Private Prisons

What are private prisons?

Since the early 1990s, British Governments have issued contracts to private firms for both the construction and the day-to-day running of prisons.

The privatisation of some prison services was pursued by the previous Government to cope with the problems of overcrowding in the UK's prisons and to spread the costs of interning offenders. The role of the private sector in the criminal justice system is now substantial, and shows no signs of abating.

HMP Altcourse was the first designed, constructed, managed and financed private prison in the UK, opening its doors to prisoners on 1st December 1997.

At present there are 14 private prisons contractually managed by private companies such as G4S Justice Services, Serco Custodial Services and Sodexo Justice Services. These are:

Altcourse (G4S), Ashfield (Serco), Birmingham (G4S), Bronzefield (Sodexo), Doncaster (Serco), Dovegate (Serco), Forest Bank (Sodexo), Lowdham Grange (Serco), Oakwood (G4S) Parc (G4S), Peterborough (Sodexo), Rye Hill (G4S), Thameside (Serco) and Wolds (G4S).


Britain's prison population has been growing for many years, exposing the insufficiency of the existing prisons estate.

The Conservative Government took the first steps toward privatising prisons in the early 1990s by issuing short-term contracts to security companies to operate a limited number of publicly owned prisons. At that time, private involvement was seen as intrinsically superior to traditional public provision, and ideology featured alongside cost as a motivating factor. However, two of the four initially contracted-out prisons, Buckley Hall and Blakenhurst, have since been returned to the Prison Service.

The Labour Government pursued the use of the private sector, following the recommendations of reports such as Lord Laming's into the management of the Prison Service and having monitored the use of private prisons in the US, pursued this agenda through the Private Finance Initiative.

These are so-called DCMF prisons: they are Designed, Constructed, Managed and Financed by the private sector. The contracts run for 25 years, after which the building becomes the property of the Prison Service.

Private prisons are subject to penalties for failure to meet performance targets set by the Government. Conversely, the Prison Service announced in December 2003 that Dartmoor and Liverpool prisons could be handed over to the private sector if they failed to hit performance targets within five years. In the event both stayed in the public sector.


Concerns have been expressed about the quality of service provided by private prisons, with a particular criticism that quality is being reduced to improve efficiency.

A June 2003 report by the National Audit Office expressed deep concern about a number of aspects of the service provided by PFI prisons. It pointed to a lack of experienced staff and a high staff turnover. As a result, it argued, the environment in private prisons is generally less safe than in publicly-run prisons, where prison officers on average have more experience.

The report also warned that the terms of the contracts under which private prisons were run had not been properly refined, and concerns had been expressed about the commercial confidentiality that surrounded the terms under which prisons were being run. Nonetheless, the report concluded on the whole that private sector involvement had benefited the Prison Service, through competition and through the experience of managing commercial PFI contracts.

There was also concern about the level of public grants provided to help with the running of these prisons, which some felt were being directed away from prison improvement. It had been claimed that there was a trend in private prisons to increase electronic surveillance of inmates in order to reduce staff numbers.

It is noteworthy, however, that many of the private prisons are among the best run in the system, according to reports from the Chief Inspector of Prisons. It is also questionable how else the government would be able to succeed in funding the construction of the prisons necessary to house the ever-increasing prison population. However, when the Government sought a private operator for the failing Brixton prison, not one potential bidder came forward.

Some also claimed that not only was the concept of prison care antithetical to the notion of commercial business but that it was morally inappropriate to profit from the punishment of offenders.

Nonetheless the Coalition government has confirmed that it intends to follow the policy of the previous Labour administration and continue to expand private involvement in the prisons estate. This policy is strongly opposed by the prison officers' union, the POA, which launched its 'Prisons are not for Profit' campaign in 2009 and has pledged to continue its campaign against private prisons. The union believes that private prisons tend to operate with lower staffing levels in order to maximise profit and that this inevitably leads to less security in prisons.

In a highly controversial move, HMP Birmingham was finally handed over to the private operator G4S in October 2011, following a lengthy process beset by delays. The decision was strongly criticised by the unions, as was the decision to allow private companies to run the two new build prisons, HMP Oakwood and HMP Thameside which opened in Spring 2012.

The G4S Olympics debacle, when the army had to step in and provide additional security staff, added to the concerns about the capability of private companies to run prisons safely.

In July 2012, The Howard League for Penal Reform published findings from a new Populus poll which showed that half of the public opposed privately run prisons and when G4S was mentioned specifically, that opposition was even more pronounced.


Findings from polling firm Populus revealed that half of the public oppose privately run prisons.

While just 37% describe themselves as comfortable with private prisons, 49% are uncomfortable, including 23% very uncomfortable. The gap is even wider amongst women (32% comfortable, 50% uncomfortable) and the electorally crucial over-65 age group (32% comfortable, 59% uncomfortable

When the specific example of G4S running a local prison is presented, just one in four (26%) describe themselves as comfortable with the idea and even fewer (23%) view the service as suitable for a payment by results approach.

Source: Howard League for Penal Reform; Populus poll – July 2012

There are currently 134 prisons in England and Wales (including three immigration removal centres that are operated by NOMS on behalf of UKBA).
The management of 14 of these are contracted to private sector partners and the rest are run by the public sector through Her Majesty's Prison Service.

Source: NOMS - 2012


"We maintain our long standing policy, that Government should not abdicate its responsibility for the removal of freedom from its citizens."


"Our measures will restore confidence in the criminal justice system, re-design prisons for the 21st century, and launch a sentencing and rehabilitation revolution.
"Prison and Rehabilitation Trusts and private sector prisons will be paid by results - with a premium awarded if the offender is not reconvicted within two years."

Conservative Party - 'Repair: plan for social reform'.

“It’s clear that the public understands the dangers of putting such a key service as the prison system into the hands of unaccountable companies, who are driven by cutting costs rather than cutting crime.

"The scandal of the Army having to step in to provide security at the Olympics after private firm G4S failed to do its job proves yet again that when private firms underperform, the public pays through the nose and safety is compromised. We shouldn’t be allowing the same thing in our prison system.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform; commenting on Populus poll showing half of the public opposed to private prisons – 2012


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.