False Economy in the Prison System


We are looking at two influences here, i) the experiment with neoliberalism,  and ii) the Tory Government’s post-crash austerity drive. The aim of the first is to raise efficiency through privatisation. The aim of the second is to reduce public spending in order to reduce the overall borrowing requirement.

On both counts we have been victims of false economy and economic mismanagement. Costs have gone up not down, borrowing has gone up not down. In social terms, by any measurable standard, the outcomes are appalling worse than under previous administrations. This is quite definitely not value for money in the provision of prison services.

The level of violence suffered by inmates as well as staff in prisons rose sharply from 2012 onwards following Chris Grayling’s ‘cost-cutting’ privatisation reforms. Levels of suicides and other deaths, self harm and general prison violence, which had been relatively stable for many years, increased sharply after 2012. It is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified staff to work in the increasingly dangerous prison environment. Staff work with minimal training in overcrowded conditions. Violence is escalating unprecedentedly.

The Prison Reform Trust is an independent charity that analyses prison data. The recent report Bromley Briefings Summer 2016 makes it clear that whatever the punitive demands from society might be, incarceration is an ineffective tool in achieving a reduction in crime. England and Wales has an appalling reoffending rate; 46% of all adults are  reconvicted within one year of release. This compares very unfavourably with other prison services (see for example the Norwegian Prison System). We have amongst the highest percentages of the population incarcerated in the whole of Western Europe (Prison Watch UK). This is both a human cost and a drain on the resources of society.

The high costs and appalling outcomes of our prison service seem to be spiralling out of control as a result of the combined effects of the privatisation and austerity measures of the Conservative Government. The new Lord Chancellor  who is also Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, appears to recognise this grim reality. In her recent speech to parliament Prison Reform 3rd Nov 2016 she calls for an additional 2500 frontline staff for the prison service and an additional £1.3 billion of spending on prison building programmes.

As well as ‘centres of punishment’ prisons must become ‘centres for reforming offenders’. In line with this Truss calls for maths and English learning and for employment and apprenticeship strategies for prisoners, along with league tables of performance. All this seems like a very sensible approach to a properly functioning prison service. Liz Truss declares unashamedly that the current system does nothing to ‘deliver a good deal to taxpayers’ nor to ‘make society safer’. The report calls for body cameras, sniffer dogs, controls on drones, drugs and mobile phones, drugs testing of inmates more prison officers.

All of these reforms make very good sense on the face of it, but as long as private security companies, such as G4S , are involved in setting standards we should be very concerned that the taxpayer will continue to be fleeced, paying more and more for a grotesquely inferior and morally indefensible prison service. The neoliberal experiment of ‘privatisation’ and ‘incentivizing’ has damaged prison services acutely in recent years. The prison service is a textbook example of false economy based on the application of an ideological dogma that is increasingly discredited.




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