Does privatisation of the prison system work?

12 Feb 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 15 Feb 2016

With Northern Ireland getting its first taste of private sector involvement in the prison service, Scope looks at the impacts of wholescale privatisation of the justice system in England and Wales. 

What do you do when your prison system is faltering and in serious need of reform and when you don’t have the money to fix it? It’s a difficult question that Justice Minister David Ford is doubtless contemplating right now.

In England and Wales, faced with budget cuts of 25%, successive Ministers went down the privatisation route, to save money and “improve” services - with very mixed results.

There are now several private prisons in England and Wales, none dealing with the most serious category of offenders. Similarly the probation trusts have been broken up and replaced by a single national board, dealing with high-risk offenders backed by a network of community and rehabilitation centres many of which are run by private companies often working with voluntary sector organisations with specialist knowledge and skills.

As far as the new probation system goes it is too early to assess the effectiveness of change, although concerns about the new system are being raised in both Yorkshire and Kent.

It is in the prisons that there has been the most controversy. Last year the Howard League for Prison Reform compiled a 75 page dossier entitled Corporate Crime? A dossier on the failure of privatisation in the criminal justice system.

It’s an exhausting and troubling account of failings which include.

  • How a terminally-ill prisoner on his way to hospital was kept waiting in handcuffs for 40 minutes in the street, in full view of the public, while staff went to a bakery for lunch
  • How Macmillan nurses were prevented, for contractual reasons, from entering a prison to help an inmate dying of cancer
  • How unlawful restraint contributed to the death of a 14-year-old boy in a secure training centre.


An additional paper was presented to the Metropolitan Police asking that it assist an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office in its investigation into G4S and Serco after they agreed to repay more than £180 million for overcharging for electronic tagging.


The Prison Reform Trust takes a more nuanced view of privatisation. A spokesperson said:  “Our view is that privatisation has been pursued to save money and is also partly ideologically driven.  And whilst it is true that there are some examples of really bad practice in the private sector, there is also good practice as well.  

“We take no position on privatisation. Our concern is for the welfare of prisoners and the fact that we are sending far too many people to jail.”

And here we get to the real issue.

The prison population right across the UK has been rising steadily across the UK, with many receiving prison sentences for petty crimes. Northern Ireland fares particularly badly in this regard, having only just discontinued its practice of jailing people for non payment of fines.

This is extremely expensive. In Northern Ireland experts put the annual cost of jailing a prisoner at £77,000 and very serious questions have to be asked about whether this is an appropriate use of public money.

Research on this is pretty unanimous. It suggests that every day of imprisonment makes people less fit to take their place in society; that prisons often act as finishing schools, universities of crime. There has even been research which suggests that of all the conditions required to break people out of criminal patterns of behaviour, none are met in prison.

Of course prisons are not just supposed to “make people better” they also provide protection to society and having a judicial system of punishment deters people from taking the law into their own hands when wronged. These are important factors but this is an area where public opinion and therefore political action is at odds with the facts and acts counter to the public interest.

As listeners to Talkback earlier this week will be aware it is commonly believed that prisons are like hotels, that the harshest possible regimes and maximum possible sentences should always be imposed and that if prisoners don’t like that they should have thought about it before they committed whatever crime they ended up in for, no matter how petty.

In 1750 the magistrate Henry Fielding famously wrote that most offenders “were found guilty of no crime other than poverty”.

Sadly that is still the case today. And comparative studies are instructive. We imprison double the proportion of our citizens as the Germans or the Dutch and even the USA, which has a reputation for its severity in dealing with crime, is seeing prison populations fall in Washington State, California and Colorado.

Earlier this week Prime Minister David Cameron announced a reform programme to shake up the prison system in England and Wales, with league tables to measure how effective prisons were in rehabilitating offenders.

However he did not address the issue of the growing number of prisoners.

This is a pity because any sensible analysis would start by looking at the problem from a different angle. What is the best way of reducing offending and breaking the cycle of crime in order to make society safer for all of us whilst satisfying the need to protect the public from danger and reassure people that punishments meted out by the courts are fair, reasonable and proportionate?

Any such analysis would lead to a reduction in the numbers in prison, save money and reduce crime. It’s a simple logical conclusion backed by decades of research. In Germany and Holland, where this has already happened, there has been no crime wave as the hang-‘em-and-flog-‘em brigade might have predicted.

The problem is that there are no votes in being logical and applying the science of criminology. Quite the reverse. Sadly that’s how politics works.

After all, it has taken more than a decade to get any movement on the fine defaulters clogging up our prisons at massively more public expense than the monies they owe.

Privatising prisons might save some money, but at a cost, based on the English experience, improving prisons performance is helpful and welcome but real change will only come through the reform of the mindsets of politicians and policy-makers and the reality of politics makes that all but impossible. Sadly the most logical option open to Minister Ford as he ruminates about his ever shrinking budget is not open to him.


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