Socialist Worker

Prisons for profit make inmates’ lives even worse

After two prisons have had “disturbances” already this year, Sadie Robinson looks at how privatisation is driving prisoners’ conditions down even further

Issue No. 2386

Tory justice secretary Chris Grayling

Tory justice secretary Chris Grayling (Pic: Conservative Party)

Privatisation is creating “dangerous chaos” in prisons and Tory justice secretary Chris Grayling is “dehumanising” prisoners. That’s according to Rob Preece from the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Prison doesn’t “rehabilitate” people. It puts vulnerable inmates at the mercy of routine brutalisation by prison officers.

The new year began with two prison “disturbances”. One at state-run Nottingham Prison, and the other at Oakwood prison near Wolverhampton, run by G4S.

The authorities are cagey about how common such disturbances are. 

The Ministry of Justice was quick to reassure Socialist Worker that the number of this kind of “incident” was “very, very low” –despite admitting that it doesn’t keep figures for them.

What is clear is that cuts are making prisoners’ lives harder—and explosions of anger more likely.


The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, stressed the danger of cost-cutting in his 2012/13 report.

The National Offender Management Service, which includes prisons and probation, made £246 million in cuts that financial year. This followed £228 million cuts in 2011-12. 

The cuts meant prison closures, privatisation and “workforce restructuring”. Hardwick wrote, “No one should fool themselves that these financial and organisational pressures do not create risks”.

The Howard League found that almost 20,000 prisoners were kept in overcrowded cells on any given day last year.

Many have little to do. The prison population in England and Wales has doubled in 20 years but funding hasn’t grown to match this.

“This creates competition to get on courses,” Rob Preece told Socialist Worker. “It shouldn’t surprise anybody that tensions will rise. In this situation, something that seems small can trigger a bigger response.”

Grayling has changed prisoners’ “privileges” scheme so that new prisoners start on the basic level instead of standard.

This restricts what they can do. “It has a dehumanising effect,” said Rob. “Things like buying a pencil have become a bureaucratic nightmare.”


The growth of privately-run prisons is a big threat. Report after report has raised concerns about cuts, lack of training and inexperienced staff in private prisons.

And as private firms bid to run prisons cheaply, the pressure to cut costs in state-run prisons intensifies.

Juliet Lyon is director of the Prison Reform Trust. She said that prisoners at Oakwood faced “problems with access to the most basic necessities”.

“This is a prison that opened without enough bread or toilet roll for its prisoners,” said Rob. “How can you expect it to deliver things like proper education?

“G4S told us these were teething problems. But there comes a point where teething problems become dangerous chaos.”

As Rob points out, there’s no incentive for private prisons looking for profits to cut the numbers.

Prison standards drop by half

Prison inspections assess prisons for safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement.

Assessment on resettlement looks at how they are providing skills and support to help prisoners access work or training on release from prison.

Between 2011-12 and 2012-13 there was a dramatic drop in prisons rated good or reasonably good in full inspections for purposeful activity and resettlement.

In 2011-12 some 73 percent were deemed good or reasonably good for providing prisoners with purposeful activity. 

By 2012-13 this had plummeted to 50 percent.

In 2011-12 some 84 percent were deemed good or reasonably good at resettlement. 

And by 2012-13 this figure was just 64 percent.

Tory plans for mega-jails

Oakwood is the largest prison in England. It can hold 1,605 prisoners. But larger prisons are worse for prisoners than smaller ones.

The Prison Reform Trust has found that larger prisons are “consistently poorer at meeting prisoner needs and creating a healthy prison environment”. 

Prisoners in larger jails were more likely to say they had been assaulted or injured by a prison worker or another prisoner.

Armed with this information, the Tories have decided to open a 2,000-place “super prison” in Wrexham.

They are also investigating the possibility of building another large prison in south-east England.

This could possibly be built on the existing Feltham site in west London.

The number of prisons holding over 1,000 people has nearly trebled in the past decade. The three biggest prisons are privately-run—Oakwood and Birmingham by G4S, and Forest Bank by Sodexho.

More prisoners are black and asian

More than a quarter of prisoners whose ethnicity was recorded were from an ethnic minority group last year according to figures.

Black and Black British people made up 2.8 percent of the population—but 

13.2 percent of prisoners. Similar figures for Asian and Asian British are 5.8 percent and 7.9 percent respectively.

No more support for complaints

Tory Chris Grayling wants to cut prisoners’ access to legal aid in cases of complaints about their treatment or conditions. 

There are no exemptions for children or prisoners with mental health issues or learning disabilities.

Up to 30 percent of prisoners have learning disabilities or severe difficulties that make it hard for them to cope with the criminal justice system, according to the Prisoners’ Advice Service.

Deaths and self harm epidemic

Some 31 children aged 14 to 17 died in prisons in England and Wales between 1990-2011. Some 419 18-24 year olds died in prisons over the same period.

An Oxford University study reported an “epidemic of self-mutilation” among female prisoners—one in four have harmed themselves.

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