Grayling's privatisation system comes apart at the seams

Cashing out: A4e cancels contract with for London prisons
Cashing out: A4e cancels contract with for London prisons
Ian Dunt By

One day, two more failures of privatisation in the prison system. Yesterday, the prison inspector's report on Doncaster prison, which is run by Serco under a 'payment by results' system, found levels of violence were four times above the norm. Then A4e announced it was scrapping its contract to provide education in London prisons. Both provide telling examples of how the profit motive fails to provide effective services in criminal justice.

It's difficult to know exactly what has gone wrong because so much information is kept away from prying eyes. And that doesn't just apply to the press or the public. Even ministers are not entitled to scrutinise private provision of public services. Justice minister Simon Hughes admitted last month he couldn't visit women's rehabilitation centres because to visit one and not all of them would open up the Ministry of Justice to judicial review after the work is contracted out.

So what do we know? We know the prison service management's assessment rated 28 prisons 'of concern'. Six of them, including Doncaster, were upgraded to avoid falling into the 'of serious concern' category. But we don't know why.

Similarly, we know A4e said it was terminating its provision of the contract because it was going to make a loss, but it provided no further information about the "extremely challenging" issues in delivering the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) or the "number of constraints" which had "a heavy impact on learner attendance, completion and achievements". The firm is paid by how much education it provides. The implication seems to be that prisoners were not able to get to its services within the prison.


In all likelihood - and in the absence of information from the Ministry of Justice - we might conclude that the savage reduction in staff numbers and relentless increase in prisoner numbers have made education provision all but impossible. There just aren't enough staff to take prisoners from their cells to activities – be it education or the library or work.

Neville Thurlbeck, the former News of the World journalist who just got out of prison for phone-hacking, describes spending 22 to 24 hours of the day locked up in an eight foot by ten foot cell with Andy Coulson. He said:

"I don't wish to complain in the slightest, because it's what I expected a British prison to look like. I can disabuse anybody of the notion that it's a holiday camp. There are interminable hours of boredom and pain. The beds are made of what I can only describe as giant pencil rubbers and over time your hips and shoulders and elbows start to ache. It is pretty grim."

The men got an average of half an hour's exercise a day, but twice during their stay they went 41 hours without any break.

According to Rod Clark, chief executive of the Prison Education Trust:

"The A4e announcement shows just how tough it is delivering services in England's jails. The delivery of education for prisoners across the country is being seriously affected by overcrowding and staff shortages which are leaving people locked up for longer, so they can't get to class and providers struggle to meet their targets. These pressures are having a negative impact on safety and rehabilitation, as highlighted only yesterday by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. It may be that this latest decision by A4e to stop working in London's prisons is a result of these problems."

We may not know why these problems are happening, but we have some impression of what the results are. The tutors who dedicate themselves to trying to improve the lives of prisoners have been cut adrift, two years after having to switch contract when A4e took over. When the University College Union (UCU) did a study into prison tutors in February, it found a third dismissed the idea it was a fulfilling career. Half said they'd be looking for a new job in the next 12 months.

"The findings point towards a workforce whose terms of employment have become increasingly casualised, who are given very little recognition of their experience, and little opportunity to use their judgement independently, and whose views are not consulted by those who manage them," the report found. Contracts didn't offer job security, pay was usually at the lower end of the scale, there were concerns that prisons didn't have access to training, there were insufficient resources for them to teach appropriately, they were bullied by managers and there was insufficient staff to deliver a proper learning experience.

Private firms push down wages and make contractual arrangements with staff 'flexible' in a bid to reduce costs. Then the prison service overcrowds prisons and cuts officer numbers, making it impossible for those staff that do remain to deliver decent teaching.

As Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says:

"It's difficult to know precisely why A4e finds itself running this contract at a loss but it is clear that prisoners are spending more and more time locked down in overcrowded cells in understaffed prisons. Wasting time rather than doing time is a far cry from the rehabilitation revolution. Withdrawal of prison education calls into question both this government's capacity to award contracts for delivery of essential services and its commitment to rehabilitation. Our prisons are being reduced to warehouses – nothing more."

In Doncaster, the situation is even more severe. The word 'violence' appears 22 times in the unannounced prison inspector's report. "Level of assaults and fights was very high," the report found. "The management of violence was arbitrary and not well focused. Support for victims was poor."

The use of Chris Grayling's draconian "right-wing solutions" clearly plays a role. Many of the prisoners at risk of self-harm were on basic – a tough, humiliating and depersonalising punishment regime – or in solitary confinement.

Staff are overwhelmed and lack control. A wing was damaged by fire during a recent riot. "On the wing where a disturbance had taken place immediately before the inspection, prisoners were located in damaged cells," the report found. "Staff and prisoners told us that some prisoners had been locked in cells with no running water or electricity for more than two days." One man had not received essential heart medication for ten days.

The prison, which is designed for 738 prisoners, is holding 1,132. Staff numbers have been cut by ten per cent over three years. Prisoners are kept in their cells for about 22 hours a day.

As Frances Crook, chief executive of the Hoard League, says:

"Serco's board should be made to explain why this violent, filthy, drug-infested prison is failing so miserably. Still at the centre of a major fraud investigation for its role in the tagging scandal, Serco has once again shown itself to be very good at winning contracts and very bad at delivering them. This disastrous report is the final straw. Doncaster should no longer be left in the hands of a multinational which puts shareholders' interests before public safety."

The recent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman report into suicide behind bars fleshes out the details. "Suicide risk assessments and monitoring arrangements were poor," it found. Many young adults were distressed to find themselves in crowded accommodation and then often segregated. "Concerns expressed by families were not acted upon by staff," it found.

At the best of times, the privatisation drive under Labour and the Tories delivered poor results. It is a false economy – encouraging private firms to hammer down costs just creates problems for the future as convicts are thrown back on the street without any real effort at rehabilitation. In many cases they are hardened by the abusive environment in which they have been kept. Soon enough, they commit a crime again and are thrown back into prison, at enormous taxpayer expense.

The profit motive simply does not suit a complex and expensive policy area like prison and rehabilitation. The 'customers' are by definition against participation. They often have the reading and numerical skills of a child, a host of mental health problems and a track record of offending. Rehabilitating them, in or out of prison, is not a cheap process. Firms either cut corners by reducing costs, hiring cheap and inexperienced staff and failing to invest in infrastructure – or they just cancel the contract, as A4e has done.

But these are not the best of times. They are awful. Staff numbers have dwindled under austerity cuts, but prisoner numbers continue to skyrocket as a tough-on-crime justice secretary stuffs ever more men and women into a system which long ago reached its limit.

Every day brings more evidence of chaos in the prison system. It is a perfect storm of incompetence, foolhardiness and ignorance. And there is no sign anyone wishes to change course. Precisely the opposite:Grayling is currently trying to make the contracts on privatised probation so lengthy that Labour will not be able to reverse them if it comes to power. Instead of changing course, he is ensuring we will continue to experience this disaster long into the future.

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Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said:

"Doncaster has developed high quality training and resettlement programmes for short term offenders - which have been successful in cutting rates of reoffending. This is a significant achievement. But at the time of this inspection other aspects of performance in the prison had dropped below the standards we expect. Serco took immediate action in response to the inspection findings - strengthening the management team; prioritising safety and implementing a comprehensive improvement programme. I am confident that these actions have addressed the concerns identified by HMCIP but we will monitor progress closely to ensure the prison is able to deliver its regime safely and securely."

Wyn Jones, Serco’s director of custodial pperations, said:

"Serco has a strong track record of prison management in the UK and abroad and we are proud of what has been achieved at HMP & YOI Doncaster over the past 20 years.  However the prison has recently faced a number of significant challenges and has sometimes struggled to cope with some of these. We fully accept the recommendations that are made in this in this HMCIP report and we have already launched a major improvement programme.  We are absolutely determined that Doncaster will once more become a prison of which everyone can be proud."

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