Comment Writer Tatyana Goodwin discusses the failure of our privately owned prison system.

Written by tatyana_goodwin
Images by Carles Rabada

As of June 2022, there were 80,660 people incarcerated in England and Wales. This number is projected to grow to 98,700 by 2026. This statistic is a cause for worry for Britain’s already overcrowded prison system which continually fails to meet targets on the health and well-being of inmates.

The image of a Victorian prison is that of an overcrowded, disease-ridding hellscape; but with prison populations in the UK and Wales increasing 350% since 1900, this image is not a thing of the past but rather an ever-present reality in the prison system today. A recent report revealed that 52% of prison establishments were overcrowded, with HMP Leeds at a 171% occupancy rate in 2022. Harrowing stories have been exposed from the nefarious underworkings of His Majesty’s prisons. An independent enquiry in 2021 exposed gross negligence at HMP Bronzefield after a teenage girl was made to give birth alone in her cell in 2019, with her baby unable to be resuscitated by nurses and paramedics.

More private prisons with pointless innovation and consistent practical failings look to become commonplace

HMP Bronzefield is one of 14 contracted-out prisons in the UK and is privately owned by the security company Sodexo. Sodexo runs, in total, 4 prisons in the UK, with G4S Justice Services and Serco Custodial Services holding the other 9 contracts. The Conservative Party’s plan to create 10,000 more prison spaces, in an attempt to prevent overcrowding, likely indicates the emergence of more privately owned prisons in the UK.

Privately contracted prisons follow a trend of sweeping privatisation of the public sector. In an already overcrowded system, the Conservative policy of privatisation is not only absurd, but an egregious push for profits over humanity in one of the least humane settings within a modern democracy. The admittance of the Conservative Secretary of Justice to continue to adhere to a principle of punishment, rather than rehabilitation, is music to the ears of privately contracted justice and custodial companies, who make billion pounds of revenue a year (Serco £4.4 billion in 2021, G4S £7.7 billion in 2019 and Sodexo £17.4 billion in 2021). ‘Prison must be about punishment of the criminal’, declared Brandon Lewis, Justice Secretary, and Lord Chancellor, at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in 2022.

As the government cracks down on crime, the prison population is projected to only rise, with non-violent offenders facing lengthy prison terms. A government policy of rehabilitation rather than punishment appears to be unlikely under the Conservative government. With privatisation key on the Tory agenda, more private prisons with pointless innovation and consistent practical failings look to become commonplace. In one inspection of a Serco contracted prison in August 2018, the prison was described as ‘adequate if inconsistent’ yet commended for ‘innovative practice’. Laughably, the managing director of Serco praised the prison’s installation of a paid photo booth, said to improve prisoners’ mental health, whilst the prison was simultaneously criticised for long wait times for mental health treatment and assessment.

Privatisation of the public sector directly prevents social progress and much-needed reform

Government policy to prevent overcrowding by investing in new prisons seems to be ill-thought-out, with serious implications for the protection and welfare of inmates. Following a model of rehabilitation may take pressure off the overcrowded system by preventing reoffending. Policies focused on rehabilitation have been successful in countries such as Sweden, which has seen its prison population drop dramatically from 5,722 to 4,500 in 5 years. Prisons in Sweden are closing their doors- an entirely different picture from the UK

Community-based sentencing for non-violent offenders would further alleviate pressure off the broken system, so this would be beneficial to implement. But these recommendations must go hand in hand with the return of privatised prisons back into the overseeing of the state. As long as companies profit off prison populations and the burden of funding prisons is released off taxpayers, there is little incentive for the government to place adequate funding into reforming public prisons. Offloading them to the private sector seems to be a convenient measure that prevents government accountability for consistent failings, whilst generating profit for private companies by stripping people of their civil liberties. Allowing this practice in a liberal democracy indicates how privatisation of the public sector directly prevents social progress and much-needed reform.


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