Politics: The Shawshank Regression — Doing Time in Britain's "for Profit" Pokeys

Much is made of the United Kingdom’s liberal democratic pedigree, and consistent willingness to be one of the first countries in line to enact socially progressive measures.

While the UK’s reformist record on certain issues is perhaps worthy of mild commendation, revolutions are never truly finished. In many areas, there is still much work to be done - and in others, attempts to diminish, abrogate or even outright nullify progress are inversely ongoing. Efforts since the 1970s to privatise the NHS, disassemble Britain’s welfare infrastructure, destroy industry and outsource jobs are well known. A continuing battle to privatise the UK’s prison system is less talked about.


In 1992, HMP Wolds opened as a remand prison. Its inauguration was a mephitic milestone, making the United Kingdom the first country in Europe in the modern era to allow for the fully private design, construction, finance and management of prisons. Initially, private jails in the UK were intended to be a transitory panacea. The first few were erected at a time when a battered Exchequer didn’t have the funds necessary to finance the building of a new anything, and looked to an ephemeral embrace of Private Finance Initiatives as a solution. It was also a juncture when the incumbent Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was pursuing a calamitous policy dubbed ‘Prison Works’. The initiative made it easier than ever for offenders to be consigned to a jail cell, and resulted in the UK’s penitentiary population growing by 50 per cent in four years. Labour responded to these developments at the time by pledging to end the UK’s pestilential dependence on PFI, renationalise private prisons (then-Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw referred to them as “morally repugnant”) and be “tough on the causes of crime”, rather than merely punishing offenders.

There are now 14 privately run prisons on UK soil

Since then, of course, both New Labour and the Conservatives have worked tirelessly to transform PFI into an ineffaceable facet of the UK economy, every Home Secretary has adopted Michael Howard’s approach to criminal justice, and the number of people taking up residence in UK clinks has surged to record highs (resulting in a per capita prison population that is the highest in Western Europe). There are now 14 privately run prisons on UK soil too, offering bed and board to around 15 per cent of Britain’s inmate citizenry. New Labour also further entrenched the role of private business in the penal sector by introducing an internal market to the system (a curse that similarly blights the UK’s education, health and transportation provisions), meaning that prisons deemed consistently poorly managed can be offered up for tender by both the public and private sectors. In 2011, responsibility for HMP Birmingham was transferred on this basis - from public to private hands.


It would be a mistake, however, to misconstrue imprisonment for profit as a contemporary origination. The very foundation of criminal justice in the UK as we know it today was laid by unprincipled profiteers and unsparing entrepreneurs. The move to privatise Britain’s prisons is a counter-revolution, an attempt to drag slammers back to seventeenth century basics, originally done away with in the early nineteenth century. The historical record of this period is a bewilderingly depraved one, and serves as one of the most compelling counter-arguments against the efficacy of capitalism’s ingrained profit motive ever identified.


In the late 1600s, England’s penitentiaries served as depositories for individuals unable to pay taxes or debts, and were explicitly run on a for-profit basis. There was no state-mandated police force either, and the lack of a unified agency for bringing criminals to justice meant that the authorities relied on a network of approved bounty hunters and bondsmen to catch criminals on the run - again, on a for-profit basis. Prisons made money by charging inmates for everything and anything, from entering the premises in the first place to the food they were fed to the services (such as garment washing and bathing) they received. Even inhabiting a cell was categorised as renting space from gaolers, and came at a premium.

By the early eighteenth century, prisons had become big businessWardens delighted in fabricating ingenious means of extorting more money from the ill-starred characters caged within their establishments (an experience any Ryanair traveller will be thoroughly familiar with). In order to pay the exorbitant fees and fines necessary to leave, jailbirds were compulsorily reduced to serfdom - prisons would offer up their inmates’ services to private businesses at knock-down rates (not a penny of which would be seen by the convicts), and a number of women resorted to harlotry to pay their way out (some giving birth to numerous children along the way). The unlucky ones never managed to build up enough capital to escape.

By the early eighteenth century, prisons had become big business - but not big enough for the men who ran them. They thirsted for more product, and the best way to increase stocks was to bribe courts to find the innocent guilty, and punish the genuinely guilty harshly. Then, judges did not receive salaries, so they were thoroughly amenable to back room bungs and sweeteners; conversely, magistrates received a daily fee while they were in session, and were more than happy to try any case that came their way, no matter how flimsy – after all, the longer a trial continued, and the more cases they tried, the more money they made. On hand were a revolving cast of bogus witnesses who could be wheeled out to artificially extend trials, and convict the innocent by fabricating testimonies. An accused was expected to pay for his own defence too — innocent people often ended up pleading guilty, merely to truncate court proceedings and minimise personal costs.

Simultaneously, fears over rising crime rates led to one of the first nationwide government initiatives that offered financial incentives to the public for preventing crime, informing on crooks, and recovering stolen property. However, as the provision effectively monetised criminality, the measures had the inverse effect of maximising crime rates in the resultant gold rush. A cottage industry of professional crime stoppers emerged, their ranks largely comprised of figures drawn from the criminal underworld. Rather than scrupulously attempting to reduce crime, these specialists generally ran protection rackets (criminals would be offered effective immunity from prosecution in return for kickbacks), received commissions for the return of property they (or their confederates) had stolen in the first place, and prevented criminal activity that they had commissioned. Criminals quickly learnt that the best way to get away with crimes was to notify these vigilantes in advance and bribe them to keep quiet (undertakings that were not always adhered to), or to implicate innocent people for their crimes. The most ambitiously imaginative among their ranks constructed convoluted criminal conspiracies - organising crimes and profiting from the wrongdoing, before grassing up the perpetrators for the reward money. Felonious cartelised empires burgeoned, with groups of vigilantes banding together to optimise returns and monopolise the market; this also served to massively increase the number of subordinates that could be used as scapegoats, committing crimes on order from up high before getting shopped to the authorities. It was, in essence, capitalism unfettered.


This merry gravy train skittered to standstill in 1756, when Stephen MacDaniel (ringleader of one of the Britain’s largest crooked crime fighter enterprises) was busted for perjury; in the ensuing fracas, many other members of his piratical clan were also implicated, and the widespread Mephistophelian exploitation of the inducement scheme began to publicly unravel. The MacDaniel clan eventually managed to skirt hanging because magistrates and prosecutors they’d previously bribed treated them with kid gloves. There was a public outcry, and the ensuing din produced Britain’s first state-sanctioned, salaried police forces. Legislation enshrining fixed remuneration for judges was instituted, financial inducements for vigilantism were eventually jettisoned, and for-profit pokeys were outlawed (it has been estimated that this prohibition cut the UK’s prison population by almost half).

Prisons run by the private sector tended to perform far less well than their public equivalentsOne need only glance over the Atlantic to see such principles and practices alive today in what is allegedly the world’s freest country - in some US states, private firms conduct all of the responsibilities previously solely entrusted to governmental institutions, without much in the way of public oversight or accountability. Recently, Tory MPs and think tanks (such as Reform, dubbed “the country’s leading authority on public service reform” by Home Secretary Theresa May) have called for Britain to emulate the American criminal justice model. Their surging agitation to ape the Yankee approach is especially troubling given the findings of a 2003 examination of PFI prisons conducted by the National Audit Office. Investigators determined that prisons run by the private sector tended to perform far less well than their public equivalents on key issues, such as safety and security. Incidents of assault, theft and drug use were high, many prisoners expressed anxiety over their personal safety, and concerns were voiced regarding the experience of staff (or lack thereof). The NAO also concluded that private prison contractors had consistently sought to increase profits by cutting staffing budgets, decreasing employee pay and holiday time, reducing personnel and extending working hours - these measures sequentially leading to a high level of staff turnover and poor workplace morale.

If the elite get their way, a return to pre-Georgian judicial and corrective standards not only seems possible, but likely. It’s as if this generation’s political leaders have taken Evelyn Waugh’s complaint that “Conservatives never put the clock back a single second” as a personal challenge.

More about the author

About the author

Kit is a journalist who spearheads Disclaimer’s arts coverage.

He runs the Carbon Creative Arts gallery in Hastings, is an occasional writer for Counterfire and is a Trustee of Occupy Faith UK, having spent one cold winter camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

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