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Prison Privatization in England

The British government's "privatization program" for prisons and prison service is proceeding fast. After the contracting out of the Wolds prison in Humberside to Group 4 security, Blakehurst, a new prison in Worcestshire, has been tendered out to UK Detention Services. Meanwhile bids have just closed for the contract to run the rebuilt Strangeways prison. A new prison in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, will be contracted out later this year. In February parliament voted to extend the original plan which allowed only for new prisons to be "privatized," to mean that the running of existing prisons could be contracted out.

As usual, the private companies competing for the market in private prisons are linked very close to the Conservative Party and to ex-civil servants, ex top cops and ex army chiefs. For instance, Norman Fowler, an original member of the government team that recommended the privatization program after the 1986 inspection tour of US private prisons, is a non-executive director of Group 4 Remand Services. Ex metro police commissioner Peter Imbert is a non executive director of Securicor, who are to bid for the new Doncaster prison. UK Detention Services is partly owned by McAlpine and Son: Lord McAlpine is a former Tory party treasurer. And so it goes on.

This is of course unsurprising, but is a case of the ruling class in the shape of large corporations and their civil servant/parliament representatives feathering their own nests.

But what will it all mean for prisoners? Initially there will no doubt be a flow of government money into the schemes to make it look like it is working well, but already at the Wolds prison there have been several protests about the food and conditions. This is of course no different to the prison service as it stands. Some prisoners are in favor of giving private prisons a try, as (a) it can only be given a chance in the face of the shitty system that exists; and (b) hopefully it will break some of the power of the prison officers association which can enforce its own reactionary and repressive behavior in prisons while it has a stranglehold on running prisons. There is little to say that private security firms will be any better, however. It is worth pointing out that the government will be able to blame private companies for conditions, scandals, etc., while keeping a measure of control over events.

News from the Wolds suggests that Group 4 have lost control somewhat there, which on the one hand means more freedom to move for cons (but does also mean some of the nastier prisoners have a free hand to exert their own control). One ominous aspect is the use of cons as cheap labor in US private prisons. In Louisville, Kentucky, prisoners are working in a packing plant as scab labor to break an ongoing strike by the workers there. This isn't an isolated event. If private prisons are set up on a large scale in Britain then they could be used to do the same here. As it stands the overall practical effect of contracting out prisons is uncertain.

Meanwhile it's not all sweetness and light for the private prison companies. Group 4 Court Services, a branch of the Group 4 company, won the contract to deliver prisoners to court in the East Midlands area and started operating in April of 1993. Within the first week four prisoners had already escaped from their custody, including one who they just allowed to go free after a misunderstanding. Let's hope they do as crap a job at keeping people in their prisons.


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