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There’s more nastiness to G4S than Birmingham prison mess

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After inspectors found that inmates were living in appalling conditions in a privately?run prison, Tomáš Tengely-Evans investigates those responsible
Issue 2619
A protest over G4Ss supplying of services and equipment to Israel
A protest over G4S’s supplying of services and equipment to Israel (Pic: Palestine Solidarity Campaign/Flickr)

A Danish retail boss set up private security firm Copenhagen-Frederiksberg Night Watch with 20 guards in 1901. It is now the largest security company in the world—G4S.

Revelations about appalling conditions at HMP Birmingham highlighted the scale of G4S’s abuses and profiteering from public sector contracts.

Inspectors found filthy communal areas and corridors covered in vomit, blood and cockroaches. The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, said the report had “some of the most disturbing evidence that inspectors have seen in any prison.”

G4S’s security empire spans across 90 countries—it is the world’s third largest private sector employer.

It raked in some £31 million in profits from prisons, immigration detention and youth custody service contracts in Britain last year alone.

G4S was born out a merger in 2004 between Group 4 Falck and Securicor under the slogan, “Securing Your World”. In stepped chief executive Nick Buckles to secure the world for profit.

G4S’s growth rested on two planks—acquisition of smaller rivals and a business model reliant on privatisation. From 2004 to 2013 G4S swallowed up 70 smaller companies in acquisitions worth £1.5 billion.

The company’s rise began under Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, when new rules favoured large firms that could financially take on large-scale projects.


While it had prospered under the Tories, G4S really achieved success under Tony Blair’s New Labour government. With a warmonger in Downing Street and chancellor Gordon Brown’s drive for privatisation, opportunities kept opening up for G4S.

The private security industry boomed during the War on Terror. Among G4S’s acquisitions in the 2000s was ArmorGroup, which ­provided bodyguards for British diplomats running the West’s occupation of Afghanistan.

A racist clampdown in Britain also provided opportunities. Global Solutions Limited (GSL)—Group 4 Falck’s law and order arm—was running four immigration detention centres at the time it was sold in 2004. The shared interests between politicians, civil servants, cops and business oiled the wheels of G4S’s rise.

By the end of the 2000s G4S’s rapid expansion began running into trouble. Its model was based on ­bidding for public sector contracts—often below cost—to provide a poor quality service.

A former advisor to the Blair government admitted that “nobody was very impressed with G4S”. “But nobody was very impressed with the UK Border officers or the Prison and Probation Service either,” they said. “G4S only had to seem to be outperforming them rather than being a Rolls-Royce.”

Things started to fall apart for Buckles’ strategy in the last decade after a shambolic Olympics contact and failed takeovers of other businesses. He still managed to resign on a £16 million retirement package.

The latest scandal at HMP Birmingham hammers home the need to stop—and reverse—the whole privatisation swindle.

Powerful mates at the top of society

G4S is a giant company—and its size gives it clout when bidding for lucrative contracts.

It also relies on powerful friends in the state—and has rewarded them with top positions.

In 2008 Blairite former minister John Reid was appointed as a “consultant” by G4S and pocketed £50,000 a year.

As defence secretary, health secretary and home secretary, Reid was at the forefront of the privatisation boom in the 2000s. Another friend of G4S was former London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon. The MacPherson report of 1999 said his police force was “institutionally racist”. But that didn’t stop him becoming a G4S board member and trousering £124,600 a year until his retirement in 2012.

A former prisons governor and head of the energy watchdog were other G4S board members.

Their “expertise” helped the parts of G4S’s portfolio that deal with prisons and gas and electric meter monitoring.

Police control room scam

Lincolnshire Police chief Bill Skelly reaffirmed the “relationship we have with our strategic partner, G4S” after the Birmingham prisons scandal.

G4S began a ten-year contract—worth £220 million—with Lincolnshire Police in 2012. This “back room services” contract included processing arrestees in G4S custody services.

“Our satisfaction remains high”, Skelly said, adding that G4S “continue to provide good service and excellent value for money to the people of Lincolnshire.”

In May 2016 G4S employees were found to be faking response times in Lincolnshire Police force’s control room. Five G4S employees were suspended and two were sacked over the scam, which saw them fake calls to the switchboard to improve response times.

It shows corruption and incompetence—but Skelly’s remarks shows that there is a false choice between public v private?run police forces, prisons and immigration detention services.

G4S leeches public money, and its private security guards can be brutal and incompetent, but their contracts and orders come from the Home Office.

The brutality flows from the system of incarceration—whether publicly or privately-run.

Unlawful killing during deportation

Jimmy Mubenga was unlawfully killed during his forced deportation in October 2010.

The three G4S security guards who had taken part in it were found not guilty of manslaughter in 2014.

The Crown Prosecution Service was initially reluctant to prosecute the guards, and only backtracked after an inquest ruled in 2013 that his death was an unlawful killing.

Stuart Trebelnig, one of the G4S guards, had a text on his phone. It said, “Fuck off and go home you free-loading, benefit grabbing, kid producing, violent, non-English speaking cock suckers and take those hairy faced, sandal wearing, bomb making, goat fucking, smelly rag head bastards with you.”

Abuse in South African prisons

A former guard at a G4S-run prison in South Africa alleged that they had used electric shocks and forced injections to keep control of inmates.

The South African government took back control over Mangaung prison after the scandal.

It said that G4S had employed “uncertified security staff to perform custodial duties”.

It’s not the only allegation. In 2015 a group of inmates from Bloemfontein prison began suing G4S over allegations of torture—including use of electric shocks, injections and isolation.

Custody staff mock inmate

Undercover BBC footage appeared to show G4S guards choking asylum seekers in Brook House immigration detention centre.

It showed an inmate trying to strangle himself and put a mobile phone battery in his mouth.

A G4S detainee custody manager was filmed saying, “Plug him in and he’ll be a Duracell bunny.”

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