The prison industrial complex, racism and immigration

Claire Burrows
Wednesday, 5 August 2020

With the current Black Lives Matter movement in America having accelerated due to the acts of police brutality resulting in the death of George Floyd, there is another area of the criminal justice system which the movement is exposing.

The torch of truth that 2020 has allowed to shine brighter than ever before is now turning to the dark and hidden corners of the prison system. Despite the decades-long campaigns of many organisations and countless exposé documentaries, America’s criminal justice system has now finally been pushed to the forefront of the global conversation on racism.

However, it is not only America facing intense scrutiny for its institutional racism - here in the UK, we have our own shameful secrets lurking in the shadows of the justice system’s long hallways. Whilst we may comfort ourselves with the familiar thought of, "at least we aren’t as racist as America", it’s reported that, proportionally, the UK has more people who are Black imprisoned than America does. A review on the treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the UK’s criminal justice system found that, "Black people in the UK are four times more likely to be in prison than would be expected given their proportion of the total population".

Not such a comforting thought anymore.

And what about for-profit prisons? Another aspect of the prison system that we associate with America. However, once again, Britain does not hold the moral high ground in this regard either. Not only was Britain the first European nation to open for-profit prisons but it now has the most privatised prison system across Europe. This has led to the rapid growth of Britain’s own prison-industrial complex (PIC), with nearly 20 per cent of the total prison population held in private prisons.

Just as in the privatisation of prisons and the disproportionate locking up of people from BAME communities, Britain won’t be outdone by America when it comes to immigration detention centres either. There are currently seven immigration removal centres (IRCs) in the UK and, as of March 2019, six were outsourced to private companies.

The three private companies responsible for running Britain’s private detention facilities are Serco, G4S and Sodexo. As well as saving an estimated £3 million a year by making detainees do their own cooking, cleaning and carrying out maintenance, they’re also raking in the cash through what many will argue is slave labour. With a reported pay rate of £1 per hour, those held in detention are employed in menial labour, such as packing boxes.

A 2018 report by Corporate Watch found that profit rates of 20 per cent or more are standard for the companies running IRCs. With the UK being the only country in Europe to have indefinite detention, that can translate to indefinite profits. Just like in prisons, detainees are offered low-paid work to keep detention centres ticking over. Why pay minimum wage for a cleaner to clean the toilet when you can pay someone seeking asylum £1 to do the job?

The immigration detention and prison systems are intrinsically linked. Women from foreign countries are one of the fastest growing groups in the female prison population and represent one in seven of all the women held in custody in England and Wales.

The prison system also houses detainees for the Home Office. As of April 2020, 708 people were detained in the UK and 340 of those were being housed in prisons. It is worth noting the number of detainees is usually much larger, but 900 detainees have been released on bail etc. due to COVID-19.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues in the UK, perhaps it’s time we stop pretending we’re better than America when it comes to prisons and immigration systems. It’s time we shine our own light and take a long hard look at what’s happening right here and right now.

Claire Burrows is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in all four corners of the UK