On August 20th 2018, news broke in the UK that the Ministry of Justice was taking the unprecedented step to take control of Birmingham prison from British-owned multinational security contractor G4S, seven years into its fifteen year contract, following a damning report into conditions at the prison.
Birmingham prison is 1 of 5 prisons run by the infamous security group, and 1 of the 15% of prisons run by private companies in the UK, with contracts totalling nearly £4bn. The report and failures that led to the decision to pull the contract, is the most recent in a long line of failings that are coming to the fore after years of de-nationalisation and privatization of public services. From social services, rehab centres, probation services, overground and underground transport systems, the national health services, immigration services, even railway arches; no service or space has been safe from the threat or very real selling of public services in the past 3 decades.
Over the last 30 years, the prison population in England and Wales has increased by nearly 85% to 85,000 in 2018 – the highest number of people in prison in western Europe. The sharp upward surge coincides with a sharp increase in the severity of criminal sentences across the board. And not so coincidentally, the increases followed soon after the option to privatize prisons became law. The number of women in prison has doubled since 1995. Many of these women are from marginalized or vulnerable communities – 46% of whom reported being survivors of domestic violence and 31% of whom reported spending time in local authority (local government) care as a child. A quarter of the prison population are from minority ethnic groups (compared to 14% of the general population) and the number of black prisoners is 4 times higher than within the general population.
The structural racism, inequalities, and focus on profit that has driven and upheld the increased privatization of services, increased criminalization, harsher sentencing, higher penalties, longer custody, and increased imprisonment in the UK, and the impact this has on individuals, families, communities, women, people of colour, migrants, asylum seekers, LGBTQI+ communities, as well as the economy and the environment, is unfathomable.
In the UK, as in many countries in the Global North whose governments are pro-privatization and corporate power, we witness the many ways in which these systems are set up for the sole purpose of profit.
In England, 41% of the 1,760 children’s homes are owned and run by 43 private companies, including up until 2017 when G4S sold 18 children’s homes for more than £11 million.
Statistics on the criminalization of children and adolescents in care in England and Wales are staggering. As outlined by the Howard League for Penal Reform (2017), children living in children’s homes in England and Wales are 13 times more likely to be criminalised than other children. According to Department of Education statistics from 2016, 4% of children in care homes aged 10-12 have been criminalised, up to 19% of children in care homes aged 13-15 have been criminalised, and are 20 times more likely to be criminalised than children that are not ‘looked after’ (children in care).
What is considered by private companies to be ‘market demand’ for children who need care, including many of the 200,000 children who have a parent or parents in prison in England and Wales, is being filled by profit-driven private companies. These companies fail to provide adequate care for looked-after children, resorting to criminalization for minor issues and actions, that increases the risk of children being criminalized as adults. These same private companies are claiming to meet ‘market demand’ for prisons, and failing to uphold the human rights of prisoners and provide adequate conditions.
The cycle is clear; profit from criminalization from privatized children’s care homes to privatized prisons, is endlessly feeding more profit in the UK.