G4S : the first private company to open and run a prison in the UK

G4S prides itself as “the first private company to open and run a prison in the UK”.[1] The company’s involvement in the modern ‘prison industrial complex’ in Britain dates back to the ideologically driven privatisation of prisons by the Thatcher government.[2] Following a tendering process in which the public sector was barred from participating, the Prison Service invited private companies in 1990 to bid for contracts to manage prisons.

In 1991, Group 4 – as G4S was known then – was awarded the UK’s first-ever private prison contract to manage HMP Wolds in Yorkshire. The newly constructed 320-bed prison for unsentenced male prisoners, which opened in April 1992, had previously been earmarked for public management.[3] But even before the ‘experimental prison’ had taken its first prisoners, the government had made plans to contract out the management of two more prisons: Blakenhurst in Redditch and Doncaster in north England. By 2012, there were 14 private prisons in England and Wales, holding over 13 percent of the total prison population. All were run by thee multinational security companies: G4S, Serco and Sodexo.[4] G4S, through its subsidiary G4S Care & Justice, had the lion’s share, with six prisons under its management, including Wolds, Altcourse in Liverpool, Rye Hill in Warwickshire and Parc in South Wales.[5]

In October 2011, Birmingham prison became the first-ever prison in the UK to be transferred from public management to the private sector. The 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which allowed for the contracting out of prisons, had been extended in 1993 from new prisons to existing facilities back. G4S won the 15-year contract, worth £468.3 million.[6] The prison was one of four state prisons to be privatised and a further four were built and run by the private sector, in what has been described as the biggest wave of prison privatisation since the ’90s.

Among these was Oakwood prison, near Wolverhampton, which G4S won the contract for. Originally called Featherstone 2, due to its proximity to the already existing Featherstone prison, Oakwood was meant to be one of three giant ‘titan prisons’. However, following public outrage and opposition to titan prisons, Oakwood was downsized to hold 1,605 prisoners.[7]

In 2011, G4S got even closer to the dispensing of justice by the UK state with a contract with the Ministry of Justice to provide more than 150 maintenance, catering, cleaning, security and energy management services to over 340 court, tribunal and administration buildings across the Midlands, Wales and the North of England.

Through its subsidiary G4S Care & Justice, G4S also provides a range of prison-related ‘services’. The company is the world’s largest provider of electronic monitoring (tagging). According to its website, it monitors over 14,000 ‘subjects’ in England alone.[8]

Controversies

When the news that G4S was taking over Birmingham prison transpired, the Prison Officers Association (POA), the union representing 550 prison officers at the prison, threatened to take industrial action over the deal.[9] In response, the government threatened to use the military to “keep order” if prison officers went on strike over the G4S deal. Analysts at JP Morgan said the government’s “determined stance” was “good news for outsourcers”. “[Justice secretary] Clarke’s determination to use the military to push through privatisation is perhaps evidence of the government’s determination to take on public sector unions, which may be a positive sign for the outsourcing trend,” the analysts wrote in a note.[10]

The POA had also gone to the High Court to try and block the deal, citing ‘unfair advantage’ in the bidding process as a reason, because the former chief executive of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) is now employed by G4S as a consultant (see the staff section).[11] Since then, G4S’s “incompetent management” of the prison has been shrouded with controversy.[12]

Another controversial aspect of G4S’s involvement in the prison industrial complex is its exploitation of the cheap, captive labour of prisoners.[13] G4S has 400 prisoners working 40 hours a week in its six prisons,[14] being paid next to nothing. At Altcourse prison in Liverpool, G4S works with Norpro, an engineering firm that has converted three former metal workshops into a factory floor using 25 prisoners to produce high-quality office furniture “at an economic price”.[15] The enterprise has apparently been “so successful”, or so cheap, that work previously done in India has been brought back to the UK and done in the prison. At Wolds in East Yorkshire, a digital marketing company called Summit Media, which started inside the prison more than a decade ago, now has a turnover of £30 million.[16]

G4S has recently launched a PR campaign entitled “Working Prisons: Working People” to urge the UK business community to “open its mind to the growth opportunities from being involved in ‘working prisons’.”[17] One of the “benefits to business” listed by G4S is “a committed workforce and low overheads”: “We have a dedicated workforce with a variety of skills which can work around business’ needs with the minimum of bureaucracy.” G4S hopes that ‘working prisons’ will “become the norm” in the future.

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