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We must end the Americanisation of our prison system

The results of privatisation across our justice sector are catastrophic, writes RICHARD BURGON MP

THE Tories quietly confirmed last week that two new prisons are to be handed over to the private sector to be run for private profit. This is the latest push in what I call the Americanisation of our criminal justice system, where keeping people safe comes second to making profits for mega-corporations.

This news came despite two flagship justice privatisations running aground this summer. HMP Birmingham was brought back under public control after unprecedented failures by G4S and the government was forced to bring an early end to the private probation contracts, despite having handed the private companies £500 million in bailout payments in the past 12 months alone.

This push for privatisation and outsourcing goes hand in hand with austerity. As budgets fall, there is a greater push for the private sector to step in, especially where it is impossible to scrap the services altogether, as with prisons. Nowhere is that clearer than in the Ministry of Justice. It’s the ministry which has suffered the biggest cuts under austerity.

The results of privatisation across our justice sector are catastrophic, but so ideologically wedded are the Tories to the stale old dogma of cuts and privatisation that they refuse to learn the objective lessons. It is the public that pays the price for the so-called savings that the private sector offers.

For example, the outsourcing of prisons maintenance works led to the backlog of thousands of key repairs, including to doors, windows, toilets and showers. Cells were left out of action, worsening overcrowding. Rat infestations and squalor left people in inhumane conditions. There are very real fears that such corners will be cut too in the new privately run prisons as profits are put first.

Public accountability is also likely to be undermined as the private companies hide behind the cloak of commercial confidentiality. For example, private prisons have no requirement to publish regular staffing levels unlike public prisons. I have asked the Justice Ministry to make this simple change, but they refuse to. What have they got to hide?

As Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow secretary of state for justice, I’ve made it crystal clear that a Labour government will call time on the scandal of our prisons being run for private profit. Justice Secretary David Gauke, his government colleagues and some commentators really don’t like the fact that Labour is doggedly pursuing the government on privatisation in the Ministry of Justice, claiming it’s somehow a distraction.

But I make no apology for adhering to the principle that the incarceration of human beings for profit is quite simply morally wrong.

It’s also part of parcel of the failed neoliberal model in which big business, rather than being productive and innovative and creating genuinely new markets, instead leeches off the state, with huge amounts of money being transferred from the public purse to the private sector too often to do a bad job in what too often amounts in practice to “risk-free capitalism” for those corporations.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott has spoken out against the immorality of the incarceration of refugees and asylum-seekers for profit at places like Yarl’s Wood. I have spoken out against the immorality of prisoners having their liberty deprived by profit-makers. We will both continue to do so. These principles are central to our socialism and to the vision of a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

The Conservative record in our prisons shames those that pride themselves as being “the party of law and order.” Violence is at record levels, with an assault recorded every 20 minutes and there is the highest number of prisons labelled as of “serious concern” in years.

Now clearly not all of the chaos is due to the private sector. The government’s decision to slash hundreds of millions of pounds from prison budgets and axe thousands of staff has played a central role in creating what is now a prisons emergency.

But this driving down of prison staffing levels and budgets under the Conservatives was an explicit attempt under then justice secretary Chris Grayling to lower the costs of public sector prisons to those of the private sector. That has proven a dangerous race to the bottom and underlines why the private sector can’t be part of the solution to the prisons emergency.

It was the terrible Grayling — now making such a mess of our railways — who also oversaw the privatisation of the probation service and the outsourcing of prison maintenance works to Carillion among others. His Conservative successors as secretary of state for justice have failed to change course.

As part of Labour’s demand for a reversal of its failed policies, we are calling on the government not only to enact an emergency national plan and budget to make our prisons safe by ending overcrowding and understaffing across the entire prisons estate but also to call time on the Americanisation of our criminal justice system.

That means a reversal of the recent decision to build more privately run prisons, the government’s review into probation to include returning all of the sector to the public sector and for there to be a moratorium on all further privatisation until there has been an independent review of private sector involvement in our justice system.

I have also been calling for the government to bar private security giants G4S and Serco from bidding for the contracts for these two new privately run prisons as they are currently under a Serious Fraud Office investigation for ripping off the Ministry of Justice, including by charging for tagging dead prisoners! 

While I don’t expect the Conservative government to agree with me on privatisation being wrong in principle, I would have thought we could get a consensus that companies under investigation for engaging in fraudulent activity shouldn’t profit from the public purse. Sadly the government refuses to rule them out.

In contrast, I have made it clear, including to those who wish to bid for any new private prisons, that a Labour government will end the discredited outsourcing of prison maintenance works, oppose the building of more private prisons and bring wasteful PFI schemes back in-house as soon as possible. We will also return all of probation to the public sector and I have appointed former Chief Inspector of Prisons Lord Ramsbotham to lead a review into probation to look at how this can best be achieved.

In government, Labour will put an end to the big money racket of failed privatisation in our justice system. We will re-establish the principle that the purpose of our justice system is to deliver justice and public safety for the many, not profits for the privileged few.   

Richard Burgon’s column appears fortnightly.

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