Friday, 1 April 2011

Porridge for Profit - Privatizing Prisons

The announcement yesterday that a Birmingham prison is to be moved into the private sector is yet another huge and disgraceful step towards the total dismantling of the public sector by the Con Dem Government. Ethically, it is a terrible social decision to allow companies to profit from the incarceration of prisoners and raises many deeply troubling questions about the future of the prison system and rehabilitation of offenders.

It is not the first case of privately run prisons in the UK - 11 have been contracted out since the 1990s, and about 12% of prisoners are already held in the private sector, not that you would know from the condemnation by Labour MPs in response to yesterday's news. But this is first case of an existing public sector prison being privatized, and Group 4 Security, who have won the contract, operate as a profit-seeking company. They do not have social objectives in what they do - an outgrowth of private security guard operators, they are known for low wages and operational mismanagement. They do make nice profits for their shareholders, and in this context, what genuine interests might they have in running a prison?

Far from wanting to rehabilitate offenders, a private prison operator will inevitably see much merit in repeat offenders - guaranteeing a continued supply of business. Likewise, facilities for prisoners during their stay in jail would be kept to a bare minimum to drive costs down and again increase returns - the track record of existing private jails pretty much confirms this. And of course, doubtless arguing that this might save the public purse costs, the operator would logically look to maximise the financial returns to be had from cheap/free prison labour.

Unlikely? Well, take a look at the USA, where so many of this government's ideologically-motivated initiatives have their origin.

The USA has privatised scores of its prisons, precisely as, under the barbarically inhumane "three-strikes-and-you-are-out" rule implemented by many states, the prison population has trebled in recent years, with even minor shoplifters (like Gary Ewing) now imprisoned for life. Deploying the cost argument, these prisoners have been conscripted into all sorts of labour - the bulk of US armed services uniforms and ordinance is now manufactured, free of charge, by (disproportionately black) prisoners. The private company Unicor "employs" 20,000 prisoners in 70 US jails to carry out work which even includes making components for Patriot missiles.  Wages can be as low as 23 cents (or 15 pence in UK terms) per hour. Prisoners are also used for a huge range of contracted-out services, including corporate payrolls and call centre work, sometimes placing customers data privacy at some risk, but keeping plenty of income flowing into owners' pockets. The twisted "three strikes" policy ensures a continuing supply of such handy, exceedingly low-cost labour.

If this was happening anywhere else, such as Iran or Zimbabwe, it would be condemned as slave labour. But instead, the US example is being used as a model for Britain. With foaming rightwing papers like the Daily Mail and the Sun backing the move precisely as a means of saving the taxpayer money and vindictively dehumanising prisoners, the Lib Dem Minister, Sarah Teather, blandly states that it doesn't matter who runs prisons, as long as prisoners are rehabilitated effectively.

Prison: no such thing as a free bowl of porridge...
This more than anything betrays her lack of understanding of what is going on in the minds of the corporations bidding for contracts like this, and others in services like health and elder care. This is a company that exploits the staff who apply to work for it voluntarily, minimising wages and maximising working hours - is it suddenly going to be infected with some sort of social concern virus when it takes on prison work? Or is it going to drool at the prospect of virtually free labour and an endless supply of new business?

How we treat prisoners is a mark of how civilised we are, or not. Not only should many of those in prison not be there to begin with, but anyone in a prison is still a human being. They deserve dignity, even if in some cases they are there for removing dignity from others, because the prison system should not be about vengeance or humiliation, but about correction and support to find a better life when they come out again. There are many examples of former prisoners going on to make good and contribute very effectively to society, not least in helping younger people avoid getting into the sort of trouble they have experienced themselves.

But if we give prisons and their inmates over to the likes of Group 4, the emphasis on rehabilitation will no longer be at the heart of the system; rather it would be viewed by corporate executives as being like turkeys voting for Christmas - leaving us with the real prospect that, in future, prison may well work, but only for the purpose of filling the pockets of Group 4 shareholders.

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