Privatised Prisons: It’s ‘Easier to Get Drugs Than Soap’

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An unannounced inspection of HMP Oakwood has revealed grave concerns about the ability of private provider G4S’ ability to run a prison.  The report’s litany of faults at the facility can be summed up by the reports of several prisoners that ‘we can get drugs here, but we can’t get soap!’

With G4S taking an ever increasing bite out of our public services, are we really going to tolerate yet more poor performance?

Not so Mighty Oakwood

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The state of the art HMP Oakwood facility was opened in April 2012 and can hold up to 1,600 prisoners.  The G4S website for the prison claims “At HMP Oakwood we aim to inspire, motivate and guide prisoners to become the best they can be. We offer state of the art facilities, full time employment, programmes and access to Physical Health and Wellbeing initiatives.”

On the very first visit by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons however, HMP Oakwood was found sadly lacking in all areas except the shiny new building.  The main issues the report find include:

  • High drug usage and poor management of drug supply and demand
  • Health provision “very poor” and “chaotic” management of medication
  • Standards of teaching were poor
  • Too many prisoners felt unsafe and levels of violence and victimisation were high
  • Levels of self-harm were also high
  • Frustration common among inmates who said they routinely resorted to the complaints system to address issues
  • The care needs of some prisoners with disabilities were not met
  • Access to basic cleaning and toiletry items was poor, with one obese inmate saying he had insufficient clothing to enable him to leave his cell during association time
  • Amount of time spent out of cells was good for employed inmates, but not for those unemployed
  • Prison staff were often inexperienced and failed to deal with poor behaviour in an attempt to avoid confrontation
  • Inspectors said staff were sometimes “passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion”
  • the prison urgently needed to decide how it was going to address the offending behaviour risks of its near 300 sex offenders.

HMP Oakwood is one of five G4S ‘Working Prisons’ in England which utilise underpaid prisoner labour for big business.  Inmates earn as little as £10 for working a 40 hour week, £237.60 less expensive than employing someone on the minimum wage. Given that poverty and crime are so interconnected – we face the event of people losing their jobs, turning to crime to survive and being incarcerated, only to perform the same job for next to nothing as a prison worker.

HMP Oakwood demonstrates the private sector’s focus to turn prisoners into profit making resources, rather than protect their safety and rehabilitate them into society.  But while private providers such as G4S repeatedly fail to perform, such failure is rewarded with an ever greater slice of our justice system.

G4S-Run Public Services – Overpriced and Prone to Catastrophe

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G4S currently enjoys more than £1bn in contracts with the UK government. The Ministry of Justice, the Department of Work and Pensions, The Department of Health, the Department of Education, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office all contract out services to G4S.

The case for outsourcing these services to G4S always follows the same logic – efficiency, modernisation, higher quality services at a lower cost. Yet this is rarely, if ever, what the tax payer actually gets once the ink has dried on the contracts.

The Olympics

G4S won the £284m contract to secure the Games in March 2011. Later, the government was forced to call in the armed forces to secure the London 2012 games after G4S announced a huge shortfall in their required staff numbers just weeks before the event.

The Death of Jimmy Mubenga

G4S146 year old Jimmy Mubenga (pictured) was deported by G4S guards in October 2011, yet before the plane even left the tarmac at Heathrow – Mubenga was dead.

Twenty one passengers and crew on the plane report hearing Mubenga repeatedly cry for help and that he could not breathe while several G4S guards applied aggressive methods of restraint – including pressing his head down below the level of tray on the back of the seat opposite for 10 minutes; known to carry a risk of asphyxia. Paramedics were called after Mubenga stopped breathing, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Stuart Tribelnig, the Senior Detainee Custody Officer in charge of Mubenga’s deportation is a former heavy goods driver. He became a deportation custody officer for G4S after a four-week training course in 2007. He was in charge of the other G4S security guards during Mubenga’s deportation. Whilst on trial this week he was made to read out a string of racist jokes that he had texted to fellow G4S deportation guards.

This is just the tip of the iceberg – the independent report into G4S border security guards makes shocking reading. The Home Office response to these issues was to castigate the doctors and lawyers who had brought the allegations to light, accusing them of “seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors”.

In August this year, the corner overseeing the inquest into Mr Mubenga’s death issued a damning report highlighting the following concerns:

• A system of payment that rewards guards if they can keep a detainee quiet until the aircraft takes off;

• Evidence of “pervasive racism” among G4S detention custody officers who were tasked with removing detainees;

• Fears that these racist attitudes – and “loutish, laddish behaviour … Inappropriate language, and peer pressure” – are still common among escort guards today;

• Lack of “scenario specific” training for those tasked with trying to restrain people on aircrafts;

• Evidence of the use of dangerous restraint techniques such as “carpet karaoke” where detainees’ heads are forced downwards to prevent them upsetting the passengers or causing the captain to abort the removal;

• and concern that many guards were not officially accredited to carry out removals – meaning they would have been acting illegally.

The Overcharging for Electronic Tagging

Earlier this year, The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) appointed external auditors to unravel exactly how much overcharging occurred, but estimated it to be in the millions.  MoJ spending on electronic tagging has soared from the original £107m contract offered to G4S to £700m (including Serco) in 2012. .

By September this year, both G4S and Serco had been referred to the Serious Fraud Office, to answer the case that they overcharged the taxpayer by £50m.

Slum Asylum Housing

In 2011, G4S were awarded a £620m contract by government to provide housing for asylum seekers. G4S subcontracted this out to a network of smaller firms, and the results were disastrous. A recent Parliamentary Inquiry found that the firms has repeatedly failed to provide housing fit for human habitation.

Activist researcher John Grayson, who has supported tenants suffering these dreadful conditions to hold their slum landlords to account said:

“G4S is one of the companies responsible for what shadow minister of Immigration Chris Bryant described as ‘hideous conditions’ in asylum housing. G4S subcontractors have been exposed meting out punishment by harassing women who speak out against these conditions…. (including) Landlords abusing and punishing their tenants”

In fact, almost every service that G4S has been given to run has ended up costing us more, measured in pounds sterling or human suffering. Yet the government is determined to hand over ever more of our most critical public services into their unworthy hands.

Despite this record of failure, G4S have since been allowed to tender for and awarded contract to provide Probation Services, to run Rape and Sexual Assault Referral Centres, and a host of other services.

Time to Break the Cycle

Protesters demonstrate in front of G4S's AGM, June 2013

Whether it’s profiteering from prison labour while abandoning pastoral care of prisoners, brutalising immigrants, fleecing the taxpayer with fraudulent charges or seeking to profit from rape – there appears no depth to which the private sector will plummet.  Meanwhile, successive UK governments have continued the programme of privatisation, in spite of the mountain of evidence that such moves result in a higher financial, human and social cost.  Why? The only answer can be corruption.  Personal and political corruption that creates a dangerous cycle of personal and political reward for doing the wrong thing.  So, this is not a situation that is going to change without intervention.  And that intervention needs to come from the people paying the price.  Us.

Don’t get angry, get involved!

Sign the petition to stop the privatisation of the Probation Service

Join the Stop G4S campaign, and be part of direct actions and campaigns against the firm

Some interesting reading on Rethinking Crime and Punishment – how can we reimagine our approach to dealing with both?

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