Profiting from their misery: Britain's private prisons
Britain's prison system has, since the Europe’s first privately run prison was opened in East Yorkshire in April 1992, become increasingly privatised and run for profit. Here, Hatty Nestor explains how we got here, and how the burgeoning Prison Abolitionist movement can help us chart a way out.
In April 1992, Britain woke up to a new dawn for its prison system. From then on, the country’s predominantly publicly owned justice system would be no more, replaced instead by a landscape of outsourced security contracts, prisons run for profit, unregulated conditions for inmates, and a new regime of mass incarceration. It was to HMP Wolds in East Yorkshire, UK, initially a remand prison, that the title of Europe’s first privately run prison fell to, and its opening that month made it the country’s first outsourced facility. In the three decades since, prison sentences have grown, policing in prison has increased, and surveillance has become harsher. The difficulty of requesting parole has only increased as well, and by the 2014 Rehabilitation Act newly released prisoners were faced with tighter surveillance when subject to statutory supervision. Many of these new, ethically dubious private contracts are managed by giant outsourcing firms like G4S, Mace, Serco Custodial Services, or Sodexo Justice Services. In 2017, one such company, Mace – a “global consultancy and construction firm” – partnered with the Prison Expansion Programme to reveal new plans to build ten private prisons, on course to open by 2027, including children’s prisons and more juvenile facilities.
As we all know, privatisation has not been confined to the justice system. The outsourcing of formerly publicly run services has spread rapidly across the country’s public sector since the 1980s, from the NHS and local councils to the energy sector and far more besides. But it is particularly stark in the country’s prisons. The United Kingdom currently detains more of its citizens than any other country in Western Europe: as of 2021, 85,000 people are incarcerated up and down the country. From high and low-security prisons, juvenile facilities, detention centres, and children’s prisons, our approach to socio-political and economic problems is to lock people up. As the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind. In 2016, the-then Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced plans to build nine new mega-prisons – the first five by 2020, under the 1.2 billion Prison Estate Transformation Programme. These mega-prisons sought to mimic the supermax prisons introduced by the Clinton administration in the USA during the 1990s. They are sprawling, expansive buildings that have high security for those who pose a substantial threat to society and the nation’s security. They also offer considerable profit to the private companies who own and operate them.
One might think of Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism here, and her insightful comments on the predatory strategy of profiting from incarceration, as a parasitic practice of governance. It would be easy to think that by merely bringing detention back into public control, that the problem of prison would be ameliorated, if not solved. Yet, the idea that the burden of incarceration and imprisonment must fall on the state, and not be given to profit-given incentives, merely shifts responsibility rather than confronting long-standing issues of carceral violence. It also reinforces the sentiment that justice can only be served through the incarceration of its citizens, and profiting from such punitive measures still takes place, whether that be with 500 or 5000 prison places. Yet financial cuts – the other side of the coin of privatisation, sparked through austerity – lead to the notion that the system needs to be pumped full of private vendors to function. Now, Britain’s justice system is a twisted pyramid scheme that takes huge profits from people’s incarceration. It is part of the neoliberal project, a corrosive marketplace mantra of profit margins from imprisoned suffering.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
It was the Thatcher government of the 1980s that first laid the groundwork for the sweeping privatisation that we have seen in the UK. Along with cuts to social welfare, the introduction of the right to buy into council housing, and the sell-off of public utilities, not to mention the attacks on the labour movement more generally, the late 1980s saw Thatcher tighten the bolts of legislation in the criminal justice system. Yet, if it was Thatcher that wanted privatisation, it was New Labour who put this dream of carcerality into action. Come the 2011 coalition government, staged by the abysmal Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the announcement of nine new private prisons seemed routine.
Ten years further on, prison expansion on this level has increased rates of incarceration, resulting in overcrowding and the need for ever more prisons to be built. And when this expansion is outsourced to a private company, each new prison cell is for profit. The incentive for incarceration thus becomes bound to capital, rather than the predominantly ‘law and justice’ model that one might expect in older variations of imprisonment and policing. As the campaigning group We Own It has reported, while private prisons currently house around 15% of the prison population, 23% of the budget allocated for this is spent on them. Similarly, outsourcing companies like G4S encourage prisoners to work 40-hour weeks, all they are paid as little as £2 an hour. Such practices amount to slave labour. Companies are profiting from prison labour, paying fewer well-trained, low staff wages. In private prisons, staff are paid 23% less than public prisons, and they also outsource security, healthcare and cheap food. Private Prisons aim for a profit margin of 8-10%, which is met by cutting costs and the increased exploitation of staff and inmates.
At the heart of this system of prison privatisation are the multi-billion international out-sourcing companies like Serco, G4S, and Sodexo. In 2019, the revenue of G4S was £7.7 billion, while Serco brought in £3.9 billion a year later, and Sodexo’s revenue was €17.43 billion internationally in 2021. Of the fourteen private prisons in England and Wales, Sodexo runs four, and G4S and Serco run five each. What these companies do is simple: incarcerate people for profit and cut costs wherever they can, and these cuts often materialise in long-term neglect and abuse. One stark example is HMP Nottingham, a Category B men's prison, located in the Sherwood area of Nottingham. In 2017, when Nottingham was managed by G4S, the BBC’s Panorama conducted an investigation into reported abuse at the prison. As reported by Isobel Thompson for the Guardian in July 2022, cuts to services at Nottingham Prison produced a domino effect across prison services. From staff cuts, widespread unrest, and death, Thompson’s investigation exposed just how prolific the prison crisis truly is. Yet, even after being declared “fundamentally unsafe” by prison inspectors in 2018, no formal plans to rebuild the site have been put forward. Privatisation makes these situations harder to uncover, control, and eradicate. In this perfect storm of profit margins, increased prison sentencing, and prison expansion, the argument for abolition has never been more pressing.[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]
As prison abolitionists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore have argued, we need an alternative to the system of mass incarceration that reigns throughout the world: one which isn’t based on utopian dreams but that is built from realistic and plausible alternatives to mass incarceration and prison privatisation. But it must also rely on harnessing the political potential of imagination, futurity, and hope. Gilmore has shown in her work that the system of prisons and policing we currently experience is based upon an interconnectedness of race, gender, capital and austerity. Such is the organisation of society – one predicated on racism and discrimination – and oppressive economic situation in which this prison system prevails. Similarly, the long-standing work of the group Critical Resistance and scholars like Angela Davis have demonstrated, the abolition of prisons and the police would not be a ‘reforming’ of prisons, but would question the very foundational elements which exacerbate these institutions. The erasure of prisons would make society better for everyone, not just those who are caught up in its punitive web.
Although the work of these scholars and activists is based on the experience of the American prison system, their arguments make an essential intervention into questions regarding the privatisation and mass incarceration of people globally. Here in the UK, resistance is growing. Protests and direct action are mounting against prison expansion and privatisation, on behalf of activists and groups like CAPE, the Prison Reform Trust, and the Howard League for Penal Reform. What this resistance demonstrates is that prison is not only an exercise of cruelty and discrimination, but also that its privatisation follows a fundamentally capitalist logic. The US system is at the sharp end of this, with the NYPD receiving some 6 billion dollars annually for policing; in Chicago, the police getting 39% of the annual budget; in Los Angeles, 1.8. billion dollars goes to the LAPD. These are huge, stifling numbers, but they are ones that are increasingly mirrored in the UK as well. Abolition asks society to expand a field of vision. Instead of endlessly questioning what is wrong with prisons, they seek to dismantle this form of punishment to raise questions about how society is organised at large, and social relations. It lifts the smokescreen of ‘reform’ revealing that the pouring of money into these institutions only exacerbates and extends punitive measures in society.
Hatty Nestor is a cultural critic and writer. Her writing has been supported by the Arts Council, and appears in Frieze, Art in America, The Times Literary Supplement, Granta, i-D/VICE, The White Review, and other publications. Her first book, Ethical Portraits (Zero Books), was published in 2021.[book-strip index="3" style="display"]