Return of The Titans: How will the UK’s biggest, cheapest prison fare?

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This week is due to see the opening of what will be the UK’s largest prison, the 1605 place Oakwood near Wolverhampton. Originally intended to be one of three so called Titan jails the capacity was scaled back from 2,500 after the last Government eventually bowed to widespread concerns about the desirability and safety of such large establishments.  But the medium security prison, when fully operational in the autumn will still fly in the face of evidence that smaller prisons work better than large ones.

Controversial too is the fact that the prison will be run by a private security company, G4S who were awarded the 15 year contract last year, bringing to six the number of prisons they run in England and Wales, alongside three secure training centres for juveniles.   It is twenty years since G4S won the first private prison contract in England in 1992.

Originally a conservative policy, prison privatisation was originally seen as “morally repugnant”  by Labour’s Jack Straw who  promised  to end the experiment and take back into the public service privatised prisons as soon as contractually possible. Once in government however, Labour embraced and extended privatisation such that when the current Justice Secretary announced the award of the Oakwood contract to G4S last year he could agree with his current Labour shadow in Parliament to leave aside “stale ideology and dogma, and instead look at what works and what produces the right solutions for the public.”

Internationally a number of countries refuse to countenance privatisation on grounds of principle, most commonly that imprisonment is a core state activity that cannot be delegated. The Israeli Supreme Court has recently upheld this view on the basis that  the  violations of human rights inherent in imprisonment should only be exercised by the state.  Leaving aside such matters of principle, what is the state of evidence about private prisons? Justice and Prisons is currently working with the World Bank to produce a knowledge brief about the global picture.

In the UK, the performance of privately run prison establishments seems to span the range from excellent to dismal. A recent evaluation found huge variations in the quality of private prisons, “so a superior quality from private sector provision should not be assumed- in particular if privatisation is done on the cheap.”

More surprising perhaps is that in the UK at least, private prisons do not seem thus far to have cost significantly less than public ones. While much of the data is shrouded in commercial confidence, the costs of private prisons per place have often been higher than public sector prisons, presumably because profits have offset lower staffing and pension costs. Competition may have driven costs of imprisonment down across the board, but the price for this in private prisons  may have been the “institutional meanness” found by inspectors at Serco run Doncaster in 2005 where many prisoners lacked pillows, adequate mattresses, toilet seats, working televisions, notice-boards and places to store belongings- presumably because the contract did not specifically require these.

Oakwood it seems will be operating on a dramatically reduced operating budget compared to other private and public prisons – £11,000 per prisoner per year, against an average of £27,400 per prisoner per year. This sixty per cent  lower cost, the government assures us,  does not come with an impoverished regime – the specification for the prison requires standards as high as those in existing prisons.  Economies of scale no doubt account for some of the cost savings and it is possible that G4S are running the prison as something a loss leader.

If the cost comparison is a genuine one, it is hard to see how such reduced resources cannot have some adverse consequences on prisoners. For their sake one hopes that this is not the case, and that through innovation, technology and good management Oakwood is able to deliver more effective outcomes and better value for money for the taxpayer. But if that is the case, we are entitled to ask the two former heads of the UK prison system who now advise G4S ,why they did not introduce such innovation and reform in the public service they formerly led?



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