How to stop prison privatisation

Kenny MacAskill MSP
Wednesday, 18 March 2015

“There’s some will rob you with a six gun and some with a fountain pen”. So sang the great American folk artiste Woody Guthrie in the Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.

The criminality of those in HMP Addiewell has been tried in the courts and proven beyond reasonable doubt. But, what about the culpability of those who signed a contract for a prison costing £140 million to construct but whose actual price will amount to a £940 million bill for the taxpayer?

Many inmates can only look on with envy at the legal larceny. The incarceration of the inmates is the responsibility of the justice system. The injury to the taxpayer is the consequence of the UK Labour Government and the former Liberal/Labour Scottish Executive.

Made in the USA

Private prisons were imported like so many things from the United States. The irony is that many states across the Atlantic, recognising the costs and consequences of them, are now rolling back.

They’re not cheaper and create a perverse incentive to incarcerate. It’s little surprise, then, that the USA has the highest prison population in the world with over 2.2 million Americans citizens in jail. Sadly, south of the Border the coalition government continues apace notwithstanding.

The duty of the state

There’s a moral argument as well as a financial one in respect of private prisons. The late Clive Fairweather, a former Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons as well as a commander of the SAS in his military days, expressed it very succinctly, stating that as a soldier he could only take a life with the authority of the Crown. Similarly the incarceration of an individual was a duty of the state.

Modern private prisons can trumpet many new facilities envied in an ageing public estate. However, the public service ethos and esprit de corps that exists in the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and its staff is vastly different to the attitudes of multinational companies and the morale of their workforce.

The zeal for privatisation

HMP Kilmarnock was signed off by the Labour Government in 1999. They ignored the pleas of staff and governors that costs were saved simply by cutting the terms and conditions of employment.

That situation continues to this day. It’s rare if ever that a prison officer leaves the employment of the SPS to become a correctional officer or whatever other title is given in the private sector. Working with the SPS is not high paid, but pensions and other benefits are significantly better than in the private sector.

The Liberal/Labour Executive ignored warnings from governors, academics and politicians as early as 2000 that supposed savings were a mirage. Far from a cost per prisoner being £11,000 the reality was exposed as being £26,000. The initial suggestions of a prison cost of £130 million were shown to be over £290 million. The charge, also, applies whether there was a prisoner at all or the cells remained empty. This is a distortion of justice policy to try to reduce prison numbers if ever there was one.

The privatisation zeal of the Liberal/Labour Executive continued unabated, though, and in 2002 they announced a decision to build three new private prisons at Addiewell, Low Moss and Grampian. Had all three proceeded within the private sector then Scotland would have had the highest percentage of prisoners - well over 40 percent - in private prisons anywhere in Europe.

The consequences would have been felt by the entire country not just the staff affected. Revenue payments for private prisons on a yearly basis would have been such that there would have likely been insufficient capital funding for future builds; resulting in a total privatisation by default.

A wind of change

The contracts for HMP Addiewell were shamefully signed off by the Liberal/Labour Executive prior to their removal from office in the election of 2007 and were unable to be abandoned due to prohibitive cancellation charges.

However, the incoming Scottish Natonal Party administration was able to ensure that both the proposed HMP Low Moss and the future HMP Grampian proceeded through normal procurement means and in the state sector. This left Addiewell and Kilmarnock as the only private prisons in the Scottish estate.

It would also be fair to say that a great deal of institutionalised opposition required to be overcome amongst senior staff and officials still extolling the virtues of the private sector, despite the change desired by both a new administration and their electorate. It is indicative, perhaps, of just how all pervasive that New Labour doctrine of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and Public Private Partnerships (PPP) was at the time.

Thankfully, a wind of change has blown through SPS and the organisation is committed once again to being a proper public service, not acting as a contract provider to big business.

The costs and consequences of Addiewell and Kilmarnock, though, will be born for years to come; both in the price to the taxpayer for their running and in the terms and conditions for staff working in them. But, the operators, sensing the change in mood have, at least, taken their sights and sites for private prisons elsewhere.

Less may be lifted in PFI/PPP from prisons than will be filched from Education and Health. The consequences are also less visible in a secure estate than a public building. But, many a prisoner must wonder about the comparative justice of robbery with a six gun and that with a fountain pen!