A new briefing by the free market thinktank, Reform, sets out to reignite the debate about the role of the private sector in our prisons. The case for private prisons argues that the justice secretary Chris Grayling was wrong when he announced at the end of 2012 his decision to finish the rolling programme of prison contracting and pursue a "new approach" limiting already widespread competition to rehabilitation and ancillary services.
Making selective use of Ministry of Justice data to highlight "the superior performance by the private sector against comparable public sector prisons", Reform calls for the extension of prison competition through market testing, introducing fixed term contracts and increased flexibility over pay and conditions for all prisons.
The UK already has the most privatised prison system in Europe. In England and Wales there were 12,872 prisoners (15% of the prisoner population) held in private prisons as at 30 September 2012. This is a higher proportion than in the US, where the figure is around 9%. In addition, five more existing public prisons are to be privately managed. In a competition from which the prison service is now expressly excluded, contracts for HMPs Moorland, Hatfield, and Lindholme, combined as a South Yorkshire prison cluster, along with HMPs Castington and Acklington, also combined to form a new HMP Northumberland, will be awarded in 2013. As a result approximately 2,700 more prisoners will be held privately.
Since July 2011 the process of market testing alone had incurred £3.5 million of taxpayers' money by the end of September 2012. The government estimate for the total cost of tendering, evaluation, mobilisation and transition of prisons is £10.7 million. Given the exorbitant costs of market testing, and a lack of clear, objective evidence to show the benefits of privatisation, ministers should be very wary of opening up the running of the prison estate to further competition.
Criticised by the prisons minister, Jeremy Wright, for its 'simplistic analysis', this report draws on figures that mask decidedly mixed results - 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. From official facts and figures, 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.
According to the National Audit Office, the relative inexperience of staff means that some private prisons can struggle to create a safe environment for prisoners. Private prison contracts in England and Wales are shared between just three companies: Serco, Sodexo and G4S. Overall the costs of private prisons per place are higher than public prisons for most types of establishment. Despite this, the average ratio of prison staff to prisoners is usually lower in private prisons, and staff generally receive a lower level of basic pay than their public sector colleagues. In 2011 the average gross salary for a private sector prison officer was 23% less than public sector equivalents.
In the main, private prisons are more overcrowded and less safe than their public counterparts. Private prisons have held a higher percentage of their prisoners in overcrowded accommodation than public sector prisons every year for the past 14 years. In 2011-12 the private prisons average was 30.2%, compared to an average of 23.3% in the public sector. Forest Bank, Doncaster and Altcourse have particularly high rates of overcrowding, with 39.8%, 58.6% and 69.8% of prisoners held in overcrowded accommodation respectively.
When government is trying to get to grips with unacceptably high reoffending rates and the pressing need to reduce costly prison numbers, it makes no sense to open up to market forces and risk growing vested interest. In business terms, surely the aim is to shrink, not expand, the market.
In America, private prison contractors have been major contributors to public policy organisations that have successfully advanced tough-on-crime legislation and promoted free-market principles. Private companies in the US have on occasions sought to manipulate the legal system directly. In the kids for cash scandal, Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp, a private prison company, was reported to have been found guilty of paying two judges $2.6m to send 2,000 children to their prisons. Less vivid an example - but still a matter of concern - in the UK was the resistance voiced by some private contractors, on grounds of cost, to the inclusion of prisons within the ambit of the Corporate Manslaughter Act.
Privatisation raises ethical questions about the nature and role of imprisonment in our society. Loss of liberty is the most extreme form of punishment we have. It has to be well regulated and managed and must meet exacting standards. People in prison should always be treated with decency and respect. Any arrangements for commissioning and contracting must ensure proper oversight and full accountability.
While privatisation could help curb any remaining restrictive practices, it is no panacea to the problems of our overcrowded, usually invisible and too often ineffective prison system.