The true price of private prisons

Jonn Elledge investigates the problems that PFI prisons are causing

Imagine you're the Minister of Justice. Your government has a tough approach to crime which has won plaudits from the tabloids. The only problem is that Britain's prison population is at an all time high, with more prisoners than places to put them. What do you do?

One option, of course, would be to lower sentences, but it's risky: the Daily Mail would have you for breakfast. Attempts to lower crime rates have so far proved stubbornly unsuccessful. That leaves only one option: more prisons - and quickly.

So last February John Reid, then still the man in charge of such matters, announced plans to extend Britain's creaking prison system by a massive 8,000 places. Most of these will be created by extending existing jails or, in one case, converting a disused mental hospital. But the announcement also included plans for two brand new prisons in London and Merseyside.

The thing is, announcing new prisons is easy. (So easy, in fact, that the government did it twice: Reid's statement was a rehash of one made by Charles Clarke a year earlier.) But actually building the things is rather harder - particularly when your department is facing a budget freeze until 2011. Luckily there's a trusted way of spreading spending across 30 years and slashing a prison's running costs, all in one go: the private finance initiative.

While they've been less high profile than the schools and hospitals, Britain already has nine PFI prisons. And in some ways they've been pretty successful. The new jails have been built quickly, and cost a good 15% less to run than their government-owned equivalents.

What's more, they've been commended for taking innovative approaches to training and other activities, and for the respect with which they treat their inmates ("This is the first time in 10 years anyone has called me 'Mister'", one rather confused prisoner told a government inspector in 2003). Indeed, the Prison Inspectorate's report on Altcourse Prison, Merseyside, in 1999, said it was "by some way the best local prison we have inspected."

But, of course, not all reports have been quite so glowing. Concerns have been raised about both the safety record of PFI prisons, and the effectiveness of their rehabiliation efforts. Prisoners in private jails are more likely to be involved in serious assaults - and more likely to re-offend once they've been released.

One problem is that PFI prisons negotiate their own staff contracts - and thus pay their officers a good 50% less than the state sector. This does a good job of cutting costs. But it means private prisons tend to have fewer, younger, and less experienced warders. They also don't tend to stick around for very long. A 2002 report from a government auditor gloomily concluded that, "The upshot of trimming costs is that safety may be compromised for both staff and prisoners."

An even bigger concern is the effect private prisons may have on criminal justice policy. For one thing, private jailers are paid by the prisoner. This gives them an incentive to pack in as many inmates as possible, encouraging overcrowding.

Even more worryingly, the existance of private prisons may actually stop the government from taking steps to reduce Britain's burgeoning prison population. "What we'd like to see is a shrinking market," says Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust. "But good business practice demands that you grow your market. A vested interest will develop in having a sizable prison population."

And while the government is dependent on that vested interest to escape the current crisis, it's likely to have some influence on policy. Already there are signs this is happening: there are moves afoot to further deregulate private prisons, by removing the government-appointed controllers that monitor them. This is happening despite a BBC report on Rye Hill jail earlier this year, which found widespread intimidation of staff, and prisoners who had easy access to drugs and mobile phones. "Private prisons are a very expensive way not to cut crime," adds Lyon.

This may be why, for all the enthusiasm with which the new prisons were announced, the government has kept strangely quiet about the way they'll be paid for. But in hushed tones, the Ministry of Justice will admit the role PFI plays in their plans - and the private sector are licking their lips in anticipation. The justice ministry get their prisons, the police get their cells back, and the government gets to look tough in front of the tabloids. Everybody's happy.

Except, perhaps, the prisoners and the guards.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times