Turning prisoners into profit

Fiona Carty, Kettlemag, private prisons
Written by admin

It is generally accepted that anything can be turned into a profit making business, however the idea of some sectors being run to make a profit can be a little unsettling to some. In recent years, the prison system has slowly been privatised so that private companies (such as G4S in the UK) can turn a profit from the incarceration of criminals.

Private prisons are nothing new, in fact, until the 1870s most prisons were privately run in Britain when they were all brought under the control of the Prison Commission in 1877. Prisons began to be privately run again in the 1990s.

Currently there are 14 private prisons in England and Wales, split between three companies, G4S, Sodexo and Serco, meaning nearly 13% of the entire prison population is being held in privately run prisons. It should be noted that all prisons in England and Wales, regardless of who is in charge of running each prison, are overseen by the state and are all inspected and have to abide by strict standards to ensure that they are being run correctly.

“Incarceration is the ultimate sanction, and should only be overseen by the state,” said Robert Preece, from the Howard League for Penal Reform. The Howard League is a charity working towards reducing crime and improving community safety by changing the current prison system. 

Prisoners equal profit

Like any other business, private prisons are geared to make money for the company and investors; it is not in their interest to run a business that reduces their profit margins through something like reduced incarceration rates.

As Mr. Preece said: “How many private companies turn customers away? Not many.” 

When the people running the prison are answerable to shareholders as well as the authorities, how can it be certain what the priorities of the prison staff are?

In the contracts between the private prisons and the state, there is a ‘minimum occupancy’ requirement, meaning that the state has to provide a minimum number of prisoners for the prisons to house. If this isn’t reached, then the state has to pay for the unused beds anyway. In the US, some of these quotas are as high as 100%.

In 2011 the New York Times ran a piece asking how cost effective privately run prisons are. The research showed that while the private sector offered little to no savings for the tax payer, the private prisons also cherry picked which inmates they housed, leaving the most costly for the state run prisons to care for.

Who benefits?

It doesn’t matter what your opinions about prisoners and the state of prisons are, the question that needs to be asked is should the taxpayer, who is paying for the running of the prison sector anyway, be handing the money to a private company, sometimes for more prisoners then are actually there?

In 2013 and 2014 G4S and Serco where found to have been overcharging on contracts to tag and monitor offenders. They were essentially claiming for offenders who did not exist as they were either dead or still in prison.

There is little evidence that these private institutions are actually good for anyone involved. While some may argue that the competition encourages other institutes to try and raise standards, maybe we should focus on the people inside the prisons instead of the cost and who can run them for the lowest price. 

This article was amended on 14/10/2015

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