The right-wing think tank Reform has published a report claiming that private firms are better at running prisons. 'The case for private prisons' criticises the government for moving away from the wholesale privatisation of the prison estate, claiming that private prisons, introduced in England and Wales in the 1990's, are more cost-effective and better managing offenders than public prisons.
Reform's headline claim is that private prisons have lower rates of re-offending than their public sector counterparts. A cursory glance at their statistics does indeed show that seven out of ten comparable private prisons in England and Wales have lower than average rates of re-offending.
But a fundamental problem with Reform's analysis is that prisons are not the only factor influencing recidivism. Home Office research has shown that the quality of post-release support has just as significant an impact on re-offending and therefore the performance of local - public sector - Probation Trusts must also be taken into account.
Five of the seven private prisons held up for lower than average re-offending rates turn out to be in probation areas with lower than average re-offending; so attributing this success to an individual prison is problematic.
Indeed within some probation areas private sector prisons are performing significantly worse than comparable public sector institutions. The private male local prison HMP Forest Bank has a re-offending rate of 60.48% amongst short-term prisoners. This is below the national average of 62.33% but significantly higher than HMP Manchester; a public sector male local prison within the same probation area. HMP Altcourse has a re-offending rate of 60.43% amongst short-term prisoners; again better than the national average but significantly worse than HMP Liverpool, a comparable local prison.
Beyond its dodgy re-offending claims, 'The case for private prisons' utilises very selective statistics to support its other key arguments.
The report claims that 'in 1997-8, one study found that contracted prisons provided between 0.6 and 1.6 hours more out of cells per weekday than public sector'. This is true, but more recent 2010 research by the Prison Reform Trust has found that inmates in private prisons spend significantly more time locked in cells than those in public sector prisons. This evidence was completely ignored in the report.
The report claims that per-place costs are lower in private sector prisons, again relying on research from 1998. This ignores statistics provided by the National Offender Management Service in 2007 which showed that the per-place costs of private prisons were significantly higher than public sector prisons.
Chris Poyner, president of the Public and Commercial Services union's National Offender Management Service group has called prison privatisation 'a national scandal', pointing out that;
"multimillion-pound global companies are being handed huge amounts of taxpayers' money to profit from locking people up by cutting staff and working conditions."
There is in fact no solid evidence that private prisons are better than their public sector counterparts. Audits have however found that inexperienced staff and cost cutting measures have left many private prisons struggling to create a safe environment for prisoners.
Reform's clumsy, agenda driven research and bad statistics only go to show the inherent weakness of their position.