Prisons: the path to privatisation

How one experimental prison contract led to Europe’s most privatised criminal justice system.

profit from pain

Source: Flickr, UMWomen


Did you know that Britain has a higher proportion of privatised prisons than the United States?

Below we examine the history of privatisation, the debate about the efficacy of private prisons and the moral dilemma of profiting from prisoners.


A brief history of privatised prisons

The first privately run prison opened for business 6 April 1992. The contract for Wolds, a new 320-bed prison for unsentenced male prisoners, was won by the security firm Group 4 – now known as G4S.

In 1993 the government announced all prisons would be privately built and operated. Since then the UK has developed the most privatised criminal justice system in Europe.

There are now 14 prisons in England and Wales run by the private sector. That’s 17 per cent of our prison population – a higher proportion even than in the United States.


Who privatised our prisons?

The privatisation of prisons was a conservative policy introduced by the Thatcher government and criticised by Labour as “morally repungant. But the policy didn’t just survive the election of a Labour government in 1997, it thrived.

In 1995 shadow home secretary Jack Straw pledged that Labour would return private prisons to public ownership.


Jack straw 1995


But soon after the election in 1997, the back-tracking began.


Jack straw 1997


A total U-turn by 1998 – all new prisons in England and Wales were to be privately built and run.


jack straw 1998


The current Conservative-LibDem government is committed to increasing competition, decentralising control and increasing the involvement of the private sector.


What’s the problem with private prisons?

Some argue that the private sector’s involvement has driven up standards, increased efficiency and created a diverse market.

The Adam Smith Institute, a right wing think-tank, certainly think so:

Competition works. The new privately built and operated prisons have established new standards in efficiency, facilities, and prisoner welfare and training.”

Not all agree however. The Prison Reform Trust argue that the involvement of the private sector has had mixed results. They say that not only is it more expensive per prisoner but also that conditions are worse.

“Private prisons are more overcrowded and less safe than their public counterparts. Private prisons have held a higher percentage of their prisoners in overcrowded accommodation than public sector prisons every year for the past 14 years.”


A question of morals

Should state punishment ever be profitable? Sir David Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, supported the move to privatisation, but has some reservations on the topic.

“I can accept the private sector looking after unsentenced prisoners because they are still innocent in the eyes of the law. But I do have questions about the sentenced. The state has awarded that punishment and the state should deliver it”

Keep an eye out for the next installment when we take a look at the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and ask how sustainable this funding really is.

For a longer view and a bit of context, take a look at our interactive timeline, bringing you 800 years of prison history.

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TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk

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