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Detention Profiteers

one of noborders | 11.09.2007 12:24 | No Border Camp 2007 | Globalisation | Migration | Birmingham

The UK has Europe's most privatised criminal justice system. It is second only to the United States in terms of the number of private prisons, which currently hold around 10% of the prisoner population. In addition to private prisons, the country has privately operated 'secure training centres' for young offenders, prisoner escort services, electronic monitoring programmes, a wide range of non-custodial services in publicly run prisons, as well as privately financed, built and operated court complexes, police complexes and probation hostels. In short, the UK currently represents the second-largest private prison market in the world. And immigration prisons are no exception.. except that they are not called prisons any more.

"It is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration. This is surely one area where a free market certainly does not exist." - Jack Straw, then Shadow Home Secretary, March 1995

"If there are contracts in the pipeline and the only way of getting the [new prison] accommodation in place very quickly is by signing those contracts, then I will sign those contracts." - Jack Straw, now Home Secretary, May 1997

"As a citizen, I would not like to see that many people locked up. But as we're in the business, I'd like to play our part in this." - A director of Premier Prison Services, 2001

Some history

Unsurprisingly, the move towards privatising UK prisons began in the late 1980s under the Thatcherite government, whose political ideology centred around reducing the role of the state in delivering public services. Certain influential people and institutions played a big role in this. One of them was undoubtedly Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a key think-tank of the 'New Right'. In 1984, ASI suggested that the UK should privatise the building and running of prisons arguing that this "would overcome both the spiralling costs of the prison system and the shortage of places by using innovative managerial and technological methods and by concentrating resources on capital investment rather than increased labour costs."

In 1988, the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee, under the chairmanship of Conservative MP Sir Edward Gardner (who was soon to become the Chief Executive of a new company, Contract Prisons, that was formed to exploit new opportunities in the sector), made a number of high-profile visits to private prison facilities in the United States, several of which were operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The issue of private prisons dominated the subsequent discussions of the Committee, whose members included John Wheeler MP. Wheeler was also Director General of the British Security Industry Association, whose members included Group 4 and Securicor, both of which subsequently won prison contracts.

According to a 1989 article in The Guardian, the "private prison network" came together on September 15, 1988, at a dinner for more than 150 people, given by the conservative Carlton Club's political committee. "All the various players were there," the article by D. Rose read: "representatives of the ASI and other right wing policy units, civil servants, John Wheeler and his colleagues, architects and people from the consortia ... a mood of satisfied expectation was beginning to emerge."

So, following a tendering process, in which the public sector was barred from participating, the Prison Service invited private companies in 1990 to bid for contracts to manage prisons. In 1991 a European company, Group 4, was awarded the first ever UK private prison contract to manage HMP Wolds in Yorkshire. The newly constructed 320-bed prison for unsentenced male prisoners had previously been earmarked for public management. Wolds opened on 6 April, 1992, but even before the 'experimental prison' had taken its first prisoners, the government had made plans to contract out the management of two more facilities which would hold sentenced prisoners. Project Quantum, as the Prison Service then labelled the scheme, was the largest ever transfer of Prison Service jobs to the private sector, affecting 130 prisons and Prison Service headquarters in England and Wales and threatening 2,510 jobs.

The Criminal Justice Act 1991 contained a provision allowing the management of any prison, not just remand centres, to be contracted out to any agency the Home Secretary considered appropriate. On 3 February, 1993, as if to signal the government's long term intentions, the application of the 1991 Act was extended from new prisons to existing facilities as well. The much-talked-about "step-by-step strategy" was ignored even though there were indicators that all was not well at Wolds, the so-called experiment.

Neither a damning report by the Prison Reform Trust on Wolds in April 1993 nor critical reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the National Audit Office managed to get in the way of the government's announcement in 1993 that all new prisons would be privately built and operated. By 1994, two further private prisons had been opened: Blakenhurst in Redditch, the West Midlands, which was awarded to UK Detention Services (UKDS), and Doncaster in north England, which was awarded to Premier Prison Services. Shortly after winning the contract for Wolds, Group 4 also won a contract to run Campsfield Detention Centre in Oxfordshire, the first in a series of privately run immigration detention centres.

Since then, prison privatisation has continued to expand and has actually gained extra momentum, despite all expectations to the contrary, with the election of a Labour government in 1997. During the election campaign, various Labour officials pronounced, very clearly, that prison management would return to the public sector if they won. In 1995, Jack Straw, then Shadow Home Secretary, stated that "It is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration. This is surely one area where a free market does not exist" and "... at the expiry of their contracts a Labour government will bring these prisons into proper public control and run them directly as public services." However, within days of taking office as a Home Secretary, in a "U-turn sharp enough to make a teenage joy rider proud," as one commentator then described it, he sanctioned two new private finance prison deals. On 8 May, 1997, seven days after the general elections, he said "If there are contracts in the pipeline and the only way of getting the [new prison] accommodation in place very quickly is by signing those contracts, then I will sign those contracts." In a speech to the Prison Officers Association's annual conference on 19 May, 1998, Mr Straw revealed that he had reviewed the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee and decided that all new prisons in England and Wales would both be privately built and privately run. This included architectural planning, building, furbishing, raising capital and prison operations.

Central to the Conservative government's long-term strategy of privatisation was the implementation of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which was launched in November 1992 to "encourage each government department to explore actively the scope for private finance in future planning." The PFI is a financial mechanism to obtain private finance which could satisfy the political need to increase investment in infrastructure without affecting public borrowing, guaranteeing large contracts for construction companies and new investment opportunities for finance capital. The current Labour government's commitment to privatisation is evident from its unswerving commitment to the PFI throughout the services sector, from schools and hospitals to prisons and detention centres.

Private immigration prisons

Private interest in immigration detention has been evident since the beginning of the prison privatisation movement. But while the UK government had contracted Securicor in August 1970 to run two small immigration detention facilities at Heathrow and Manchester airports, it was in the US that the private sector was contracted to run immigration detention centres on a much larger scale. Today's private prison industry had its beginnings in 1980 in Nashville, Tennessee, at a campaign fundraiser for Presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan. The Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and the Corrections Commissioner of Virginia, along with his counterpart in Tennessee, set up what became the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Three years later, they won their first contract with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), an agency which, although occasionally turning to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, had no tradition of detaining 'illegal immigrants' itself (for more details, see this article for example).

In 1987, CCA formed a British company, UK Detention Services Ltd. (UKDS), as a joint venture with two long-established British construction companies, Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons Ltd. and John Mowlem & Co. Both of these companies were regular contributors to the then ruling Conservative Party. One of UKDS's stated aims was "lobbying the government to implement prison privatisation." In a memorandum signed on 19 January, 1988, the parties agreed to "promote the private design, financing, construction and management by private contractors of prisons and remand facilities in the United Kingdom (including the acquisition of land and/or other property in connection therewith)."

Securicor and Group 4 Securitas also set up subsidiaries specializing in the provision of detention services, in response to a government decision in 1993 (?) to contract out selected prison services. It is significant that the number of detention places available began to increase sharply at the same time as private corporations were beginning to win lucrative contracts in the prison sector.

Like the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 clearly stated that "the Secretary of State [for the Home Department] may enter into a contract with another person for the provision or running (or the provision and running) by him, or (if the contract so provides) for the running by sub-contractors of his, of any detention centre or part of a detention centre." Report after report, various government bodies and mainstream media documented the "degrading", "over-crowded" and "badly run" detention centres, effectively justifying the drive to both build new detention centres and do so using private money.

Seven of the UK's current 10 immigration detention centres are now run by private contractors. And like with other prisons and prison services, it is only a handful of global corporations competing for contracts: Group 4 Falck, Wackenhut (now GEO), Serco, Sodexho and Securicor. What actually exists is a complicated and ever-changing set of intertwined relationships. The long list of aliases and subsidiaries used by these companies, as well as the perpetual mergers, sell-outs, buy-backs and re-branding, which characterise the industry, make it extremely difficult to keep track of which company has a stake in which UK facility. Here is a classic example:

In 2002 Group 4 bought the Wackenhut Corporation and acquired a 57 per cent stake in Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC). As well as other international interests, WCC owned 50 per cent of Premier Prisons, the largest private prison operator in the UK. So Group 4 also acquired that stake. However, following a legal challenge, Serco, which owned the other 50 per cent of Premier, eventually won the right to sole ownership. Then, in 2003, WCC bought back the 57 per cent of the company that Group 4 had acquired. To add to the confusion, WCC recently changed its name to GEO Group Inc.

At the time of writing this article, three immigration detention centres were run by the Prison Service: Dover, Haslar and Lindholme. However, the Home Office announced on the 29 June, 2004, that it will transfer the management of Dover and Haslar from the Prison Service to the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA), while Lindholme prison will supposedly be phased out as soon as spaces become available in the BIA detention estate. The other seven are run and owned as follows:

Detention Centre



Campsfield House

GEO Group UK Ltd

GEO Group Inc.


Premier Detention Services Ltd

Serco Group plc


Premier Detention Services Ltd

Serco Group plc


Kalyx (formerly UKDS)

Sodexho UK


Global Solutions Ltd (GSL)

Englefield Capital and Electra Partners Europe

Tinsley House

Global Solutions Ltd (GSL)

Englefield Capital and Electra Partners Europe

Yarl's Wood

Premier Detention Services Ltd

Serco Group plc

  • See here for how these were back in April 2004.

to be continued..

This article is based on, among other sources, the following:

Prison Privatisation Report International: reports.

Christine Bacon. The Evolution of Immigration Detention in the UK: The Involvement of Private Prison Companies. Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper No. 27, September 2005. (pdf)

Stephen Nathan. Prison Privatisation in the United Kingdom. In Coyle, A., A. Campbell and R. Neufeld (eds) Capitalist Punishment: Prison Privatisation and Human Rights. London: Zed Books . 2003. (pdf)

Molenaar, B. and Neufeld, R. The Use of Privatised Detention Centres for Asylum Seekers in Australia and the UK. In A. Coyle, A. Campbell and R. Neufeld (eds) Capitalist Punishment: Prison Privatisation and Human Rights. London: Zed Books. 2002.

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