Britain’s prison crisis: another privatisation mess

G4S, the outsourcing giant, took over HMP Birmingham (formerly Winston Green) from the public sector in October 2011. At the time, Jerry Petherick, a G4S executive, aspired to “put an honest, humanising face on a multinational company”.

Seven years later, the dehumanising conditions – corridors filled with cockroaches, vomit and blood – have played a part in forcing the Tory government to take HMP Birmingham, the first prison to be transferred from the public to the private sector, back into public hands. Why did this happen?


Let us look at this company’s track record since taking over the prison. Before the end of 2011, G4S had been forced to spend £500,000 replacing every lock and key at HMP Birmingham, since a guard lost the master set. At the same time, the prison was running with 98 fewer staff. Any new staff were hired on lower wages, and were put on worse terms and conditions. This drive to cut costs prepared the ground for the scandalous conditions that followed.

In 2016, a riot lasting 12 hours broke out in every wing of the Birmingham prison. Michael Spurr, CEO of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), stated that there were “serious problems” with violence fuelled by drug usage. His promises for improvement were founded on “consistent leadership” of “skilled professionals” alongside unstated resources. Meanwhile, G4S were advertising 25 full-time roles for officers saying “no specific previous qualifications or experience are required”.

This year, inspectors found that prisoners were using drugs and violence with impunity. Moreover, the report found that one-in-seven prisoners have become addicted to drugs since being incarcerated.

Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, added that he had “no confidence in the ability of the prison to make improvements”, and that he found “a state of crisis remarkable even by the low standards . . . in recent years”. This is a damning indictment of a company that pertains to take rehabilitation seriously.

But this is not just a case of ‘one rotten apple’. Sodexo, another outsourcing giant, won a contract to take over HMP Northumberland in 2014. The takeover saw 96 prison officer posts cut. Last year, a BBC documentary exposed the widespread drug use and failing alarms.


The public are consistently told that privatisation is not to blame. But the collapse of Carillion earlier this year, has cast serious doubt on this. Why were the Tories offering contract upon contract in order to keep a Ponzi scheme afloat? And in whose interests do these monopolies serve?

These outsourcing failures are lamented by the serious capitalist press, who are concerned about the public backlash against outsourcing.

Today, the aggregate value of outsourced prison contracts is £4bn. Hence the shareholders of the outsourcing companies are anxious not to see this market disappear.

The capitalist commentators try to make the point that privatisation is not solely to blame; conditions in public sector prisons can also be terrible, it is asserted. We must be clear, however: this is the reality of trying to manage overcrowded and understaffed prisons under a regime of permanent austerity.

Staff numbers across the whole prison sector have been cut by more than a quarter over the past five years. As a result, experts have found that prisoners have been kept in their cells for 23 hours a day.

Austerity is not merely an unsavoury policy that the Tories happily carry out. Rather, it is an expression of the sorry state of British – and indeed global – capitalism.

Since bailing out the banks in 2008, the government can no longer afford the reforms won by the working class in the past. Hence the public sector is being outsourced wholesale to the likes of G4S, who run these services into the ground.

By opening up the public sector the market, the ruling class can now profit from areas previously off limits. Jeremy Corbyn has hinted at this, explaining that outsourcing leaves our public services “struggling after years of austerity and private contractors siphoning off profits from the public purse”.

Take back control

How do we break this vicious cycle? By expropriating the wealth that has been created off the back of the working class and using this to breathe life into our downtrodden economy and failing services.

We cannot entrust this task to the Tories, who are clearly nothing but political handmaidens to the capitalists.

In order to provide public services with the resources they deserve – and to provide humane and rehabilitative treatment that prisoners need – we must take control of the key levers of the economy – the “commanding heights” – and put these in public hands.

This is why the original socialist Clause IV – “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry… on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange…” – is even more relevant today that when it was introduced one hundred years ago.