• Marina Damji

Prison Privatisation: A Failure of the British Penal System

During the early 1990s, the British government began to rely on the private sector to provide extra prison places to deal with overcrowding and help spread the costs of interning offenders. Currently in England and Wales, there are 14 prisons run by private companies such as G4S Justice Services, Serco Custodial Services and Sodexo Justice Services. These companies own prisons which hold 14.5 percent of the prison population. Scotland also has two private prisons which house 16.5 percent of the Scottish prisoners. The proliferation of private prisons in the UK has led critics to question the effectiveness and justifications for the use of company-run prisons as opposed to state-owned prisons.

In 1986, the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee argued the case for private prisons. The committee suggesting that contracting out prison management and building to private companies relieves taxpayers of the burden of paying for the initial capital cost of building and management, accelerates building and ultimately produces excellent prison facilities. However,, the validity of these early claims has been questioned in recent years. For one, in 1998 The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee found that when private prisons were cheaper than state-owned prisons, this was often due to lower salaries and fewer benefits for their staff. In 2003, it was reported that staff in private prisons can be paid up to 70 percent less than staff working in the public sector. Low pay for staff results in high staff turnover, low staffing levels and inexperienced staff. This, along with less training and higher inmate-to-staff ratios, results in more dangerous conditions in private prisons.


A 2019 analysis of official UK prison data found that private prisons tend to generally be more dangerous than public prisons. 28 state-owned prisons recorded 493 assaults per 1000 prisoners in the year to September 2018. Contrastingly, five private prisons recorded 701 assaults per 1,000 prisoners, a figure 42 percent higher. Consequently, critics have questioned whether the slightly reduced costs of private prisons are worth the increased levels of violence. Moreover, private prisons have not necessarily alleviated the issue of overcrowding; for the past 17 years, privately-run prisons have been more likely to have overcrowded conditions than public sector prisons.

The three companies that run the UK’s private prisons have faced accusations of violating prisoners’ human rights. In 2016, a female prisoner failed to receive medical attention and her prescribed medication, despite her repeated calls for aid, and consequently died due to “systemic errors” in HMP Bronzefield, a prison run by Sodexo. HMP Bronzefield was also criticised when a baby died after a teenage inmate gave birth alone in her cell and again when prison guards, but not the mother, were offered counselling after the infant’s death. In February 2019, HMP Peterborough, run also by Sodexo, was criticised when it was discovered that 4 inmates were illegally strip-searched in July and September 2017. More recently, Serco has been criticised after 300 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 in HMP Kilmarnock, soon after Serco was given a multi-million-pound contract to run the Test and Trace system on behalf of the NHS. Serco has also been fined £ 22.9 million for engaging in fraud and has faced allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood, an immigration centre the company runs, since 2013. Staff at a G4S youth prison were also reported to have treated children in racist and degrading ways whilst high on drugs. Moreover, HMP Birmingham, a prison run by G4S which the Chief Inspector of Prisons described as the worst prison he had ever been to, had significant riots in 2016. Violence and drug use escalated in this prison in 2017 and 13 prisoners died over 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the crisis at this prison became so dire that the government brought the prison into state control and finally terminated the contract with G4S, bringing the prison permanently into public ownership by April 2019. These cases prove that private prisons have systemic issues regarding prisoners’ human rights and arguably cannot be trusted to adequately care for prisoners.

Finally, along with private prisons' proven inability to adequately deal with prisoners, critics have also questioned whether it is morally just for private companies to profit from people’s lack of liberty. Furthermore, it is questionable whether private companies should supervise a state-administered punishment. According to this logic, if the state decides prisoners’ punishments, surely the state should also administer these punishments instead of outsourcing them to private companies. Despite the many criticisms of current private prisons, the government has decided to ultimately further privatise prisons in England and Wales in the next few years to deal with Britain’s ever-growing prison population.