Home > Main Blog - General > The Free Market In Jail

The Free Market In Jail

John Harris’ recent post at the Guardian about the UK governments increasing use of outsourcing predicts that:

“by 2014, 25% of prisoners could be the responsibility of private firms”

Despite his rather shoddy efforts to pin the blame for this on Thatcher – rather than the current Labour regime – he does raise what I consider to be the most important point about this issue:

“The prospect of more private prisons underlines warnings that contracting-out will soon threaten control of policy.”

This should be a no brainier for anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of how business and politics works.  Privatising prisons sets up a feedback loop that leads to more prisoners – a loop that becomes increasingly difficult to break the longer it exists.  Even a 100% state run prison system is going to be resistant to the lowering of prisoner numbers (due to lobbying by employment unions and other factors) but add in large, politically well connected, outsourcing groups to the mix and the situation becomes absurd.

The US has a part privatised prison system and also the largest prison population in the world, it has some of the longest sentences for drug related crimes and a drug problem so big it requires military intervention in other sovereign nations.  Recently a US judge was jailed for taking kickbacks from a juvenile detention centre, considering that most of the kickbacks paid are legal (in the form of lobbying) this case is just the tip of the iceberg.

Harris invokes the author Philip K Dick in his article, so in that spirit here’s a sci-fi story of my own: The year is 2030, 75% of the UK prison system is run by private firms.  A majority of voters from every major political party favours the legalisation of cannabis.  Following the success of similar programs implemented across France, Germany and much of South America there is a growing social movement to deal with heroin users by simply providing them with heroin on the NHS and only jailing them if they commit other crimes.  Despite this there is no political will to implement the changes and no laws are passed.  Progressive pundits speculate this is due to every major political party receiving large amounts of funding from private prison companies.

Is this a paranoid dystopian vision? Yes – because when the penal system is being converted into a for profit business linked to large lobbying interests there is every reason to be paranoid.

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