Privatising justice is a slippery slope

Kahra Wayland-Larty reports on the European Detention and Custody Summit

By: 
Kahra Wayland-Larty
Date: 
Wednesday, 16 November, 2016

Yesterday, at the Tower of London, a multitude of private security firms and companies attended the European Detention and Custody Summit - a £1500 per head event, publicised as an opportunity to ‘make business connections’ and ‘forge lucrative partnerships and collaborations’ for companies in the business of incarceration.

Among those scheduled to attend was G4S, the private security firm known to most for failing on their contract to deliver security for the London 2012 Olympics. Fewer might know them for the 773 complaints, 48 of assault, made against their staff in the highly contentious Yarl’s Wood immigration detention and removal centre. Fewer still might know their three staff members who faced manslaughter charges after the death of Jimmy Mubenga when he was forcibly detained on a deportation flight, his last words, ‘I can’t breathe’.

In the end G4S pulled out of the summit, in what seemed like an attempt to legitimise, even whitewash, the event. But G4S or not, the guest list for this event, along with the leaked agenda, made clear that the organisers’ priorities were far from their spin of sharing best practice for care of detainees. Associates and previous sponsors of the event included Thales, one of the world’s biggest arms companies who also manage to profit from the suffering of migrants fleeing from war, as a provider of border security services at the port of Calais among others. Rafael, another previous sponsor, is an Israeli state-owned arms company, who produce ‘remote killing devices’ to kill people in Gaza. The whole ethos of this event flies in the face of a progressive, socially just vision of our justice system or immigration policy.

So, as delegates and staff entered the venue today, and as tourists and passers-by went about their day, we joined other human rights and penal reform groups to share one key message: profiting from pain is inhumane.

Whether it’s in our prisons or at our borders, the profits dished out to business executives and shareholders cannot be prioritised above the care and rights of detainees. Look at Yarl’s Wood detention centre - run by Serco and G4S, and labelled a ‘place of national concern’ after reports of abuse and failures in service delivery. The Home Office, then headed up by Theresa May, refused to reveal how many women detained in the centre were raped or sexually assaulted because it might damage the ‘commercial interests’ of those companies running the centre. The promotion of privatised interests in penal reform and border control is a slippery slope. People’s lives and freedom are not commodities. The control of our liberty can’t just be contracted out to the highest bidder. Just one look at the failures of G4S, or from Yarl’s Wood, tells a chilling story as to where this slippery slope might lead.

Aisha Dodwell, a migration campaigner at Global Justice Now said:

There’s such an ocean of human misery and suffering involved in militarised borders, detention centres and prisons, and it’s obscene that a private sector is not only making billions of pounds out of that misery, but actively looking for ways to expand its markets. The Tower of London is one of the UK’s most iconic cultural landmarks, and it’s disgraceful that it would allow itself to be associated with such disreputable arms companies and private security firms.

Tom Kemp of the Reclaim Justice Network said:

Despite the claims of the organisers, this summit is not about improving conditions for people in custody.  Security companies, prison builders are coming together to sell technologies that expand and privatise the criminal injustice system. This is not a penal reform event, this is a trade fair that promotes the interests of the industries of incarceration and border enforcement.  We want an immediate end to profiteering that contributes to the expansion of unjust systems of punishment and detention.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said:

As long as companies like G4S have a hand in policy events like this, the outcome can only be further criminalisation, repression and incarceration of migrants and other marginalised groups. The Tower of London cannot allow itself to be used as a prop to legitimise arms companies and those who profit from misery.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann from Right to Remain said:

Hiding behind the curtain of corporate confidentiality, these summits represent a fundamental threat to democracy and human rights. They network behind closed doors and against the public interest for arms traders, oil companies and today, the private security complex. It is deplorable that amidst the greatest refugee crisis since World War II these multi-billion pound companies present militarisation on our borders and incarceration within them as the solution when there are so many fair and just alternatives. And when state-sanctioned violence is outsourced to private corporations, creating a profit motive for punishment, the government thinks they can’t be held to account. They ‘see no evil, speak no evil’. Well, we see it; the families and communities torn apart, feel it; and we’re here to speak against it, because this isn’t the migrants’ crisis – it’s ours. It’s about taking responsibility for the kind of society we’re creating, and willing to live in.

The coalition of groups who organised the protest included: Reclaim Justice Network. SOAS Detainee Support. Campaign Against Arms Trade. The London Latinxs. Right to Remain. Brick Lane Debates. Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol). Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants. NUS Black Students’ Campaign. Stop the Arms Fair. Global Justice Now.


Kahra Wayland-Larty is Campaigns and Policy Assistant at Global Justice Now