I was having a good day today. It’s sunny, it’s my first real day off in… I don’t even remember how long, and I watched a couple of films which I haven’t done in a while. Then I went online and saw this story from the Guardian. Ken Clarke, the Conservative Justice Secretary in the Westminster government, has outlined his plans to introduce the first private prison in the UK. I’m astounded. Maybe this has been developing for a while but if so I haven’t noticed it. I thought this was the kind of thing that happened in crazy libertarian states in the US, not here.
Of course the usual argument is there, that a private prison will cost less money, without compromising on standards. How? How do they go about saving money without affecting what they do? Somehow the word ‘private’ has become synonymous with the word ‘efficient’. It’s a complete myth! Here’s why, and I’ve said it a million times before: there are 2 forms of efficiency. The first form is money spent vs money gained, which is what the private sector is concerned with, and the second form is money spent vs societal gain (note, not necessarily anything to do with money). This is the kind of efficiency that public services should be concerned with. The problem with using private companies to deliver public services is that there’s a huge level of inefficiency in the shareholders. It’s there for profit, so a big chunk of the money goes into a few individual’s pockets, which doesn’t happen in the public sector.
If they are saving money somewhere, how are they doing it? The only way I can see is by compromising, if not on the service delivered, then on the conditions of their staff, because if they’re saving by changing food suppliers or whatever, then the government can do that too, those savings aren’t available exclusively to the private sector.
Here’s another problem with privatisation, the easier access for corrupt forces:
2 judges in America were jailed for taking $2m in kickbacks from a company that owns a private prison, in return for sending children there for petty crimes. This is the kind of thing that becomes a real possibility when you’re dealing with individuals in it for the money instead of people there to deliver a public good. I don’t want to go down that road.
So let’s just make a list of the potential problems with private prisons:
- A large chunk of public money goes into private pockets
- Mythical efficiency savings
- Real possibility of a ‘race to the bottom’ – delivering lower quality services at a lower cost, ostensibly saving money, but in reality it’s just a veiled cut to services.
- Ease of passing blame onto a private company in case of error, rather than the government accepting it.
- Ethical problems and conflicts of interest involved with imprisoning people for profit.
- Increased possibility of corruption/lobbying.
That’s just off the top of my head.
But that’s not all that’s wrong with this news. The company that’s been chosen to take over this prison in October is G4S, a private security company which has also recently been given a contract with the Scottish Prisons Service to transport prisoners. What’s the problem with G4S? Well, not only have they been involved in conflicts with unions over working conditions across the world, but they’re also complicit in the Israeli occupation by providing security to illegal settlements, equipment to Israeli prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are incarcerated, and has even been accused of supplying torture instruments to Israeli prisons. 200 Palestinian prisoners have died in Israeli custody either from medical negligence or by torture.
And that’s yet another problem with privatisation. You’re aligning yourself with companies that are only in it for the money, which have no moral scruples and which could be doing all kinds of unethical things. That’s something that I don’t think our government should be involved in.