HMP Birmingham – the challenge of privatisation within a struggling prison system

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Privatisation of institutions that exist to punish offenders – that is, deprive people who committed a wrongdoing of their liberty and separate them from their loved ones – is inherently complex, both ethically and practically.”  

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The recent revelation of the issues in HMP Birmingham, which was run by G4S, and the consequent takeover of the prison by the government raise a range of questions about both privatisation of prisons, and deeper endemic problems faced by our criminal justice system.

Birmingham is certainly not the only prison facing problems. Over the last few months, a large number of prisons both private and public alike have been exposed as struggling. Reports of suicide, violence and squalid conditions are making the headlines on an almost weekly basis. The latest of these is HMP Pentonville – an independent report released last week  states that the conditions there are “incompatible with maintaining prisoners’ humanity and dignity”.

Privatisation of institutions that exist to punish offenders – that is, deprive people who committed a wrongdoing of their liberty and separate them from their loved ones – is inherently complex, both ethically and practically. How can we ensure that basic human dignity is maintained when marked forces pull in favour of cutting costs, reduced staffing levels, and less time out of cells? One of the questions here pertains to the drafting on the contacts with the private security companies and the metrics used to measure their success when it comes to managing prisons. It is naive to hope that private security companies will act morally in and of themselves, since the impetus is to save money and maximise profits. This means that a mechanism needs to be found that would motivate these companies to behave ethically. For example, contracts could be drafted setting out detailed qualitative benchmarks such as time out of cells, number of prisoners in education or work, etc. Fines for contract breaches need to be high enough to be taken seriously. As I suggest in the following, the public can also be harnessed to hold companies like G4S to account.

A second fundamental issue is the simple fact that our prisons hold some of the most vulnerable people in our society. If these people are to be rehabilitated, cost-cutting cannot happen. In other words, prisons and large profit margins may not be compatible. We as a society need to recognise that if we want safer communities, we need to invest in prisons and people in them. We need to accept that rehabilitation is not cheap and can’t be done with minimal staffing levels and degrading conditions. This requires a fairly fundamental shift in how we as a society see prisons and prisoners. We need to see people in prison not as worthless dangerous others, but as people who are deserving of rehabilitative efforts. If this shift occurs, companies like G4S might be motivated to change their corporate mindset. After all, companies in other contexts have begun to act in an ethically-minded way – there has been an increase in sustainable food production, vegan cosmetics, and other ethical-conscious market practices. These actions have taken place as a response to consumer demand, especially amongst younger consumers. Prisons pose a challenge in that, the society is not a direct consumer, but public pressure may nonetheless put pressure on private security companies to “behave”.

Ultimately, we cannot and should not see the Birmingham scandal as an isolated one. It has happened against a background of a struggling prison system more generally. Secondly, privatisation in this context is a fundamentally problematic issue that the government ought to approach seriously and coherently. Difficult questions need to be asked about how contracts are drafted and how private companies can be held accountable. Public opinion can be a helpful force here, but if it is to be harnessed, the public needs to care about what happens within prisons, if only for the sake of safer communities.

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