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ppp Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Criminal justice reshaped

Whatever the critics may think, the role of the private sector in the criminal justice system is now substantial, and set to expand - both in the UK and around the world.

Britain now has ten prisons run by private companies. Between them they house around six thousand offenders, or about eight per cent of the prison population.

Other prisons now at the planning or tendering stage will also be financed, built, and run by private companies.

It was the enthusiasm of Conservative governments for privatisation that saw the first contracts being issued to commercial companies, paying them to manage state-owned prisons.

Private security

But under Labour, the role of private enterprise is being expanded to provide a wider range of facilities and services for the criminal justice system.

Private security companies have been used for some time to escort prisoners to and from court, and also to supervise the electronic monitoring of offenders.

Despite some initial opposition, tagging has now become established as a sentencing option for the courts.

Now a new generation of court buildings is being constructed with private money. But the owners of these buildings will have no say in the administration of justice. That will remain firmly under the control of court officials.

Cost effective?

It may reduce public spending in the short term, but does it make financial sense in the longer term?

The Lord Chancellor's Department, which oversees the court system, admits that the public sector can borrow money for capital projects more cheaply than private companies.

But it argues that private developers can manage these operations more effectively than the public sector, offsetting the higher financing costs and providing the taxpayer with value for money.

But fears have been expressed that this trend will see a growth of centralised courts in major towns and cities, resulting in the closure of many older courts in rural areas.

The National Association of Probation Officers warns that could lead to a kind of "supermarket justice" that alienates the public.

Police next

As with the prisons and the courts, PFI deals are providing police forces across the country with a range of new facilities. That doesn't just mean new police stations and headquarters. Expensive equipment such as helicopters can now be financed in this way.

One way and another, private companies are winning a profitable stake in the operation of the criminal justice system, previously the exclusive preserve of the public sector.

It's not just British companies who benefit. The commercial groups bidding for UK prison contracts have included security companies from the United States, with long experience of building and running prisons.

The Wackenhut Corrections Corporation is part of the Premier Custodial Group, which now manages five British prisons, and a Secure Training Centre for persistent young offenders.

It also has contracts for prison escort and court custody services, and runs two areas for the electronic monitoring of offenders in England and Wales.

Overseas drive

These companies look for opportunities to sell their expertise overseas, and now hold up the UK as a model for how to introduce privately run prisons into a state system.

Wackenhut, which describes itself as a world leader in this growing industry, has already won contracts to manage more than fifty prison, detention and mental health facilities in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Another UK prison operator, Group 4, is also expanding into southern Africa. It has opened a new prison in Bloemfontein, with spaces for 2,928 prisoners. It is thought its next project, a new central prison for Lesotho, will be even bigger with 3,500 beds. Again, a PFI deal is the preferred option.

In the developing world, where governments have less money for big capital projects, this opportunity to spread the financial burden seems very attractive.

Stephen Nathan, editor of Prison Privatisation Report International, points out that transnational corporations have been developing prisons and detention centres on five continents, largely without any scrutiny from human rights organisations.

"In their short history, private prisons have mirrored and even, on occasions, gone beyond the systemic human rights abuses found in the worst of the state sector," he says.

"The issue of 'public-versus-private' hijacks the broader debate about why so many people are being incarcerated, and even whether prison works."

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