How the privatisation of the prison system undermines everything prisons are meant to accomplish

It is an oft-cited maxim that one should judge a man by how he treats his inferiors.


Expanding the premise out, supposing that criminals are the inferiors of society – simply by dint of not having acted in a manner conducive to the public good – then one may say that a country can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. The humane and rehabilitative treatment of prisoners is a reflection of the state of our society. Not only is it beneficial for the prisoners themselves and for the public wallet that we adopt a primarily rehabilitative approach towards incarceration, based on understanding rather than prejudice, but the manner of thinking required for such a prison system is applicable to all areas of policy and reflects a progressive attitude toward running our society.


It may be slightly jarring, perhaps, to think in such a way – criminals have had their chance, they did something repugnant to society and they are being punished for it, they are the last people worthy of kind treatment, which is not hard to sympathise with. But apparently it is not a viewpoint shared by David Cameron. Our Prime Minister has decided to beam his shiny forehead of benevolence upon the incarcerated, it seems.


In February of this year he outlined a series of prison reforms to the Policy Exchange, which after Grayling’s book banning, seem veritably humanitarian. Broadly, his reforms are encompassed in the following:


  • Greater operational and financial autonomy for prison governors; they will be given a budget and complete control over how to spend it. As well, they can opt out of national contracts and choose their own suppliers, and they can set their own regimes.
  • Developing better metrics to track the performance of prisons, including reoffending rates per prison, employment outcomes, accommodation outcomes and educational progress. A Prison League Table will also be introduced.
  • The construction of 9 new prisons, 5 within the current Parliament, as well as changes to prison education, such as allowing governors to bring in new providers and getting graduates in to teach prisoners. In addition, renewed efforts in tackling mental illness and drug addiction in prisons.


As well, the great reformer is introducing ‘ban the box’ to the civil service – moving the part of job applications where one has to put one’s previous convictions to a later stage in the process when the applicant has a chance to defend themselves – and greater measures for tracking prisoners after being released, so that they may be released earlier.


All of these reforms seem positively liberal. They are a far cry from the barbarous stupidity of Grayling’s tenure, and from the brutality of other parts of the anatomy of Cameron’s government – his Hunt, for example.


Before we look at what Cameron and puppy dog panting, cheeky little red-cheeked Gove are seeking to do, it is beneficial to look at the grounding philosophy behind our prison system and work out what we want achieved. It is beneficial always to look at the base reasons for a thing, the base philosophy behind an idea, because then one can contextualise all arguments revolving around it, and better delineate truth from lies and intelligent arguments from misleading ones.


So, there are five reasons for punishment: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution and restitution. Prison covers all but ‘restitution’, which is usually achieved through the payment of money.


Thus far in our societal development, we seem to have had a preoccupation with ‘retribution’. We are animals, after all, prone to our primeval lusts, and influenced by Old Testament yearnings to seek revenge for wrongs done to us, stirred up by moronic tabloid block-font headlines deeming criminals A DISGRACE and persuading us to be outraged that a criminal doesn’t get what we may deem to be their ‘comeuppance’.


It was seen quite clearly – this animalistic desire for vengeance over understanding – in the tabloid media’s treatment of the recent Supreme Court decision changing the doctrine of joint enterprise, where two people can be convicted of murder even though one person did not ‘pull the trigger’. Previously, the test to convict the ‘innocent’ person was one to establish foreseeability of a murder being committed, whereas the Supreme Court has changed it to the much less lax test of intention on the part of the ‘innocent’ person that murder will be committed, with foreseeability being an indicator of such intention, as oppose to the test itself. The Mirror, as you would expect, decided to treat such a nuanced area of law with the delicacy necessary, by declaring on their front page that those convicted under the original doctrine were ‘GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER’. This, of course, is not true. For one, those convicted under the previous law will either be re-tried or have their sentences reduced to reflect a conviction for manslaughter. They won’t just be set free. Secondly, the original test was a broad and indiscriminate net that did not serve its purpose. It is sensible to have a rule that reflects the difference in hopes for rehabilitation between the convicted, and to do that, we need to look at the minutiae of an event.


This penchant for outrage and insistence that anyone in any way involved with criminality be thrown to the dogs belies people’s humanity. There are any number of circumstances in which someone could be involved in a murder and not be inherently criminal. Retribution should not trump rehabilitation.


Deterrence is linked to retribution in that it is usually achieved in the same way: by making the conditions of prisoners uncomfortable to unbearable. Whereas with retribution this is mostly for shits and giggles, with deterrence it is in the hope that others will hear of the tribulations of criminals and be put off the same criminality.


Then there is incapacitation, a reason of simple pragmatism; we must remove the individual from society since they pose too much of a risk.


Finally, rehabilitation. Now, of course, some people are beyond rehabilitation; people like Charlie Bronson: the gleefully thuggish, round-headed mad man with a handlebar moustache and Natural Born Killers sunglasses who seems never to want to leave prison. Also, of course, unrepentant killers and rapists and general professional dickheads. We are not concerned with them, though. We are concerned with people capable of being rehabilitated, and when it comes to those people, rehabilitation should be the fundamental goal of our prison system. We must put aside petty primitive retribution and think unaffected and intelligently.


David, being a politician, cannot, of course, speak in such blunt terms; he has a populace to pander to. Indeed, he did so at the beginning of his speech, making sure to preface his reforms with this: “Some people – including, of course, rapists, murderers, child abusers, gang leaders – belong in prisons.” Let’s touch on the most repugnant of those criminals – child abusers, or pedophiles.


Is it not better to foster a society in which prevention is preferred above retributive notions of locking the bastards up and throwing away the key? This involves society viewing their inferiors, those repugnant criminals, as people with problems that can be understood and therefore tackled, rather than as detritus to discard. In Germany there is a programme called ‘Dunkelfeld’ to which pedophiles can report themselves and thereafter receive treatment to become safe to society. They cannot be cured, because contemporary science views pedophilia now as a sexual predilection rather than a mental imbalance. But they can be treated.


When we react to crime in this manner, and try to understand and treat its causes, rather than deal harshly with its potential effects, we can try and move to a place where the actual commission of child abuse is reduced because those with such tendencies feel more confident in coming forward to seek treatment before they act on their desires. And there is no lack of people so inclined – in the UK, a very diluted charitable version of Dunkelfeld – ‘Stop it Now!’ – missed 5,000 calls each month because of lack of funding.


When it comes to gang leaders, gangs and gang members, a different set of problems are posed. There is a correlation in city centres between areas with the highest youth unemployment and the highest levels of gang activity. It does not take much of a stretch to imagine that from this correlation, causation can be inferred. Where a job provides empowerment, independence, control of one’s destiny and an income, when jobs are scarce and opportunities are nil, a gang – or any gang-related crime: knives, drugs or theft – is a way of achieving this. After all, you never see polo shirt-clad, Jack Wills-tracksuited young ragamuffins from Cambridge rolling down the cobble-stone paths of their delightful little town 10 men deep blasting Skepta from their new i-Phones.


Well, you do, but those guys are soft twats playing at ironic cultural appropriation rather than gangbangers.


We live in a society in which respect is, by and large, dependent upon one’s success in the job market, and which looks upon those without jobs or in menial jobs with disdain. So, in that culture, when there is an employment vaccuum for whatever reason – the rise of more knowledge-based employment, a sick economy, government policies – it is not surprising that young people would seek respect and power through illegal means.


And with Greg Clarke having announced cuts to local government services of 6.7% – services young people in deprived areas would rely on – (following five years of austerity already) as well as an ability for local governments to raise taxes by 2% without a referendum – again, something that disadvantages poor communities, since that 2% won’t translate to an increase in public service funding in the way it will for more affluent areas, as well as youth unemployment – although going down – having been at its highest between 2010 and 2012 since 1992, coupled with constant news of massive tax breaks for mega-rich corporations like Amazon and Google, and after the recession, the bankers getting away with their devastating crimes, is it any wonder that people may turn from a society that seems not to value them, and instead turn to crime to take what they can?


Prison reform can only go so far in improving these people’s chances. Policy on the outside must be such that the opportunities for people to fall into crimes of desperation are stifled as much as possible.


This is not to absolve criminals of responsibility – those who commit heinous crimes hurt their victims badly, and, honestly? If a pedophile abused my son or daughter, I’d take their head. But we must separate policy from individual prejudice and understand that crime is not to be taken as a solitary act. It is the concomitant of a vast number of factors, all of which have to be addressed in order to build the kind of society I’m sure we all want to live in.


Nevertheless, depending on their involvement, personal inclinations, remorse and any other of the myriad mitigating circumstances, criminals should be incarcerated, if at the very least only to be incapacitated. And when they are, what will Cameron’s prisons do to and for them?

Dave is giving more powers to prison governors to have ultimate authority over their budgets and the ability to opt out of national contracts and choose their own suppliers – this assumes, I suppose, that such contracts will be open to the private sector. 6 prisons this year will be changed to be run as such. As well, Dave announced the building of 9 completely new prisons. Now, to give this news some context, it helps to turn to a speech he made in September 2015. In it he said that it would aid his goals of devolution of public services to “invite bids for new prisons from those charities and others who wish to work with specific types of offender.” Even though he makes them seem unimportant, I would suppose that it is those ‘others’ who will be making the majority of bids.


It is not without precedent, seeing as there are 14 privately run prisons in England and Wales, all overseen by the trifecta of Serco, G4S and Sodexo. You might recognise G4S as the same company that fucked up the Olympics by not being able to supply the manpower it said it could, so having to be subsidised by the government in having the army sent in to cover its ass. And you might remember all of these companies as the ones that run some of the UK’s immigration removal centres; the same immigration removal centres at which there are routinely accusations of abuse, sexual abuse, poor healthcare and hunger strikes.


It also helps to note that Dave’s speech comes three years after Reform – the right wing think tank – released ‘the Case for Private Prisons’ report in 2013, in which they suggested that private prisons have lower reoffending rates and are more cost-effective than publicly run prisons. Reform recommended removing any limitations on private companies to run prisons. Of course, value for money is more easily achieved when a company pays its staff 40% less than staff in state run prisons. As well, the privately run prisons we have now are purpose built, less crowded and don’t hold the most high-risk prisoners. When these facts are taken with the claims, in fact, private prisons are not performing markedly better.


And when Wolds prison – a G4S venture – was forcibly wrenched back into public hands in 2012 because of prisoners’ illegal drug use and overall idleness, it’s hard to believe Reform’s claims. But, guess what, chums? As you may have come to expect, three of Reform’s ‘corporate partners’ are… no go on, guess…   Okay, I’ll tell you:


G4S, Sodexo and Serco.


As well, the think tank is inextricably linked to the Conservative party.


Suddenly it starts to look as though what first appeared to be intelligent, liberal, progressive reforms to the prison system are just measures to facilitate the never ending pursuit of the doctrinal and unrelenting privatisation of every single instrument of state we have to offer, like the government has gone mad, decided it doesn’t need material things any more (man) and wants to sell it all before running off into the forest to smoke hash and make love to squirrels. There are, of course, some little flourishes like ‘ban the box’ thrown in.


You may question whether it is intelligent to have a service such as that of prisons, run privately. Whether it is the best way to achieve the rehabilitation of prisoners and the broad, overarching social aims we want. Private companies seek to make a profit, obviously. And private companies in charge of prisons rely on prisoners to fill those prisons in order to make a profit. Whereas a state run prison would simply be shut down or repurposed were the crime rate to be drastically diminished, private companies running private prisons face a big loss if that is the case. It is not in their interests that prisons achieve the goals we want them to achieve. Companies like G4S and Serco feast off the decay of society, they are there to provide services that are only necessary if the collective good of the people isn’t being achieved as completely as it could be.


This is to say nothing of the fact that, despite what Reform claim, private prisons are worse than publicly run prisons. The Ministry of Justice itself has reported that private prisons do worse in terms of the number of assaults and escapes and in rehabilitating prisoners. And this is despite the fact that it is believed private prisons significantly under report the amount of attacks in private prisons.


Privately run prisons are not conducive to the goals of real, permanent rehabilitation of prisoners, nor are they conducive to viewing prisons as what they are – a last resort, the tail of the beast, only to be used if society faces too much of a danger from the criminal and, when they are used, to be used as rehabilitative or safe places of incapacitation. Prisons are not a profitable venture to be capitalised on.


The privatisation of prisons and the resultant failure of the system when it comes to prisoners may not be at the top of the list of your concerns. But they are a good example of this government’s self-imposed mandate to privatise and they serve as a warning of what may happen to public services you value more highly.


It is an oft-cited maxim that a man should be judged by how he treats his inferiors. And, perhaps, that a country should be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Well, if that is the case, and we treat our prisoners like cash cows, how can we expect to be judged? More importantly, how does that mean that we can expect to be treated?


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