Saturday, 10 March 2012

Privatisation - Business out of Badness

I saw this article on the use of private contractors in policing. It throws up a lot of the usual arguments about the use of the private sector in the criminal enforcement arena. I thought I’d use this space to outline what those usual arguments are, and where they come from.

The article is about some police forces doing deals with private security companies (here, G4S, who, I reckon, deserve a post to themselves). It is novel to have private companies doing policing work. (Although, it is arguable how much policing work is involved in this particular story.) However, privately run prisons are no longer baby-faced.
Currently, there are 11 private prisons in the UK holding about 10% of UK prisoners. They are run and staffed by private companies, like G4S, under supervision by state bodies. Given the impact they’ve had, what are the academic arguments about private prisons?

Private prisons are unjust. Part of the social contract is that the state and the state alone has a monopoly on force. (Radzinowicz)
You can’t blurt ‘unjust’ and ‘social contract’ and hope to win an argument. The fact is, private contractors are used in prisons all the time. You think the state runs cleaning agencies?
You know that’s different. These are prison guards!
No, it’s not different. Once we’ve decided what’s going to happen to Alex, it doesn’t matter whether the guy who turns the key works for the state, or for G4S. (Logan)
Ah! But that’s the thing. The guy who turns the key is sometimes the decision maker. Discipline is kind of a big deal in prisons. We don’t want disciplinary bodies staffed by non-State workers. (Moyle)
Why not?
Lots of reasons. For one, private companies have their obligations to their shareholders. We wouldn’t want any decision about an individual to be taken because it is in some way profit-maximising.
What do you mean?
Private prisons only make money if there are people in prisons – you wouldn’t open a hotel and try and get your customers to leave and never come back.
You don’t want prisoners to leave! They aren’t customers.
True, you don’t want them jumping fences. But do we not want to be reintegrated into society having been in some way ‘improved’ by being ‘inside’?
Maybe, but that’s idealistic.
We don’t want prisons to just be warehouses for people. Crikey, we’re not sure what we want prisons to do exactly, we can’t let shareholders decide. (see Crime and Punishment 2). 
Any other reasons?
Another issue is that of how prisoners see their own punishment. If we doubt the legitimacy of private prisons, what might prisoners think? Does it not undermine the whole point of censorious punishment, if the punished believe their punishment to be unjust? (drawn from Beetham)
They can believe what they like, we can’t make them think anything. Besides, private prisons are cheaper and more efficient.
I could dig a hole in the ground and build a prison cheaply. And running prisons cheaply can create problems, like the difficulties at Addiewell demonstrate. Staff numbers are too low, and those there are under-trained.
Is it not cheaper though?
It might be, but don’t forget, the private companies are making money; so it could be cheaper! For example, some prison operators refinance their operations once business risks have passed. The savings made don’t go to HMRC. (Genders and Player)
Could all of this not be sorted by better monitoring by the state?
Yes. But the better the monitoring, the less private it is.

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