Public sector prisons NOT private sector profit

Mike Nolan of the Public and Commercial Services union calls for an independent review of the privatisation of prisons.

As identified by some, if not all, of the attendees at the event on 13 September, an important “driver” of excess in the criminal justice world, is the private sector – particularly global corporations and the pressure they exert on governments of all political colours all over the world, to privatise public services.

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) is keen to develop a coalition against penal excess but believe that part of this will inevitably involve criticism of private sector companies and recognition of their malign influence on public policy. We hope to make this a broad-based coalition which draws support not just from Trade Union partners but also from other groups, academics and individuals from across the CJS.

We represent over 5,000 members working in a variety of jobs in prisons and in the National Offender Management Service (part of the Ministry of Justice). Obviously, we act mainly out of concern for the jobs and conditions of our members. We are, however, equally concerned about the ethical dimension of the role of profit in delivering prison services. It is in the interests of the private sector to have a high prison population, as, put simply, the greater the number of prisoners the greater the profits.  PCS believe this alone is a matter of grave concern, and that punishment and deprivation of liberty should be the core responsibility of the state.

Currently 13 private prisons make up 15% of the total prison population. In July 2011 the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) announced that eight public sector prisons in England and Wales would be subjected to Market Testing with more to follow.  Market Testing is the Government policy of putting the running of existing Prisons out to tender for bidders to win the competition and run the prison (as opposed to contracts let under the Private Finance Initiative).

Although in the Market Testing process, there is usually a public sector/in-house bid in these competitions, these have been shown to be subject to a number of constraints and additional costs which are hard-wired into the bid to maintain a level playing field with the private sector. The public sector bids all have notional costs added by the tender evaluation panel to take into account for example, headquarters’ costs. Furthermore the contract length for private prisons is 15 years, and the longer the contract the easier it is for the private company to reduce staff costs, as pension and staffing costs are reduced by private companies over the 15 year period. Private companies also have much greater access to funding, borrowing and financial flexibilities.

Other projects that seek to consider where competition can next be introduced include looking at prison industries. Prison Industries currently provides real work for prisoners to do; allow the working prisoners to learn some skills; and crucially provides many prisoners with their first real experience of working which many of us take for granted. We are concerned that privatising prison industries will not be about providing greater opportunities for work to prisoners but about the exploitation of cheap labour that actually takes jobs away from people in our communities and that does not provide real skills to the prisoners on their release.

These are the reasons why PCS are calling for an independent review of privatisation in prisons

If you agree with PCS, and we very much hope that you do, there are a number of ways you can support our campaign. You could:

  • First and foremost please sign our petition calling for an independent review
  • Lobby your MP – we’ll be submitting Early Day Motions and asking MPs to call for an independent review. It really helps when constituents raise issues with their MP
  • Arrange a meeting with us to discuss the issues further
  • Find out more about the campaign and download the PCS briefing here –

Mike Nolan, Public and Commercial Services union.

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