Last night’s Channel 4 news featured a piece on Birmingham prison, which has just been taken back by the UK Prison Service, after being mismanaged by the World’s largest security firm, G4S. A number of things struck me about this report. Firstly, the appalling conditions described in the prison are hardly surprising, as G4S were well-known for their complicity in abuses in Israeli prisons. Although they have now pulled out of prisons in Israel, they still train Israeli police and are thusly still involved in the occupation.
So no, the prison abuses and conditions were not the surprising part. What struck first was the language used by Prisons Minister Rory Stewart in the piece. On Friday, he had spoken about conditions in ten UK prisons, but neglected to mention Birmingham prison. When grilled on this, he spoke of not wanting to affect G4S’s share price. So, the needs of the private company took precedence over the statement on prison reform. G4S’s stock did fall a little yesterday, but had already been comparatively low this month before the news yesterday.
The privatisation of prisons has begun to seep into the UK, as it has in all aspects of life under neo-liberalism. In the US, private prisons already incarcerate 8.5% of the total prison population, and the number in private prisons has risen by 47% since 2000. This is a frightening statistic. As private companies operate on generating profit for shareholders, the number of customers must remain high. Customers in this case are of course prisoners. Therefore, there is an incentive to keep the prison population high. The US already has, by far, the highest number of prisoners in the World. The private companies, as well as state and federal prisons, are further motivated to keep the prison population high because of the course of cheap labour it provides. More prisoners working for $0.09 an hour means fewer people employed on the outside on a higher wage. Win-win for big business.
This has seen incarcerations for increasingly petty offences, and no doubt plenty of false convictions. The words ‘Birmingham’ and ‘prison’ should sound alarm bells for anyone Irish. We all know the history there. Thankfully we don’t have private prisons in Ireland, even though we can be sent to prison for not paying a TV licence, while corrupt bankers that were complicit in destroying the country walk free.
So, unless you are rich and white, watch your back. You might become a client of a private security company, and a source of slave labour. With Fine Gael at the helm here, and their partners in crime Fianna Fáil waiting in the wings, privatisation is only a matter of time.