Should we scrap private prisons?

America recently took a step towards getting rid of private prisons. Would Britain be better off doing the same? Simon Wilson reports.


How can we move forward?

What's happened?

A fortnight ago, in a surprise development that sent the share prices of two big US security firms crashing, the United States government announced that it would be cutting back and eventually phasing out private prisons. For now, the change only affects federal prisons that is, prisons run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, part of the US Department of Justice. The vast majority (about 92%) of the estimated 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US are held in state prisons, not federal ones. However, the Department of Justice's decision was a shock that represents a major policy change and came accompanied by a pretty damning verdict on the performance of private prisons in the US.

What was that verdict?

According to a memo to US officials in which she set out the government's reasoning, US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates explained that private prisons "compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities", offering worse services and failing to save substantially on costs. Her decision came just days after publication of a worrying report by the Department's inspector-general, which found that privately operated federal prisons were guilty of sacrificing safety and security in the pursuit of profit, among other failings. There's a feeling in the US that the era of private prisons has peaked.

Are Britain's prisons better?

In European terms, Britain was the pioneer in private prisons. The first prison to be contracted out was HMP Wolds (to G4S) in 1992. The first to be privately designed, constructed, managed and financed was HMP Altcourse (in Liverpool) in 1997. Currently there are 14 prisons (out of a total of 124) contractually managed by private firms in England and Wales, and two more in Scotland, accounting for around 15% of the prison population. Along with G4S, the other firms involved in the sector are Serco and Sodexo. On average, private prisons are bigger and newer than those in the public estate. According to statistics published last year by the Ministry of Justice, private prisons account for 18% of prisoners (more than 15,000 people), but 23% of the prison budget.

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Has private provision worked?

The right-wing think-tank Reform published a long report in 2013 claiming that it had and that the then coalition government was wrong to move away from further privatisation. Ten out of 12 private prisons it analysed had lower reoffending rates than comparable public prisons, and all 12 performed better at "resource management and operational effectiveness". (On the other hand, seven out of 12 public prisons performed better at "public protection".) However, the report was criticised by the then justice minister, Jeremy Wright, for its "simplistic analysis" of complex data.

What's so complex about it?

The key issue involved is in accounting for the wide range of factors that contribute to reoffending, including previous criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol dependency, and the support ex-prisoners receive in the community. According to the Prison Reform Trust's Juliet Lyon, from Ministry of Justice data it is almost impossible to compare the performance and reoffending rates of one establishment with another, partly because prisons hold different categories of offenders and also because prisoners often serve their sentences in a number of different jails. Some private prisons have proved innovative and effective, but others have been criticised by the Chief Inspector for their high staff turnover, tendency to cut corners and weaknesses in security.

Any chance of an objective view?

The most in-depth recent analysis was an academic study in 2015 by Julian Le Vay, the former finance director of the Prison Service. Le Vay's main findings are that neither the public sector nor the private have consistently outperformed each other in terms of quality of service. Rather, he found that both sectors improved their performance in the 2000s following serious operational problems in the 1990s, and that both are struggling with the effects of sharp budget cuts in the 2010s.

Le Vay argues that the impact of innovation in the private sector has been marginal, but that the threat of competition has helped to bolster performance in the public sector and to weaken the power of the Prison Officers Association to obstruct reform. Meanwhile, going forward, the focus of the government's prison policy in coming years is the plan, announced earlier this year, for the creation of nine new out-of-town prisons and six flagship "reform" prisons aimed at overhauling prison education and rehabilitation programmes in order to cut the UK's high reoffending rates. Currently, 46% of all prisoners will reoffend within a year of release, and among short-sentence prisoners the proportion is even higher, at 60%. The government says it is determined to change that; whether it can remains to be seen.

The importance of the US decision

It would be daft to think that "allowing the contracts of 13 private prisons to expire will change social policy and end mass incarceration", says Clint Smith in The New Yorker. But it would also be wrong to downplay the importance of the Justice Department's decision. "When the power of private prisons is diminished, so too is their ability to engage in back-door political lobbying that has an impact on public and private prisons alike. The moral abhorrence of private prisons has been brought to our attention by courageous acts of investigative journalism, illuminating scholarship, and the work of activists who have decried the social stratification brought about by our prison systems. Closing 13 private prisons is a small step, but it renews the conversation on how to move forward."

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.