Unions call for public control over private prisons as G4S loses Birmingham

Birmingham’s failures have put the spotlight on other flaws in Britain’s private prisons

Ministers are facing calls to take back control of private prisons after outsourcing giant G4S was permanently stripped of its contract to run the troubled HMP Birmingham.

Prisons minister Rory Stewart said the Ministry of Justice had “mutually agreed with G4S that the public sector is better placed to drive the long-term improvements required and the contract will end”. He said the Conservative government remained “absolutely clear that we still believe in a mixed economy of providers with some of our private prisons among the best performing in the country”.

But Birmingham’s failures have put the spotlight on other failures in Britain’s private prisons – and led opposition politicians and trade unions to call for a shake-up. Since the 1990s, 13 other prisons in England and Wales, and two in Scotland, have been handed over to contractors.

In his comments this week, Stewart said G4S was “running excellent prisons at Altcourse and Oakwood”. HMP Altcourse, in Liverpool, was praised by independent monitors last November for reducing violence and self-harm. But the same report [PDF] also described aspects of the prison’s healthcare regime as “inhumane” and said vulnerable prisoners were being discriminated against.

Recent inspections at Oakwood, in Staffordshire, have had broadly positive verdicts. But last July inspectors reported that violence had increased. And writing to the latest issue of prisoner newspaper Inside Time, Oakwood inmate James H said he was “being banged up 23 hours a day every day” in spite of struggling with his mental health. “All I want is to gain some purposeful activity, but it seems like you have to smoke Mamba to gain anything in this establishment,” he wrote.

It is obvious that when you put profits above safety you sow the seeds of disorder,

For the Prison Officers’ Association, the return of Birmingham to the public sector was welcome. “We have campaigned tirelessly since it was wrongly privatised in 2011 to have it returned to the state,” POA chair Mark Fairhurst said. “The more recent events enabled us to pressurise the government into making what is undoubtedly the correct decision for staff, prisoners and the taxpayer.”

Misery

But Fairhurst said other private prisons must follow suit. “The obsession this Tory Government has to outsource and privatise public sector work must cease. It is obvious that when you put profits above safety you sow the seeds of disorder, mismanagement, cover ups and misery.”

Stewart didn’t mention two other prisons outsourced to G4S – HMP Rye Hill and HMP Parc in south Wales, where last December an inmate died after a prison officer failed to check on his wellbeing when unlocking his cell the same morning. Following another death in 2016, Parc was criticised for “an apparent lack of urgency” in the response of staff to crises. In September last year, independent monitors said Parc was “very well managed” but raised the alarm over the high levels of violent incidents and substance abuse. And despite the prison’s population doubling over ten years, funding for mental health services was not increased.

Other private prisons in England and Wales are run by two outsourcing giants which, like G4S, suck up public sector contracts across the piece – Serco and Sodexo. Meanwhile jails still nominally run by the government have contracted out specific functions, such as maintenance and work programmes, to similar companies. The government hoped that outsourcing would mean it would spend less cash on jails, but that hasn’t worked out. In 2017, the government agency controlling prisons admitted “the costs of maintenance and services were not clearly understood” when awarding a contract they said would deliver £115 million in efficiency savings. This meant the contract was “therefore underfunded and the declared efficiency savings reduced”.

In Scotland, HMP Kilmarnock is managed by Sodexo, while HMP Addiewell is run by Serco. In January inspectors raised concerns over a lack of experienced prison officers at Addiewell, and said Sodexo guards had failed to intervene when nurses administering medication were verbally abused. Daniel Johnson, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman, said it was “essential that the SNP government now look at bringing this prison into public sector management” when the current contract expires.

Everybody’s got to start somewhere but employers need to ensure proper mentoring,

Private prisons are more likely to have a high turnover of staff and therefore a less experienced workforce, POA general secretary Steve Gillan said, because they’re “always looking to make a profit”. He told the Big Issue: “Everybody’s got to start somewhere but employers need to ensure proper mentoring, the proper training is in place and individuals joining the job feel confident to make the correct decisions. It’s probably harder for the private sector to achieve that because of increased turnover, and the race to bottom in terms and conditions and pay.”

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In the probation sector, the situation is arguably worse, with all but the most high-risk offenders in England and Wales contracted out via 21 “community rehabilitation companies” – including six to Serco. Last month the National Audit Office said the Ministry of Justice had “set itself up to fail in how it approached probation reforms” when ex-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling pushed through the reforms. “Not only have these failings been extremely costly for taxpayers, but we have seen the number of people on short sentences recalled to prison skyrocket,” auditor general Amyas Morse said. The “Transforming Rehabilitation” program is set to cost the taxpayer at least an extra £467 million.

After HMP Birmingham was brought back into the public sector, the GMB, one of several unions representing probation workers, called for “all probation services to be brought back in house as soon as possible”. The government has announced that the probation contracts will be ended early next year – but rather than taking back control, they will be put them out to tender once again.