Mapping the UK's prison-industrial complex

Connor Woodman
Wednesday, 20 December 2017

For the next year, I am going to be mapping and investigating the nexus of private, state and voluntary sector interests involved in maintaining and running the criminal justice system in the UK.

Whilst there is a wealth of literature on the ‘prison-industrial complex’ in the US, there is a relative paucity of investigation centred on the UK. As a new Research Fellow at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, I am going to be recording some of the key organisations and companies involved in and benefiting from British criminal justice, possibly focusing on this decade’s privatisation efforts in prisons, electronic monitoring, and probation.

This may include looking at voluntary sector involvement in criminal justice, as well as other non-state and non-corporate interests maintaining the criminal justice system, such as trade unions or professional associations. I am also planning to spend time investigating the Government’s latest prison-building programme.

Following preliminary forays, it is clear that a number of key questions and points arise around this area of research:

  • To what extent does a ‘prison-industrial complex’ exist in the UK? Can a term which was developed by critical scholars and activists in a US context be easily applied here?
  • What are the primary issues which privatisation and corporate involvement raises? Concerns have been raised about conditions being driven down by private sector competition, prison labour being exploited, and monitoring metrics being ‘gamed’, sometimes fraudulently. Some have also argued that private providers can act as gateways to an expansion of methods of social control.
  • Serco and G4S are overwhelmingly dominant (p.25) in the sector – and to a lesser extent, Sodexo – even as new market contenders take advantage of a run of scandals involving the two corporations.
  • Adult private prisons, which receive the lion’s share of attention, are merely the sharp edge of a wide-ranging contracting out of criminal justice and detention services to non-state organisations, from court interpretation to immigration detention.

I hope, through this work, to provide information and analysis of use to the movement against the use of criminal justice to solve social and economic problems, and to help those seeking to better understand the role of private providers in criminal justice provision. 

Have any tips or pointers, or want to get in touch to discuss the project? Email me on