UK’s Private Prison System Has A Disturbing Track Record

By Georgina Milner

14 private prisons currently exist in the UK and the government seems set to follow the USA’s example and expand the system.

It can be considered morally wrong to profit from the punishment of offenders, especially those who have committed non-violent crimes or turned to crime due to an inescapable cycle of poverty. The Howard League for Penal Reform conducted a poll which suggested half of the public would agree with this opinion, with 49% describing themselves as uncomfortable with privately run prisons, the percentage being even larger for women and over 65’s.

The news that the government is set to take over privately operated prison HMP Birmingham, run by G4S, following a takeover by violent inmates in 2016 and reports claiming it was teeming with “blood, cockroaches and vomit” has prompted concerns over the UK’s other 14 private prisons. There are increasing concerns that these prisons are improperly managed and overcrowded.

HMP Altcourse was the first prison to be privately operated and financed in the UK. It was built in July 1997, 6 years after the Criminal Justice Act of 1991, which allowed the management of any prison to be contracted out. Since then 14 prisons are now privately operated, all of these by either G4S, Serco or Sodexo.

This is much to the discontent of the Prison Officers Union which launched its 2009 campaign of ‘Prisons are not for Profit’. They have continued to oppose the expansion of private involvement in the prisons estate. Despite their efforts, the current combined value of private prisons contracts is estimated to number around £4 billion.

Although the US is the first county in modern history to privatise its correctional facilities, the UK and Australia actually have a higher proportion of offenders residing in privatised prisons. Arguably, issues within America’s private prison system are far more drastic than within the UK’s. There tends to be more secrecy; documentarian Louis Theroux when looking into the American prisons, easily gained access to public ones but was frequently denied entrance to those which were privately operated.

However, countries which allow these facilities increasingly look to America for guidance in how to operate them. Even the Labour party in the 2017 general election, whilst promising there would be no new private prisons under their leadership, did not commit to terminating existing contracts.

A June 2003 report by the National Audit office stated extreme concern over high turnover rate of staff and the lack of experienced staff, concluding that this creates a less safe environment than in publicly run prisons where officers tend to be more experienced. This can also create a more threatening atmosphere for the prisoners who would likely to be less willing to report crimes within the prison or threats against their person to officers they do not know.

Further troubling aspects of private prisons is that they tend to use increased electronic surveillance of inmates. Also despite their initial distinctive feature being a new non-violent approach to handling prisoners, in 2016 Serco quietly distributed extendable batons to officers at 5 out of their 6 prisons.

Whilst youth crime requires an experienced, reformative approach, 5 prisons which deal with young offenders are privately operated, these being: Altcourse; Bronzefield; Doncaster; Forest Bank and Parc. Moreover, prison inspection reports suggest that the government has known at least since 2015 that ‘segregation’/solitary confinement has been used as a punishment at several Young Offenders Institutions.

HMP Bronzefield is one in a chain of flawed private prisons, as it was discovered by chief inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick that a female prisoner was segregated in a “squalid” cell for over 5 years. The transportation of women to and from the prison was also deemed unsafe as they were carried in vehicles containing men and spent long periods in the vans. Possibly Bronzefield operated in this manner to reduce the number of trips necessary and maintain profits.

Some have claimed that private prisons are an affordable way to manage the issue of overcrowding but I would argue that the most efficient and sustainable method to solve this issue is through rehabilitation. With the overall reoffending rate in 2016 being 29.4% the government must focus on reform as the priority to decrease the prison population.

Despite this being the best solution, it is actively against the interests of companies such as G4S and Serco as they profit from the increasing population of incarcerated. Rehabilitation jeopordises their profits and, therefore, they have no incentive to encourage classes and sessions to help prisoners become law-abiding members of society once they are released.

It must be understood that excessive sentences and privatised prisons are no viable way of solving the ever expanding prison population. And as crime is often a symptom of poverty, it seems wrong that some should be able to profit from it.


Georgina Milner is a 17-year-old student and aspiring political journalist.

Image credit: TFTP

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