The Proceeds of Crime

The US and British governments have created a private prison industry which preys on human lives.

It's a staggering case; more staggering still that it has scarcely
been mentioned on this side of the ocean. Last week two judges in
Pennsylvania were convicted of jailing some 2,000 children in exchange
for bribes from private prison companies.

Mark Ciavarella and
Michael Conahan sent children to jail for offences so trivial that some
of them weren't even crimes. A 15-year-old called Hillary Transue got
three months for creating a spoof web page ridiculing her school's
assistant principal. Ciavarella sent Shane Bly, then 13, to boot camp
for trespassing in a vacant building. He gave a 14-year-old, Jamie
Quinn, 11 months in prison for slapping a friend during an argument,
after the friend slapped her. The judges were paid $2.6m by companies
belonging to the Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp for helping to fill
its jails. This is what happens when public services are run for profit.

an extreme example, but it hints at the wider consequences of the trade
in human lives created by private prisons. In the US and the UK they
have a powerful incentive to ensure that the number of prisoners keeps

The US is more corrupt than the UK, but it is also more
transparent. There the lobbyists demanding and receiving changes to
judicial policy might be exposed, and corrupt officials identified and
prosecuted. The UK, with a strong tradition of official secrecy and a
weak tradition of scrutiny and investigative journalism, has no such

The corrupt judges were paid by the private prisons
not only to increase the number of child convicts but also to shut down
a competing prison run by the public sector. Taking bribes to bang up
kids might be novel; shutting public facilities to help private
companies happens - on both sides of the water - all the time.

Wall Street Journal has shown how, as a result of lobbying by the
operators, private jails in Mississippi and California are being paid
for non- existent prisoners. The prison corporations have been
guaranteed a certain number of inmates. If the courts fail to produce
enough convicts, they get their money anyway. This outrages taxpayers
in both states, which have cut essential public services to raise these
funds. But there is a simple means of resolving this problem: you
replace ghost inmates with real ones. As the Journal, seldom associated
with raging anti-capitalism, observes: "Prison expansion [has] spawned
a new set of vested interests with stakes in keeping prisons full and
in building more ... The result has been a financial and political
bazaar, with convicts in stripes as the prize."

Even as crime
declines, lawmakers are pressed by their sponsors to increase the rate
of imprisonment. The US has, by a very long way, the world's highest
proportion of people behind bars: 756 prisoners per 100,000 people,
just over 1% of the adult population. Similarly wealthy countries have
around one-tenth of this rate of imprisonment.

Like most of its
really bad ideas, the last Conservative government imported private
jails from the US. As Stephen Nathan, author of a forthcoming book
about prison privatisation in the UK, has shown, the notion was
promoted by the home affairs select committee, which in 1986 visited
prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). When the
corporation told them that private provision in the US improved prison
standards and delivered good value for money, the committee members
failed to check its claims. They recommended that the government should
put the construction and management of prisons out to tender "as an

Encouraged by the committee's report, the CCA set
up a consortium in Britain with two Conservative party donors, Sir
Robert McAlpine Ltd and John Mowlem & Co, to promote privately
financed prisons over here. The first privately run prison in the UK,
Wolds, was opened by the Danish security company Group 4 in 1992. In
1993, before it had had a chance to evaluate this experiment, the
government announced that all new prisons would be built and run by
private companies.

The Labour party, then in opposition, was
outraged. John Prescott promised that "Labour will take back private
prisons into public ownership - it is the only safe way forward." Jack
Straw stated that "it is not appropriate for people to profit out of
incarceration. This is surely one area where a free market certainly
does not exist." He too promised to "bring these prisons into proper
public control and run them directly as public services".

during his first seven weeks in office, Straw renewed one private
prison contract and launched two new ones. A year later he announced
that all new prisons in England and Wales would be built and run by
private companies, under the private finance initiative (PFI). Today
the UK has a higher proportion of prisoners in private institutions
than the US. This is the only country in Europe whose jails are run on
this model.

So has prison privatisation here influenced
judicial policy? As we discovered during the recent lobbying scandal in
the House of Lords, there's no way of knowing. Unlike civilised
nations, the UK has no register of lobbyists; we are not even entitled
to know which lobbyists ministers have met. But there are some clues.

former home secretary, John Reid, previously in charge of prison
provision, has become a consultant to the private prison operator G4S.
The government is intending to commission a series of massive Titan
jails under PFI. Most experts on prisons expect them to be disastrous,
taking inmates further away from their families (which reduces the
chances of rehabilitation) and creating vast warrens in which all the
social diseases of imprisonment will fester. Only two groups want them
built: ministers and the prison companies - they offer excellent
opportunities to rack up profits. And the very nature of PFI, which
commits the government to paying for services for 25 or 30 years -
whether or not they are still required - creates a major incentive to
ensure that prison numbers don't fall. The beast must be fed.

there's another line of possible evidence. In the two countries whose
economies most resemble the UK's - Germany and France - the prison
population has risen quite slowly. France has 96 inmates per 100,000
people, an increase of 14% since 1992. Germany has 89 prisoners per
100,000 - 25% more than in 1992 but 9% less than in 2001. But the UK
now locks up 151 out of every 100,000 inhabitants: 73% more than in
1992 and 20% more than in 2001. Yes, our politicians have barely come
down from the trees, yes we are still governed out of the offices of
the Daily Mail, but it would be foolish to dismiss the likely influence
of the private prison industry.

This revolting trade in human
lives creates a permanent incentive to lock people up: not because
prison works, not because it makes us safer, but because it makes
money. Privatisation appears to have locked this country into mass

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