:

Nacro has been travelling in this direction for some time and therefore the news that it has decided to get into bed with G4S is perhaps less strange than is being presented. It is not so much their willingness to choose a private security company as a partner that seems odd, but Cavadino’s justification for doing so. After all, a mountain of academic research has demonstrated that private security firms are interested in making money out of prisons and prisoners rather than “reducing re-offending”. In simple terms, more re-offending maintains the private company’s profit margins and it is therefore in these companies’ interests to ensure that more and not fewer people go to prison.

Frankly I know of no criminal justice system in the world which has privately run prisons that has seen their total prison populations fall, but there are any number that have seen their prison numbers spiral after big business started to help run jails. The most obvious case is the US – where prison privatisation started in the early 1980s and was at the time most closely associated with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – and where investment in private jails was described by the Wall Street Journal as “the theme stock of the 1990s”. So great has been the investment in the privately run jails in the US that private companies will now build jails even if they don’t yet have contracts from the local state government to run them.

Of course it is not just in the US that we have seen the gradual willingness of private companies to make a business out of imprisonment. Some 10% of our own prisons are now run by the private sector, and to a lesser extent the same companies which run our prisons and those in the US have also invested in prison projects in Australia, South Africa and France. Increasingly, no one seems to take seriously the idea that if it is a responsibility of the state to arrest, try and sentence, it should also be the responsibility of the state to imprison. More’s the pity, for that idea should be a bulwark against mass incarceration and a brake on business making a profit out of the misery of others. In the 1980s we used to look to the likes of Nacro to make points such as these, but there’s not much hope of that after today.



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  1. Although I am an advocat of including the private sector where they can add value, deliver better services and be less bureaucratic, I completely agree, this should not include prisons and one or two other important areas.

  2. It’s a tough one, this issue. In principle I’m against the private sector having control of our prisons for the reasons stated above, and for the practical problems created in the tension between the state (which has overall culpability in how prisoners are treated) and private companies (which are running to make a profit). For example, a government can pledge to banish prisons of drugs and force prison operators to achieve this or else risk losing their contracts. As a result, prison operators can simply ‘turn a blind’ eye to whatever drugs problems there may be, rather than risk the negative consequences of reporting them.

    But the prison system in state hands is no better. Self-harm and suicides have been increasing, so has the availability of drugs, and the prison population is at unsafe levels in most of our jails. So if the state can’t handle the situation and the private sector cannot be trusted on its own, I think it’s worth seeing how a cooperation between private sector & charity organisations (or a cooperation between the state & charities) might work. Because at the moment, nothing else we’ve tried is working.

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