On The Privatisation Of Prisons


It was announced last week that the ConDems intend to privatise the prison service in the UK.

A morally repugnant process whereby for the most part already rich people will become richer by incarcerating citizens on behalf of the coercive State.

But this gives rise to the question of who exactly is the “customer” in a privatised prison? Presumably the government through the courts as they are the providers of funds – the people who pay. In which case the prisoners become simply commodities to be exchanged between the private prison company and the court for the generation of profit – which is one reason why the idea is so morally repugnant.

Market logic suggests that it is in the interests of private prison companies to have more and more prisoners – how is such a business to ‘grow’ otherwise?

Large corporate businesses will therefore be influencing legislators and public debate to encourage the incarceration of more and more citizens – regardless of the human and social cost of such a policy.

To counter-act this claim you could try to create/manipulate the ‘market’ so that the real ‘business’ of a private prison company in the UK is rehabilitation not incarceration, i.e. the profit arises not from incarcerating the prisoners but for rehabilitating the criminals. But this mechanism does not resolve the problem of a private company wishing for a larger and larger prison population because, simply put, the more prisoners there are, the more there are to rehabilitate.

It is also true to say that it is easier to ‘rehabilitate’ a traffic offender or community tax dodger than it is a mass murderer. So indeed there will be a commercial imperative for private prison companies to urge an increase in the incarceration of ‘soft’ criminals.

So, far from reducing the costs to the state through the efficiency of efficient competition, market logic actually gives rise to commercial imperatives and reward systems that argue for an ever expanding prison population – and thus an ever expanding prison budget.

The idea of a private prison is morally repugnant but what is worse is that even if we use the market logic of those proposing it it will fail to achieve the supposed objective of reducing the costs of the prison service.

Which raises the question of what other motives there could be for introducing such a policy? Which in turn maybe brings us back to that thing of already rich people getting richer – at the expense of poor people.

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11 responses to “On The Privatisation Of Prisons

  1. moelarrythecheese

    Indeed the issue is a hairy conundrum. I am not going to offer a cursory solution at this point because this issue is replete with problematic solutions which, if not carefully scrutinized, could complicate and magnify the problem. However, I would like to point out that “the solution” should maintain the philosophy that prison should be a punishment, not a reward. The thought of going to prison should be a crime deterrent. By making prison too “cush” you could loose the deterrent effect.

    • Well, the issue of deterrence is of course at the heart of the issue. Question: Is Guantanamo a deterrent for young radical Muslims/ Or is it an illegal and unjust oppression that simply confirms radical Islam’s claims about American society and justifies terrorism and is Al Qaeda’s greatest recruiting tool?

      A young 17 year old black American commits three minor crimes and under the rule of three is sent to prison. In prison he is brutalised by both inmates and guards and educated in the most up to date methods of crime. Question: Does he emerge chastened and reformed determined never to commit a crime again? Or does he emerge as bitter and vengeful at a society that could send him into that hell for stealing a Hershey bar and determined to reap his revenge?

      Prison certainly deters middle-class citizens – they have too much to lose. But there is very little evidence that prison deters the poor – they have nothing to lose. But prison does undoubtedly brutalise many who experience it – especially the young.

      I am not here denying that there are people who society needs to be protected from or whom need to be ‘punished’ for their crimes. But in the US prison is a brutal experience and yet 1:9 of the black population are in prison and the number is rising. More that 2.5 million Americans are in prison. 1% of the population! If you include Americans on trail or on probation the number rises to 1:32 or 3.1% of the population.

      By far the greatest proportion of these incarcerations are drug related. The US (& UK) actually doesn’t have a crime problem it has a drug problem. Question: Is the threat of prison in a years time going to deter a heroin addict deep in withdrawal who just needs a fix in that moment?

      So the question is: does a brutal prison regime work as a deterrence? In the UK in the 17th Century it was a capital offence to poach a rabbit. Rabbits were still poached and thousands of men were hung for it. You could of course argue that without the threat of death many more rabbits would have been poached but it is difficult to know.

      What is far more important as a deterrence is the expectation of getting caught. Even a very short sentence will deter if there is a high expectation of arrest. In the UK speed cameras have had a dramatic effect on drivers behaviour (at least within sight of the cameras) because if you speed past a camera it is almost certain you will be caught and charged. The penalty is a modest fine $100 and 3 points on your licence – if you get 2 points you lose your licence for 2 weeks. So it is not the severity of the punishment that is the deterrence it is the certainty of being caught.

  2. moelarrythecheese

    First of all, if you compare the US prison system (Guantanamo Bay included)to most of the others in the world I think you will find that the US prisons are country clubs in comparison. Secondly, I have no sympathy for the violent offenders who get sent to prison. As the saying goes, “if you do the crime then you have to do the time.” Those responsible for heinous offenses should be made involuntary, on-call organ donors. To be released from prison is to be given a second chance. If an ex-con decides not to walk the straight and narrow and commits further offenses then he or she has earned the right to be sent back to the slammer. It is their life and their choice. It was their fault the first time they got incarcerated and it’s their fault if they earn the right to go back. Nobody made them screw-up. So I have no sympathy for them, regardless of what they learned in prison. Last but not least, let us not forget about the concept of punishment. We’ve talked about deterrence but the victims deserve punishment. Society deserves justice for wrongs committed against it and, in my opinion, punishment of the criminal is a necessary requirement for justice to be served – and the punishment should fit the crime. Nuff said, Jed.

    • Well, compared to most of the Western world US prisons are brutal and inhumane – and yet you have higher crime rates and a higher proportion of citizens in prison than any other country in the world including China! The truth is your approach simply doesn’t work – if your aim is to reduce crime and protect the public.

      Secondly, you talk as if all prisoners are “violent offenders’ but this is not the case. The three strikes rule in the US means many hundreds of thousands of prisoners are incarcerated for minor theft, failure to pay bills or fines or disturbances of the peace. You also seem to be claiming that criminals are always rational protagonists who ‘choose’ to undertake the crimes they commit, totally ignoring my questions about drug addicts and 17 year olds – didn’t you say something about “the punishment should fit the crime”?

  3. moelarrythecheese

    My mother’s watching “Pillars of the Earth” down the hall in the den. It’s a little hard to think with all that sword play and screaming and hollering and evil bishops like Ian Mcshane. Why couldn’t you English just get along. And we think politics is bad nowadays.
    I’m sorry, but I still don’t accept your statement that US prisons are brutal and inhumane. I think that’s a subject the reality of which we both fail to have a good appreciation of. Nevertheless, I have seen a number of documentaries on the subject and I believe that I can justifiably say that the prisons look humane and comfortable enough. Hopefully I won’t have the opportunity to find out first hand. Keep in mind that the clientele play a big role in fashioning the ambiance of the cellblock. I believe that the key to reducing the prison population is to improve society in ways that will discourage people from committing criminal acts in the first place.

    Yes, many criminal acts are committed spontaneously and irrationally, but I suspect that they are a small subset of the total. And yes, I suspect that there are unfortunate people who go to jail for relatively minor infractions, but they broke a law. Perhaps the remedy is to change the law, which does happen now and then. Drug addicts and teenagers are potentially some of the most dangerous people. If you read enough crime reports you’ll realize that to be true. For example, a crazed addict ravenous for a fix will callously kill someone for their money.

    • Yeah, shame about Pillars Of The Earth; a really great book massacred.

      As you say neither of us, so far, has any personal experience of the US prison system and all I can say is we must have seen different documentaries!

      It is obviously true that drug addicts can be dangerous but what I was asking you to consider was the extent to which they are responsible for their actions. In the UK if an insane person commits murder this can be commuted to Manslaughter on the grounds of ‘diminished responsibility’. i.e. we accept that we are not all responsible for our actions all of the time. But this in turn raises a question about the nature of addiction. if you believe that addicts are just ‘weak-willed’ and are ‘choosing’ their way of life then there is not much more to say. But what if alcoholism and heroin addiction are mental or physiological disorders? (i.e. that an alcoholic reacts to the chemical ethyl alcohol differently than most people – like a kind of allergic reaction). If this is so would it change your attitude to whether such a person needed treating or punishing?

      Question: Do you believe that an alcoholic ‘chooses’ to destroy their life and the life of those they love? Or that a heroin addict ‘chooses’ to live life in the shadows and in perpetual fear of not getting a fix?

  4. moelarrythecheese

    Answer: Their choice is to prolong their addictions or bring them to a stop. Which outcome they value the most will determine their choice of behavior. It would be nice if society could step in and make them stop their self abuse but such an action would deprive them of their rights and freedoms. However, if a mentally ill person feels compelled to beat his head against a wall should society step in and make him stop?

    • Your answer just begs the question. My point is that if addiction is some sort of disorder making the ‘rational’ choice you describe may simply not be possible.

      If you are insane and think you are Napoleon invading Spain seems a perfectly rational thing to do. So how can we apply standards of rationality to the insane person? The point is they are not capable of rational thought. And many would argue the same is true of using addicts.

  5. moelarrythecheese

    OK so they can’t help what they’re doing. Tell them “that’s alright,” and send them on their way and hope they walk in front of a bus.

    • Now. now, no need to get petulant. I’m actually agreeing with you when you say ‘let the punishment fit the crime’. What we need to do is actually address the real issues of poverty and lack of opportunity at one end of society and extreme wealth and privilege at the other end and stop pretending that prison solves anything.

  6. moelarrythecheese

    I’ll buy that.
    Hear! Hear! Where? Where? There! There!

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