By Zoe Williams

Why ‘John Lewis jails’ are better for corporations than for prisoners

A thinktank wants to cut crime with ‘John Lewis jails’, but the plan to get prisoners working looks more like a new opportunity for giant corporations.

Yesterday afternoon, it was announced that the prison population has hit its all-time high: at 87,749, it is 76 higher than the previous record set at the start of last month. They promised us a rehabilitation revolution. When Ken Clarke gruffly took the stage to spell out the government’s prison policy, in June last year, he said reoffending had to be brought down; he said prison sentences didn’t necessarily work; he talked about the “bang em up” culture, and how it produced more hardened criminals; he hinted at sentencing reform, and alternatives to custody. The overwhelming impression was that with this man in charge, there would be fewer people in prison.

There followed what commentators call “disarray”: David Cameron backed Clarke, at the same time insisting he believed in short sentences – which two positions are basically opposite (and not in a sophisticated way). Michael Howard piled in; backbenchers were displeased. The prison population grew. It has now topped 87,000 prisoners for 12 weeks in a row. Maximum capacity is 89,000. Relations between prisoners and staff are already deteriorating. One professional wondered, off the record, if “this is the year it’s all going to kick off”.

Last week, Clarke appeared before a select committee, and said he was against mandatory sentencing for juniors carrying knives, and against three-strikes-and-you’re-out rules on principle, because judges always found a way to get round them. But later last week, Nick Herbert, the minister for policing and criminal justice, announced there would be mandatory sentences for knife crimes, juvenile or not.

In April, Birmingham became the first prison in the UK to move from public to private hands. At the beginning of this week, the first tender document went out for nine other prisons; bids are invited from the public and private sectors. The companies bidding will be the same vast corporations that have hoovered up contracts elsewhere in the public sector: Capita, G4S, A4E, Serco, Sedexo. There are “new kids on the block”, but they aren’t exactly kids – they’re companies of a similar size, from elsewhere in the world: Amey, Geo. What is certain, even at this early stage in the bidding process (where companies are selected for their “qualification” to bid), is that the contracts are too large to be bid for by social enterprise organisations.

On Monday, the RSA will publish Transitions (its full title used to be Royal Society of Artists. Now it is a “an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges”). The project is a radical set of ideas, unofficially called the John Lewis prison. However, as John Podmore, a former governor of Brixton prison, points out: “These are multimillion-pound contracts for 10 or 15 years. The way those tenders will be constructed is such that there is no way the RSA, even with a lot of funding, would be able to compete in that market. The competition’s coming, and it’s coming from Amey, from Geo. They’ve got a sniff of zillions and they’ll be in like Flint.”

Even charities with significant funds and a long-standing interest in prisons, such as Barrow Cadbury, couldn’t on moral grounds justify bankrolling a small, not-for-profit organisation trying to win one of these contracts.

The public sector will hang on to some contracts, and the rest will go to corporate behemoths. There are big, troubling issues with the direction of travel.

Clearly, there’s scope to change the staffing protocols so that prisoners are trusted to go to work without it costing the prison so much money.

However, none of this will work if relations are bad between prisoners and staff. “If you want to run a prison by coercion, you need a lot of officers. You need to create concrete coffins. If you’re going to run them on co-operation, you need something in it for staff and something in it for prisoners. Incentives on both sides.” That atmosphere is souring already with the rising population; Inspectorate reports make grim reading, especially those dealing with young offenders’ institutions, where overcrowding is marked.

The RSA transitions project has ideas about how to create these incentives, but they’re niche, not mass-market – they involve the local community, smaller charities, local NHS provision, small-scale social enterprise that forms the backbone of what “big society” is supposed to mean. The emphasis is not on keeping people in, it’s on getting them out, successfully, so they’re not immediately back in. They would never win a government tender because they’re not the cheapest, the fastest, the least risky.

And this issue of prisoners working is not as simple as keeping them busy: as soon as prisoners turn into a profit opportunity for businesses, there are huge moral hazards. It’s one of the few areas in which Clarke and Cameron are in agreement: prisoners should be working – ideally, 40-hour weeks.

That’s all fine, but there are different kinds of work, and there is absolutely chilling form from America on this: one company accounts for 25% of the prison business in the US. Every time the prison population rises, its profits rise. It has an active stake in prisoners reoffending, in other words. The value on prisoner output – they do macabre, unskilled work, like stitching body bags – exceeded $2bn in 2006. Hourly wages varied, but could be as low as 23 cents. This looks a lot like slave labour. It looks like the sodding Shawshank Redemption, except that instead of one bent governor, you have huge, bent corporations.

Even if you pay prisoners a minimum wage, you have to consider what inducements you’d have to offer companies to employ them, and what that would do to the jobs market outside prison. But more to the point, if you’re going to have a rehabilitation revolution, people have to emerge with new skills. They have to be employable, and since they now have a criminal record, that takes creative, lateral solutions which you will not find stitching a body bag. But it’s not impossible – there are skills that convicts already have, to build on, as Podmore points out. “To be a successful drug dealer, you’ve got to be an entrepreneur. You are a successful business person. You’re looking at margins, you’re looking at cost.”

Charities say, off the record, that they’re annoyed at being used not just in prisons but across public sector commissioning as “bid candy”, dangled all over the tendering documents, then dropped once a contract is won. Worse is when they are used by the private sector to access different sources of funding, so it can reduce the price of its own tenders and win contracts, or else just skim off savings that volunteers have delivered. An anonymous source from a private-sector prison told me, “It’s not so much that the private sector is taking the credit for the interventions – from drug rehab to a drama group – that’s all fine, there’s always that relationship. But the co-operation is being lost because of the pressure from the ministry, which says, ‘Give us this price. Don’t show us how you get it, just show us the price.'”

Privatisation is one thing. But privatisation in the modern fashion, with all the business going to the same handful of companies – which will nominally be “paid by results”, but the results are nebulous and in reality they’ll be paid anyway – looks like yet another unelected oligarchy. It may well turn out to be a revolution, but rehabilitation will not be its result.

The RSA’s Transitions report is online at:

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