hmp altcourse sue adair 1
by Michael Noone for IAS UK

In March 2018, the then Justice Secretary David Guake delivered a speech on the topic of prison reform. He kicked off proceedings by detailing his perception of the prison system and its modus operandi. Describing it as three-fold, Guake explained the aims as follows:

First, protection of the public – prison protects the public from the most dangerous and violent individuals. Second, punishment – prison deprives offenders of their liberty and certain freedoms enjoyed by the rest of society and acts as a deterrent. It is not the only sanction available, but it is an important one. And third, rehabilitation – prison provides offenders with the opportunity to reflect on, and take responsibility for, their crimes and prepare them for a law-abiding life when they are released.

Note the lack of reference in those stipulations to economic contribution and cheap labour. December 1st 1997 was a gateway into a new dimension of prison practicality in the UK. It was on this date that HMP Altcourse was opened. As Britain’s first private for-profit prison, authorities began to dip their toes into the murky waters of lucrative incarceration; there are now 14 similar centres in this country. Such institutions are more commonplace in the United States, and as British governance continues to mirror our cross-Atlantic “special friends”, mass incarceration to suit corporate interests is on the rise. Indeed, of the 82,000 inmates across England and Wales, 20 percent are held within privately-run prisons. 

authorities began to dip their toes into the murky waters of lucrative incarceration; there are now 14 similar centres in this country.

In contrast to the former Justice Secretary’s apparent understanding of the system, a recent tweet from the Ministry of Justice account boasted that the UK Government would be constructing four new prisons with the capacity to hold over 10,000 inmates, which would “boost rehabilitation and support the economy.” How exactly can a prison network, which swallows social wealth, form any part of a skeleton for economic strength? 

The Prison Industrial Complex provides us with the answer. The PIC is a term used to describe the overlapping of government and private entities who specialise in security and detention. These companies are used by the government to provide solutions to economic, social and political problems. 

Privatisation of prisons means external companies can exploit the opportunity for cheap labour, often paying as little as £1an hour for menial tasks such as packing boxes. The companies running these facilities – which include immigration detention centres – are also estimated to save as much as three million pounds per year by using inmates to cook and clean. This falls into the category of slave labour. Multinational companies are profiting from the prison system in a plethora of ways; cheap and stolen labour is just the beginning. For example, the production and maintenance of electronic tags is a lucrative business for companies, and simply having a private prison full to the brim means success for firms such as Sodexo, Serco and G4S, who hold some of the 14 private prison contracts in the UK. The investment in the rehabilitation of offenders, in the form of perhaps counselling and vocational courses for inmates, runs directly opposite to the aims of private stakeholders who make a profit from mass detention. A Bloomberg report into conditions at the privately run HMP Birmingham (run by G4S) shockingly displays how, despite scandal and outrage, the Government are in no rush to cease operations with for-profit prisons. These companies are reported to generate annual profits of around 20%, with seemingly lax standards and no official pressure to improve. It is an industry likely to prosper from the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic as people are pushed towards destitution and desperation.

Privatisation of prisons means external companies can exploit the opportunity for cheap labour, often paying as little as £1an hour for menial tasks such as packing boxes.

Recent events in the US and the UK, with particular reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, have led to proposals for the defunding of police. This is a frequently misunderstood term which is fodder for scaremongering. The redirection of funding from law enforcement into community-led health and safety strategies is essential if we are to seriously address the racism inherent to the criminal justice system. It means going above and beyond exhausted methods of ‘reform’, which pump even more money into prisons while pushing the “public safety” narrative which seeks to justify mass incarceration. There are increasing numbers of inmates housed for crimes of poverty, such as drug use and misdemeanours relating to homelessness. These don’t exactly threaten public safety and all too often impact minority groups. With depressingly predictable consequences, this push to increase the prison population has a savagely disproportionate effect upon Black people in the UK. While Black people comprise 3% of the UK population generally, that increases to 12% behind bars. Black people are also a staggering 28 times more likely to be targeted by the police’s controversial ‘stop and search’ method of crime prevention. When these outcomes are considered, it isn’t a wild swing to suggest the criminal justice system in the UK is racist. 

Along with increasing numbers of private prisons comes a growing number of privately run, for-profit immigration detention centres. These are thriving under the Conservative Party’s continuing hostile approach to immigration. There is no time limit on immigration detention, so the gravy train for privately run centres shows no sign of slowing down. The fastest-growing demographic of UK immigration-related detention is young women. These women are often fleeing violence, they may be trafficking victims, or quite simply they may be coming to the UK in search of a better life for their children. The privatization of immigration detention is particularly disturbing as conditions within them are often shambolic, and they continue to house people with conditions they are not adequately able to treat. The tragic case of Price Fosu, a Ghanaian national and UK asylum seeker who died in detention this year, shone a bright light on just how unequipped such immigration centres often are to deal with mental health issues. 

Through the procedure of incarcerating immigrants for profit, the motivation exists to bolster the volume of people behind bars in immigration detention centres. While government figures continue to benefit from this practice, and indeed have their scare-mongering arsenal bolstered by the number of immigrants in detention, the scapegoating of migrants in this country will continue to be hot currency. In line with defunding the police, the PIC surely must be dismantled in pursuit of a fairer, more humane society. 

Featured image CC BY-SA 2.0 Sue Adair

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