Channel Four News, “Who Runs Your World” series – Prisons

Here is another of the recent short videos I did for the Channel Four news series – “Who Runs Your World”, all about public sector outsourcing. This one is about Prisons.

For all the fuss about private prisons, there are only 14 out of the 140 actually run by the private sector. And here’s a good example of why it is hard to have a rational debate about the subject of outsourcing. We start with a fact - private prisons have some 25% fewer staff per inmate than state run facilities.

Now the supporters of outsourcing says this proves private providers are better and more efficient managers. Those opposed to outsourcing say it is because private prisons lock inmates up for longer, and there are security risks inherent in the lower manning levels, which are profit-driven.  As a neutral, I wonder if it is because most privately run prisons are newly built under PFI – so perhaps there are ways of designing new prisons that makes them simply easier to run with fewer staff by design? We need rational and evidence-based analysis really rather than political point-scoring in this and other areas.

The next interesting step in private sector involvement in the criminal justice sector is applying  the concept of payment by results, now extensively used in the welfare to work arena. So pilot programmes are underway with service providers – often charities – working with prison management and prisoners to try and reduce re-offending rates. If the providers can do this, they will be rewarded in line with the outcomes.

In theory at least, that seems like an excellent idea, and similar concepts are being considered in the probation system as well – so this is another area where we are likely to see a growth in private and third sector involvement where previously the public sector dominated.

(I think when I recorded the video I also had a bit of a rant about the Police and the Surrey / West Midlands "partnership" outsourcing and forces like Cambridge talking about using the Lincolnshire G4S contract... Guess that got cut!)

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  1. Paul Sullivan:

    Aside from the philosophical point about private companies & shareholders making a profit out of prisoners (and, ergo, the victims of crime), Mr Smith misses a rather important point by looking at prisons only from a cost and profit view and that is the purpose of prisons – that is to assist prisoners from desisting from further crime and that is something which goes deeper than simple arithmetics and strikes to the core of the purpose of prisons. The efficacy of prisons was covered in a lecture: ‘Can Humans Flourish in Prison?’ – by Prof. Leibling, an academic and reseacher in the subject in May12 in which she covered the public/private issue in some depth. A transcript can be downloaded from the Miscellaneous section at Factsheets on the insde Time website – – and makes fascinatingg reading for anyone interested in the public/private debate.

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