Political and Academic interest in the privatization of British Prisons has steadily risen since its sudden revival during the 1980’s and 1990’s. This interest has been precipitated by a rapid rise in the prison population and the directly related escalation of running costs and difficulties of running a consistently efficient service. Privatization was seen by many policy-makers as providing an important step forward towards improving conditions, bringing about change and innovation, and improving the overall quality of the British prison system. The private sector was believed to be capable of delivering a better standard of service with greater efficiency and a higher degree of accountability. Subsequently, the last decade has seen a steady growth of private sector involvement in the British prison system. This essay will examine the argument that privatization offers an important strategy to raise standards within Britain’s prisons and consider any problems associated with this approach.
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‘The privatisation of corrections is now understood to mean some form of the ownership or management of prisons by private corporations. The role of the private sector in contemporary corrections is, however, much broader than this narrow definition. Savas (1987) points out that the private sector is involved in corrections in five distinct ways. It may: (1) finance and construct prisons; (2) operate facilities for juveniles; (3) operate facilities for adults; (4) provide work for prisoners, and (5) provide specific contractual services, such as health care and vocational education for inmates and staff’.
The recent move towards the privatization of British prisons has been largely based on the substantial increase of the prison population. Between 1993 and 1996 the UK prison population increased from 43,000 to 54,000, a rate of about 100 per 100,000 of the entire population. This rapid rise has led to widespread overcrowding and a decrease in standards, making living conditions for many prisoners highly unpleasant. Prisoners overall health has deteriorated and suicide and self-mutilation rates have climbed rapidly. Added to this, staff morale has also fallen and widespread scepticism of the value and objective of prisoner programmes has grown. It has been clear for some time that widespread changes and new strategies are needed in order to tackle the problems within the prison system. The main priorities for improving the system have included; increasing prison capacity, introducing working practices that are more accommodating and flexible for prison and probation staff and the need for greater accountability from those responsible for running prison services. ‘The claim that all this could be achieved at substantially reduced costs simply by encouraging greater private sector involvement in the delivery of penal policy has been increasingly seen by some as a ‘quick fix’ solution to many of the penal system’s most pressing problems’ (Cavadino & Dignan, 2002: 227)
It is important to now look at how it is proposed that privatizing Britain’s prisons will lead to such improvements in standards. Supporters of the privatization of Britain’s prisons argue that there are a number of potential benefits directly associated with the commercial competition that privatization would produce. For example, through the creation of a market force private organisations would be encouraged to maintain and indeed improve upon high standards of cost effectiveness and efficiency in order to achieve the successful renewal of current government contracts and to compete for new service contracts. Logan & Rausch (1985) suggest that due to the way they are financed public sector organisations are inefficient and ineffective. As the private sector is motivated by competition and profit it is dedicated to providing maximum satisfaction to its clients and customers at a minimum cost. Alternatively, in the public sector; ‘bureaucrats are rewarded not according to the performance of their organization but according to the size and budget of their agencies, thus they are more interested in empire building than in increasing their efficiency.’ Beyens & Snacken also examine this point, arguing that; ‘Proponents claim that privatization is the best way to decrease costs and construct new, better designed prisons more quickly. By introducing the element of competition and new management techniques, better quality for less money can be achieved. It is stated that private correctional services can operate more efficiently, because of less bureaucratic ‘red tape’ and a higher motivation to control costs’.
Privatization, many claim leads to heightened accountability within the prison system. It is argued that the government is in an ideal position to impose strict guidelines and include detailed service standards within contracts, making companies readily accountable and putting them at risk of financial penalties for failure to fulfil them. As the government no longer have to defend its own shortcomings it can be more active in challenging private companies for failing to meet contractual obligations. Most private contractors accept and appreciate the value of full time independent monitors who are present within private prisons acting as an additional guarantee of contract compliance. Public sector prisons do not have similar fully independent monitors. Also, healthy competition between private sector rivals would also have a regulatory effect as agencies are inclined to monitor each others performance for weaknesses and failings in order to gain a commercial advantage.
It is clear that the primary rationale for passing the management of prisons into private hands is that they are expected to operate at lower running costs than those controlled by the Home Office. If success is to be measured on effective cost-cutting and meeting required standards of service, supporters of privatization are convinced that a sustained push in this direction will produce positive results. It has been estimated that the running costs of private prisons are 15-25 per cent below those of state prisons (Tilt, 1995). A prison review in 1997, stated that privately run prisons on average, offered an operational cost saving of 8-15 per cent. A Parliamentary Select Committee in 1996-97 looked at the management of offenders in the public and private sectors. It reported that an expansion of the private sector would lead to an increase in efficiency in the public sector. It concluded that private prisons were operating well in terms of quality of performance, and that their overall performance was as good as, and in some cases better than, publicly administered prisons.
However, critics argue that recent improvements in the efficiency of public sector prisons have led to a ‘continuous narrowing in the operating cost saving offered by privately operated prisons’ so that by 1998 the differential had been reduced to 2-11 per cent (Woodbridge, 1999). Those against privatization also argue that any reduced running costs comes at a high price; ‘to the detriment of the number of staff employed, staff wages, conditions of employment and working conditions (Joyce, 2001:221). For example, it has been reported that contracted-out prisons, often favouring high technology security measures, have on average 16 per cent fewer staff per prisoner than public sector prisons. Also pay and conditions for staff at private sector prisons are often poor in comparison with the public sector. Salaries are 14 per cent lower and members of staff deliver on average 10 per cent more working hours per week. These factors may account to some degree for the high levels of staff turnover at private prisons, reported to be approximately 30 per cent.
The usefulness of privatization and indeed its principles have been widely criticised and numerous problems that it potentially produces have been identified. Firstly, many critics focus the emphasis on the traditional ‘notion of ‘privatization’ – a concept already partially discredited in the western world because of its association with inflated profiteering and the abandonment of the public interest’ (Harding, 1997: 1). It is heavily argued that the running of Britain’s prisons for profit has very negative consequences. This serious criticism of privatization is that the profit motive is entirely incompatible with successful prison administration. In order to make profit, private organisations are dependent on receiving a continually high supply of inmates into their institutions. There are numerous examples of how this may affect the treatment of offenders and prisoners. Early release times for prisoners may potentially be discouraged or ignored when prison numbers are relatively low. Also, government and other leading political policy-makers may be inclined to put pressure on legislators to create directives and pass acts that are both decisively custody based and increasingly punitive. Another factor that must be taken into account due to the reliance of private contractors on prisoner numbers for profit is the issue of overcrowding. One of the key ideas promoting privatization is the improvement of standards and living conditions for prisoners, private prisons may develop a tendency towards increasing prisoner numbers in order to raise profits leading to overcrowding and its inherent problems This argument clearly reveals how the underlying commercial motivation of private organisations can have serious repercussions for the manner in which private prisons are run, posing serious and seemingly unanswerable questions to those who absolutely support privatization.
Another major concern with privatization is that there will be an increased emphasis on security, to the detriment of attempts to reform or rehabilitate prisoners. The contract between the Home Office and a private company does not require the contractor to help inmates lead good and useful lives’ (Joyce, 2001: 221). Most criminologists agree that the rehabilitation and education of prisoners is a crucial function of the penal system. ‘It is hard to disagree with both Durham (1989) and Shichor (1995) who maintain that the changing penal trend away from rehabilitation and training towards containment, incapacitation and deterrence has hastened the acceptance of privatization as a viable policy option. From a financial perspective, more prisons means more outlay. Prisons are expensive capital items with high running costs. Thus, there is considerable attraction in any policy designed to reduce those costs. In addition, the incapacitation or protection of the public function is an easier administrative task to hand over to private companies and their employees than the treatment and training of offenders’ (Genders, 2002). By failing to provide any rehabilitation and training to offenders, private prisons become institutions with the sole function of punishing prisoners through incapacitation for profit.
Another potentially serious pitfall of widespread privatization is that the government may become reliant on the services of a handful of powerful companies; this could result in the government to some extent being held to ransom and thus be forced to pay higher prices in order to continually increase the profits of the private sector organisations. This potential problem is magnified where private prison operators are contracted to take over the entire running of an institution, including initially building it, owning it and managing it, as is now to be the case for all future tendered contracts in England and Wales. A key question that remains unanswered is whether, ‘in remaining paymaster but delegating service delivery, the state truly does retain control over standards – whether in fact there still is present that degree of public accountability and control that must always be requisite when the state exercises its ultimate power of restraint and punishment over the citizen’ ( Harding, 1997: 2)?
A final criticism of privatization is based on the limited indicators of how private prisons have performed up to now. Despite the previously discussed increased emphasis on a security focused approach within private prisons, it seems that there are serious control issues within them. ‘Virtually all privately-managed prisons have experienced serious control problems, at least during the initial period after opening. In most cases the problems appear to have been more severe, and more intractable, than would normally be expected in the case of a comparably newly-commissioned public sector prison’ (Cavadino & Dignan, 2002: 247)
In conclusion, the involvement of the private sector in Britain’s prison system has so far been limited to the delivery of particular services; the government has retained responsibility for producing and implementing changes in policy and for monitoring the performance and standards of private prisons. Proponents of privatization claim that it has and can continue to improve standards of service and efficiency, whilst also cutting running costs. As Tabarrok (2003: 10) argues ‘We now know that private prisons can be built more quickly, operated at lower cost, and maintained at a quality level at least as high as government-run prisons’. However, many writers dispute such claims and believe that a continued government policy towards privatization as a method of improving the British prison service is deeply flawed and may become a barrier to developing a programme of fundamental change aimed at improving the standards of the whole of the prison system. ‘Privatization as an ideology and as a practice is not only unlikely to provide a remedy for the malaise affecting the prison system; it could easily become a major part of the problem’ (Cavadino & Dignan, 2002: 255). Despite serious criticisms; ‘the future of private prisons is not clear. We do not know whether it will become a viable alternative to government run prisons or remain a small segment of the correctional system as it is today, or if it will be only a temporary phenomenon’ (Schihor, 1995: 18). Overall, whether private sector involvement in running Britain’s prisons increases or decreases in the long-term remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that the debate surrounding the subject will continue to flourish at least until clear indicators of the performance of private prisons are revealed. Evidence, so far, provides few answers. As Liebling & Sparks, (2002: 283) conclude; ‘Some former doubters and critics have been converted. Some predicted disasters have not transpired; and many privately managed institutions appear on available indicators to have operated at least as well (or put another way no worse than) their directly managed counterparts’.
Beyens, K. & Snacken, S. (1996) ‘Prison Privatization: An International Perspective’ in Matthews, R. & Francis, P. (eds.) (1996) Prisons 2000: An International Perspective on the Current State and Future of Imprisonment, Basingstoke: MacMillan Press Ltd.
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Tabarrok, T. (ed) (2003) Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime, California: The Independent Institute.
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