Medway and G4S: The systemic abuse of vulnerable children

When vulnerable children go to jail in England and Wales, society should expect them to be kept safe. However, in a recent BBC Panorama episode, culpable G4S employees are seen discussing their intentions and methods for harm, as vulnerable children are threatened, stabbed with forks, manipulated to become aggressive, systematically intimidated and physically restrained. They are almost always left alone in tears. Medway, where the documentary was filmed, is a Secure Training Centre (STC) in Kent that has capacity to hold 76 12-18 year olds.

In the fallout of the Panorama investigation, G4S have been accused of managerial failures in the recruitment and training of their employees. This is not the first time. Last year, G4S lost their contract to run Rainsbrook STC after an OFSTED inspection found staff to be racially abusing children. The problem is not limited to G4S. A Howard League for Penal Reform audit in 2014 showed that for each private prison operator, there were high levels of violence, systemic failures, prevention of healthcare provision and overuse of unlawful child restraint.

The privatisation of the prison service, which has historically been managed exclusively by the state, is a byproduct of neoliberal philosophy that has become hegemonic across the public sector. The Coalition and Conservative governments have used competition, outsourcing, privatisation and marketisation, concepts that were largely introduced by New Labour, alongside their comprehensive Spending Reviews to cut public expenditure and roll back state services in a bid to reduce the financial deficit. This focus is now being embedded across the entire criminal justice system. From managing penal institutions themselves to prison vans, from running Community Rehabilitation Centers to electronic monitoring, the current criminal justice landscape in England and Wales has more private contracts than the rest of Europe.

Serco, Sodexo, Capita, GeoAmey and most notoriously G4S have secured commissioning contracts by pitching competitive bids that claim both low running costs and high-risk management. With the annual average place in prison costing £36,000, and the annual cost of re-offending approaching £13 billion, prison is an obvious choice for cost-saving through outsourcing and privatisation. The end result is 14 for-profit jails, 2 of which are children’s Young Offender Institutions and 4 STCs, where performance is measured by cost reductions for the government and profitability for the business. It is debatable how much contracts that focus on cost saving take into account the standard of care for vulnerable children who, as seen in Medway, often have childhood trauma, mental health issues and learning difficulties.

In addition to these challenges, the contracts used for private prison providers can create perverse incentives for companies to under report harmful incidents to avoid paying fines. Panorama reporters uncover G4S staff, from mid to high management, discussing their systematic under-reporting of children fighting in order to avoid fines from the Ministry of Justice. Recent news shows that the government has paid G4S for operational costs at full capacity of 76 beds – when there are only 47 children currently living at Medway. Through the public purse, G4S is paid £140,000 per young person per annum and has received a total of £206,000 since the investigation aired. There is clearly a problem.

The neoliberal push toward privatisation has also impacted on public sector penal institutions. Pressures from National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to adopt private-sector practice to cut millions within state-run facilities has led to initiatives such as Payment by Results, benchmarking, and ‘fair and sustainable’, which largely compare and restrict public expenditure to match boasted private costs. This cost cutting has, at the least, contributed to overcrowding and capacity stress, dangerous levels of short staffing, 23 hour ‘bang-up’ and rates of violence, suicide and assaults at their highest in 10 years.

The re-offending rate for young people within the first year of release from both private and public prisons is 67%. If the effectiveness of prisons is measured in cost savings and not a young person’s potential – for both a fulfilling future and social contribution – then the outcomes will be the same.

The continued failings of the private sector have led some academics, policymakers and practitioners to argue that private businesses’ ethos to create profit is fundamentally misaligned with the ethos of rehabilitation, ‘reducing re-offending’ and safety for people in prison, victims and the public.

Are cost savings more sacrosanct than vulnerable children and their futures? What does society value when it privatises a service? When it is this value that fails, does it matter whose name is above the door?

Hannah Pittaway is a member of the Reclaim Justice steering group. This article was originally published in The Beaver.

Reclaim Justice Network intend to hold the G4S board to account for the treatment of young people in Medway at their 2016 AGM on Thursday 9th June.

If you would like to join the Reclaim Justice Network shareholder action group by having a share transferred into your name so you can attend the AGM and ask questions, please e-mail: A report about the action taken at the 2015 AGM can be found here:

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