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“APPALLING” squalor and violence at HMP Birmingham should surely be the nail in the coffin for private security firm G4S.
Prison inspectors are not easily shocked, but Chief Inspector Peter Clarke’s astonishment is plain at the “completely unacceptable state” of a jail where violent inmates could act with “near impunity” and other prisoners were so frightened that they feared assault even when locked in their cells.
The Ministry of Justice may have stepped in to take over the prison temporarily, but calls from Prison Officers Association chair Mark Fairhurst for HMP Birmingham to be returned “in its entirety” to public hands look set to be ignored by the Conservatives.
Investigators finding that prison staff morale is at rock bottom because of “chronic shortages” constitutes an indictment of Tory cuts to the prison service but also of a for-profit model where shareholders do best when a company spends as little as possible on the service it is contracted to provide.
Downing Street says it is happy for G4S to keep running prisons, claiming it has done good work elsewhere, as if this firm’s name were not a byword for brutality, corner-cutting and incompetence.
In 2010, we saw the death of Jimmy Mubenga after being restrained by G4S guards.
Two years later, we witnessed its spectacular flunking of an extraordinarily lucrative London Olympics security contract — £284 million to provide 10,000 guards, or £28,400 per guard, for a two-week event — which required the army to step in and sort out the mess.
Together with Serco, G4S was embroiled in charging the public for electronic tags on prisoners who didn’t exist.
Its employees ran the Brook House immigration removal centre, which was subject to an undercover Panorama exposé documenting the verbal and physical abuse of asylum-seekers.
This makes PCS leader Mark Serwotka’s call for the firm to be stripped of all its public contracts unanswerable.
But the problem is much wider than the dire record of a single firm. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell points out that “Birmingham prison, Carillion and East Coast rail have all collapsed because of failed Tory privatisation.”
At HMP Birmingham, G4S has welcomed the six-month “step-in” by government, happy in the knowledge that it will be milking the prison for profits again afterwards.
As the National Education Union’s Kevin Courtney observes, “we were told privatisation was about the private sector ‘taking on the risk.’ This looks like the diametric opposite.”
Indeed, private franchises collapse on a regular basis. InterCity East Coast has collapsed multiple times. The outsourced services then get bailed out by the public, restored to a semblance of health and privatised again.
Far from delivering the efficiency and profitability that, according to free-market theory, private business does best, the experience of mass privatisation since the 1970s shows privateers cannot continue without the state repeatedly picking up the tab.
Outsourced service delivery — the “licence to print money” that Richard Branson bragged of on the railway — is not profitable because of high investment and productivity but because the government subsidises the profits with money from taxes paid by ordinary workers.
Nothing could better illustrate the parasitical nature of modern British capitalism and the urgency of developing alternatives whereby the public own essential services controlled and delivered by working people themselves.
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