Headlines: January 25th, 2005

There is a call today for an open and vigorous debate on the role of the private sector in running prisons. It comes with the publication of a report – ‘Private Punishment: Who Profits?’ from the Prison Reform Trust.The report, which includes contributions from the Bishop of Worcester, Peter Selby, who is also Bishop to HM Prisons, and from TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, acknowledges that private sector innovation has, in some cases, improved prison regimes but it raises questions about efficiency savings and the need for private companies to achieve economies of scale.

It says that Britain has the most privatised prison system in Europe and this, together with government plans to extend the scope of competition, means there is a need to reassess the merits of prison privatisation and the ethics of big companies making profits from the incarceration of thousands of people.

The report argues that unpublished figures show the performance of private prisons against key targets is mixed. Many of them, it says, fail to meet targets on serious assaults, drugs and purposeful activity. While some private prisons are performing well, others are facing difficulties. Pay and conditions for staff in private prisons are inferior to those in public prisons, claims the report, which also says that staff turnover is higher in privately-run institutions.

The Prison Reform Trust says that at a time of record prison numbers and overcrowding in jails there is a need to question a system that means companies have a vested interest in keeping the prison population as high as possible and the report expresses concerns about what it sees as a lack of accountability of private companies. It says that Parliament and the public are unable to scrutinise contracts awarded to prison operators and it questions government plans to grant additional powers to directors of private prisons concerning the segregation, control and punishment of prisoners.

The Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, said, “Even those who believe that ethical or moral considerations about prison privatisation are misplaced or outdated should surely stop and think about the impact of prison privatisation on criminal justice policy and the treatment of offenders. Is it sensible, without public and parliamentary debate, to develop competition which could produce innovative and cost-effective practice but could equally drive down standards and reduce prison safety?”

Bishop Selby said the trust was asking whether there were specific concerns beyond the general debate about privatisation that apply when prisons are involved. “Even if particular prisons – the majority – remain in the public sector, does ‘contestability’ mean that the ethos of the whole service is actually dictated by the aims of the private sector? Or does the whole service benefit by the presence of private ‘providers?” he asked. Brendan Barber called the report ‘valuable and timely’. It showed, he said, that efficiencies had been achieved largely at the expense of terms and conditions for prison staff – and that this has had a negative impact on staff turnover and service delivery. The time was right for a public debate on the ethics of introducing the profit motive into the criminal justice system and whether this sort of private provision should be extended into other public services.

There are currently ten private prisons in England and Wales with another due to open in March.