by Charley Allan
Morning Star | October 07, 2018
WE ALL know our prisons are in a state of emergency — with horrifying stories of hospitalised officers, soaring suicide rates and synthetic-drug-fuelled riots reported almost every week.
Attacks on staff and prisoners have skyrocketed since the coalition government sacked 7,000 prison officers under the direction of serial wrecker Chris Grayling, while the Tories’ recent desperate recruitment drive has proved to be too little, too late.
Last year the number of assaults on prison staff in England and Wales soared by 26 per cent to 9,003 — that’s over one every hour — yet the government is stalling the roll-out of basic protective equipment such as pepper spray and rigid “police-style” handcuffs.
And, unbelievably, officers are expected to work until they’re 68, having been excluded from the category of “uniformed services” in Lord Hutton’s review of public-sector pensions, instead classed as civil servants.
Add to this the government’s permanent injunction against industrial action and you can see why tempers are at boiling point, leading to last month’s mass walkout at over 100 prisons in protest against the health and safety crisis.
This bold and courageous action caught the government on the hop, with delays in obtaining a court order serving to pressure Prisons Minister Rory Stewart into immediate safety talks.
A week later, news leaked that HM Prisons and Probation boss Michael Spurr had been forced to resign, though he’ll stay in post for the next six months while a replacement is found — further evidence of utter dysfunction running throughout the department, which has seen 40 per cent cuts since 2010, more than any other ministry.
Many top Tories want Spurr replaced by a slash-and-burn privateer like the notorious Tim Parker, hired in April to spearhead the disastrous courts transformation programme.
Parker was dubbed the “Prince of Darkness” by the GMB for his habit of turning up at workplaces in his Porsche to sack scores of staff. He’s now in charge of the latest fire sale of court buildings and replacing them with untested “trial-by-Skype” technology.
Over 5,000 court workers have lost their jobs in the last eight years, while government spending on agency and contract staff has increased 10-fold to £50 million a year.
These reforms are so unpopular even Conservative MP Bob Neill, who chairs the influential justice select committee, warned that some of it “appears to favour the principle of value for money over the principle of access to justice” — also known as doing justice on the cheap.
Neill also slammed another of Failing Grayling’s pet projects, the part-privatisation of probation, calling it a “mess.”
This award-winning national service was smashed up and sold off, with the state keeping responsibility for high-risk offenders and private companies paid to look after the rest. A leaked government memo in 2013 predicted a high chance of failure — and so it proved.
Over half a billion pounds of bailouts later, contracts with the 21 community rehabilitation companies will now be torn up two years early in 2020.
But the Tories’ ideological drive to privatise means they won’t even consider the obvious solution of bringing the whole probation service back into public hands. Instead, they want to break it up again — but this time into larger chunks, handed over to fewer private companies.
The justice committee insists the reforms so far have simply “complicated the delivery of probation services and created a ‘two-tier’ system,” while warning that staff morale is at an “all-time low.”
Privatisation has taken its toll in the prison service too. Whether it’s outsourced cleaning and repairs rapidly leading to widespread squalor, or privately run prisons suffering disproportionate levels of violence and overcrowding, profiting from incarceration makes no sense in either theory or practice.
In 2015 the top two prisons with the highest number of assaults were both in the private sector. A year later, it was the top three — and last year, the top four.
And looking at the first quarter of this year, the last period with published figures, we see the five most violent prisons are all privately run — that’s a huge proportion of the 14 jails operated by the private sector, compared to 100-plus in public hands.
Many of the most massive prisons are privately run, but even taking population size into account private jails are statistically more violent than those in the public sector.
Over 40 per cent of private prisons are among the top 25 most dangerous jails — ranked by total number of assaults in 2017 per prisoner using average monthly population figures from the Ministry of Justice — compared to less than 20 per cent of public prisons. Private prisons are over twice as likely as public prisons to be very dangerous.
And a recent House of Commons Library briefing showed that, while just over half of public prisons are classified as overcrowded — a key driver of violence — this rises to a whopping 85 per cent of private prisons.
In August, privately run Birmingham Prison — the most violent jail in the UK — badly failed a surprise inspection, during which inspectors even had their cars set on fire, triggering an “urgent notification” process.
Birmingham was in such an appalling condition that the state had to take immediate control from operator G4S, bringing in extra officers and moving hundreds of prisoners to other jails.
Inspectors found conditions had deteriorated since the notorious riot of December 2016, where a tiny protest against poor healthcare escalated into something much more serious after a myriad of management mistakes, including a distracted manager giving prisoners the opportunity to snatch his set of keys.
According to the official riot report, which was only released after FOI requests: “There were several windows of opportunity in the early stages of the incident, where it was no more than a passive protest, when a hold could have been established, preventing the subsequent escalation.”
Why did G4S management miss these windows and instead make the catastrophic decision not to lock down wings until it was too late?
Giving evidence to the justice committee last month, POA national chair Mark Fairhurst explained that private-sector management “have an obsession, highlighted in the Birmingham report, of running regimes at all costs” — that is, keeping the prisoners’ routines going.
He added: “I know some of their staff. Two staff to look after a wing of 90 is not safe, but they get fined if they restrict the regime, and the shareholders shout at them. It is no wonder they do it — I don’t blame them for it, that is just a fact of private-sector life.”
Sitting next to him was privateer Serco’s managing director for justice, Julia Rogers. Clearly rattled by Fairhurst’s charge, Rogers admitted to MPs: “Yes, we are encouraged at all costs to keep the regime running,” while insisting her prisons wouldn’t see cells unlocked “willy-nilly” if it wasn’t safe to do so.
This is significant — a private security giant, whose former spin doctor Edward Argar now serves as a justice minister, has confirmed to Parliament that private prison operators are under intense financial pressure not to disrupt prisoners’ routines.
So when a disturbance starts to unfold as it did in Birmingham, there’s a vested interest in not taking early action. In public prisons, no-one has to worry about their bosses’ bonuses.
Parliamentary questions by Labour have exposed contracts worth £3.6 billion between Serco and the Ministry of Justice, despite the ongoing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into massive overcharging of the MoJ by both Serco and G4S.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon has pledged to scrap Tory plans to build new private prisons, while Jeremy Corbyn cited HMP Birmingham in his widely praised conference speech as “evidence of the failure of privatisation” and committed Labour to “end this scandal.”
Even mainstream rightwingers baulk at making money out of locking people up, with notorious troll Julia Hartley-Brewer telling a BBC Question Time audience recently that prison privatisation was “very dangerous,” adding: “We can’t try to save money in the criminal justice system at the expense of criminal justice.”
On the panel with her was Rory Stewart, who insisted this was “not an ideological debate” and that there were bad public prisons as well as bad private prisons.
He’s right — this shouldn’t be about ideology, it should be about evidence. And the evidence proves that private prisons are disproportionately more dangerous, overcrowded and, according to the POA, expensive than public prisons.
The government now appears to be trying to bury the evidence, refusing to release its report into public-versus-private procurement for two new prisons in Wellingborough and Glen Parva, despite FOI requests from the POA.
The union smells a cover-up and scoffs at claims of commercial confidentiality. “In the interests of the taxpayer and transparency, we demand the release of this report — and by denying us this the government is clearly showing it doesn’t wish us to publicly challenge the findings,” Fairhurst told the Star.
With the spotlight firmly on the prisons emergency and public opinion turning against the traditional party of “law and order,” now is the time to kick the privateers out of our prisons — and the justice system in general — once and for all.
Charley Allan organises the cross-party Justice Unions & Family Courts Parliamentary Group to promote the interests of workers in the justice sector.