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Privatisation and overcrowding of UK prisons

Privatisation and overcrowding of UK prisons

Matthew Biggerstaff


Reading time: three minutes

The current overcrowding in UK prisons is something of a silent crisis. A mix of a covid-19 backlog, harsher sentencing and increased police presence has caused record numbers of people currently in prisons in the UK, with the numbers only expected to grow in the coming years.

This issue is far from a new one. In 2017, over 50% of prisons were already classified as overcrowded. Since then, this number has risen to above 60%. The prison population has more than doubled in the last forty years, making it clear that this issue hasn’t sprung out of nowhere or caught anyone by surprise.

Privatisation to address overcrowding results in poor standards

In the 1990s, the UK privatised prisons with the aim of tackling the prison overcrowding crisis. There are currently 14 privately owned prisons in the UK, holding roughly 15% of the prison population. A 2017 BBC Panorama investigation into Northumberland Prison exposed the poor standards of care and the dangers of private prisons to the public eye. The documentary highlighted the lack of reform taking place in the prison and the dangers facing both staff and inmates. A 2019 investigation similarly found that private prisons in the UK posed significant risks to employees and inmates, with staff members more likely to be assaulted and higher rates of self-harm and drug addiction among inmates.

Poor standards in private prisons

Private prisons are often the biggest offenders of failing standards due to cost-cutting measures, lower pay, lower job security and unsafe working conditions. In 2018, the UK government had to regain control of Birmingham Prison from private company G4S because of the shocking state of the prison, following the riots that took place in 2016. While not every privately owned prison is an unmitigated disaster, there’s certainly a trend of lower standards and increased danger compared to government-ran counterparts.

Due to the overpopulation of prisons and the increasing danger for staff, many employees have left the profession, making it difficult to attract new recruits. This means that prisons are not only facing record-high inmate populations, but also a record-low number of staff maintaining safety and security. This combination creates an environment where inmates are potentially less safe and without access to rehabilitation tools – which can later lead to repeated criminal activity,

As long as there’s no reform within prisons, the cycle will continue and lead to a continuous rise in the prison population. In fact, a staggering 38.4% of young offenders go on to reoffend after being released from prison, proving that rehabilitation is simply not feasible in the current state.  

Another issue is that privately owned prisons can keep much of their data secret, such as the number of guards they employ. This means that they’re not held to the same standard of transparency – even though they’re supposed to be an extension of the government-owned prison system. While the public can look at a privately owned prison and see that they’re understaffed and in need of more funding, it’s hard for changes to be made. This was made evident in the Panorama documentary, in which the guards lamented the lack of funding and staff, which often means they’re unable to challenge the behaviour of any inmates as they’d be easily overpowered.  

The next steps  

Many calls have been made for the abolishment of privately owned prisons in the UK. However, given the persistent issue of overcrowding, implementing such a change would likely prove impossible. The government is likely to address the overcrowding issue in prisons to some extent. But it’s clear that the system is struggling to fulfil its initial goals of rehabilitation and, if massive overhauls are not made within the coming years, the prison population will likely spiral out of control – many would argue that it already has.