A money-making cycle of incarceration: The private sector and UK prison labour

The National Audit Office has described the part-privatisation of the probation services as “disastrous”, costing taxpayers £467 million. Research testifies to the day-to-day problems associated with private probation, and current private sector involvement in the penal system is riven with scandal. For instance, Serco – the private security firm that runs several prisons and other aspects of the penal system – was fined £19.2m plus £3.7m in costs over an electronic tagging scandal that saw it charge the public for monitoring the movements of people who were in prison, had left the UK, or were dead. Such stories serve as a backdrop highlighting some of the real dangers of private involvement in the penal system.

Prison labour is one area within which these wider dynamics play out. My research into inmate experiences of conducting privately contracted prison labour reveals that, despite a few good examples, in most cases privately contracted prison labour does very little to improve rehabilitation and reduce the costs associated with incarceration. It primarily functions to increase the profits of private companies – both the private prisons themselves and the private companies utilising prison labour.

Prison Work: A Tool for Rehabilitation?

What is the purpose of prison work? What should it be? Throughout history there have been many underlying intentions for providing prison work. Initially developed as a form of punishment, prison labour has had myriad uses, from being merely a means to occupy prisoners, to being a valuable tool for rehabilitation, developing skills and enhancing employment opportunities post-incarceration. Aside from its utility for prisoners, prison work has also been a means to generate profit, both for prisons and external companies.

Rehabilitation should be the sole purpose of prison labour and at the heart of all decisions when considering putting prisoners to work. The prison population consists of some of the most vulnerable members of our society – prisons in the UK are largely made up of men from poor or working-class backgrounds. A notable proportion have drug and alcohol problems. Many live with significant mental health problems. Poor literacy abilities and intermittent employment histories are common. And a disproportionate minority will be black or from other minority ethnic groups. 24% have been in care at some point during their childhood and 29% have experienced abuse as a child.  

In order to move towards building a positive, progressive and inclusive society the welfare needs of prisoners must be met, and this can only be done when prison work has rehabilitation at the heart of its ethos. If we do this we can then solve several other concerns that often arise in these discussions whether they relate to costs of incarceration or the safety and wellbeing of both society and prisoners. If we can provide work that does develop skills amongst offenders, that does lead them on to finding secure employment and desisting from crime, then this will result in multiple benefits beyond those felt by the prisoners themselves.

Firstly, if we reduce the number of repeat offenders, we reduce prison numbers and the economic strain this has on government and society. It costs approximately £30,000 a year to hold a prisoner. If we reduce the number of people incarcerated, we can see significant savings that will allow us to invest properly in valuable training and development inside prison. And this does not even consider the economic benefits of having ex-offenders in employment such as increasing the number of people making tax contributions or no longer relying on social welfare support.

Moving away from economic benefits, the rehabilitation of offenders also has the potential to make society safer. If ex-offenders are not returning to crime, it stands to reason that there will be less crime. Finally, if we are providing the right type of prison work, i.e. work that is challenging and stimulating, there will be immediate benefits to the prison itself – particularly regarding safety –  in keeping prisoners more than just busy but can also boost their self-esteem, self-efficacy and mental health. It may seem a little idealistic, but given what we are currently working with – high rates of crime, high prison numbers, high prison suicides, continued reoffending, low employment rates amongst ex-offenders – it at least seems like something worth trying.

In short, where rehabilitation is the core purpose of prisons, we are likely to see better rates of recidivism and lower rates of crime which in turn reduce associated costs of incarceration. Prison work can play a key part in this rehabilitation process by upskilling, giving experience, boosting self-esteem and providing desistance through increased career opportunities upon release. When the primary purpose of prison work is different – whether it be merely to punish, to fill time or to make money for prisons – the chances of such rehabilitation are reduced, which is bad for both the prisoners themselves, the government’s bank balance, taxpayers and society at large when prisoners re-offend upon release.

Private Sector Involvement in Prison Work: Are there any benefits?

Having spent ten months conducting research in an all-male private sector prison in the UK, interviewing forty prisoners and observing privately contracted prison work, much of my research has found that privately contracted prison work is insufficient in rehabilitating prisoners. But what are the arguments for involving private firms in rehabilitative prison labour in the first place?

In some ways, there are some real benefits to private sector involvement in prison work. It is believed by some scholars that privately operated prison industries are more successful in equipping inmates with skills that will aid them in finding regular employment upon release and that private organisations can provide prison work more efficiently and successfully than the state. If done properly, private prison work can provide prisoners with real-world work experience in industries and roles they could obtain employment in after prison. Other research has shown that prison work that closely resembles real employment outside the prison walls has greater rehabilitative potential. Private prison work also has the potential to bridge the gap between prison and post-prison, which is a particularly vulnerable time for most prisoners transitioning into life after prison. Through-the-gates support is incredibly important to rehabilitation and therefore creating work inside prison that can be continued outside of prison provides offenders with structure, consistency, and much needed income.

In theory, then, there are many benefits to utilising the private sector in providing in-prison employment, but unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, this is rarely how private prison labour functions. In reality we see boring, monotonous, low skilled work that is often provided by companies only looking for cheap labour.

In researching this topic, I interviewed two different companies contracting prison labour, a company that supplies inflight condiments to airlines (‘INFlight’)[1] and a book publishing company (BookSmart). A manager at INFlight described prisoners as ‘scrouts’ and explained that the sole reason for contracting work to prison was cheap labour and that it had absolutely nothing to do with rehabilitation. When this is the case, there is zero incentive for this organisation to improve the employability of offenders. They do not care, and it is not their responsibility. This is simply a cost-effective transaction for INFlight and they explained to me that the reason they had begun contracting this work to prisoners was because it was difficult to find people outside of prison to complete this boring and monotonous work. And these sentiments were also echoed by the prison management, who explained that much of the work sent in from private firms was found to be too tedious for those outside of prison.

Because many manufacturing industries are moving overseas to reduce costs, prison labour has been sought as a cheap alternative to allow companies to remain in the UK. What this means for prisoners however is that the work they have been ‘training’ in, during their prison sentence, has mostly moved overseas (or ironically, into prisons) – so this work is unlikely to be available to them after prison. In other words, they are being ‘trained’ in declining industries. These private organisations then are also unlikely to provide ‘through-the-gates’ employment, i.e. the primary reason for involving private companies in providing prison labour. If they are only looking for cheap labour, they are unlikely to be incentivised to work with offenders once they are released.

However, not all private firms’ sole incentive is cheap labour. In contrast to INFlight, when interviewing the manager at BookSmart it was clear that the manager was passionate about the rehabilitative potential of work and wanted to help prisoners enter the labour market. The manager had even tried to recruit some prisoners from prison once their sentence was complete. Whilst this was much more positive – engaging with through-the-gates care – the work was still unskilled, precarious and sporadic.

One of the prisoners I had interviewed whilst incarcerated had started working at this company after he was released from prison and I was able to speak to him during one of his shifts. He did not seem optimistic about the longevity of this employment; shift schedules were revealed weekly and the number of hours changed frequently. Some weeks he would be given thirty hours, other weeks three hours, and some weeks he would be given no hours at all. As a result, he did not work at the company for very long. This individual could not drive and relied on friends and families to take him to-and-from work, at unscheduled hours, that changed every week. This can be a burden and in the long run, unfeasible. Offenders are most often in low socio-economic groups, with minimal social, cultural or economic capital, limited education and work experience and on-top-of-this, a criminal record. This particular individual had been incarcerated as a result of drug dealing; which yields far greater earnings, much more regularly, for far less work and effort. If this is a world that you are familiar with, a world you know, then it is not outrageous to consider re-entering this type of ‘work’. Post-prison work and through-the-gates employment needs to be challenging and dependable in order to have any lasting rehabilitative potential.

Where does education fit into this approach?

Joe Black describes private prison labour as a naïve, ill thought out, divisive and ultimately unobtainable fantasy’. Black believes that the education of prisoners will suffer as a result of this initiative. Although the programme is apparently intended to rehabilitate prisoners and provide them with skills, when wages are thrown into the equation, it can be contended that the whole ideology and objective of prison labour changes. Black believes that where prisoners are able to earn more money in work than they can in education, work is likely to be more popular amongst prisoners when choosing between undertaking work or entering prison education. If prisoners’ basic numeracy and literacy skills are not adequate, the number of hours they have worked in prison is immaterial to their chances of gaining employment post-incarceration, more so if the work has been unskilled.

Many offenders explained to me that earning money was a key factor in participating in prison labour. Whilst you might earn the same amount of money in education as some prison jobs, other prison work could see prisoners earn more. This incentive to engage in unskilled work over education is questionable, particularly when many prisoners are already averse to formal education and already have a dislike for the classroom. Offering them a higher paid alternative may not be the best way to tackle prisoners’ aversion to formal education.

I have highlighted a few examples of why the current set up of private prison work is not the most successful in improving rehabilitation and encouraging desistance from crime, but this is certainly not an exhaustive discussion. For numerous reasons, private sector prison work has some serious failures. Most often it is used as a form of cheap labour, ‘training’ prisoners in declining industries. There are poor links to reliable post-prison employment, and it potentially impedes prisoner education. But above all of this, it does not develop skills and improve the employability of offenders as the work is most often painfully boring, monotonous and unskilled.

What should the future of prison work look like?

Rehabilitation is a complex process that involves more than simply “getting a job.” Nevertheless, it is still central to the rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration back into society. So, how can we manage prison labour best to enhance its rehabilitative potential? I would suggest that there are a few basic ideas that would be a good starting point in improving rehabilitation through prison work:

  1. Basic education needs to come before work. Prison work cannot be rewarded more than education. Most often, education should run alongside prison work instead of prisoners making a choice over one or the other.
  2. Work should be challenging, involve real training, skills development and qualifications.
  3. There should be a direct link between in-prison and post-prison work – if private firms are utilised, the primary focus still needs to be rehabilitation, where private firms or not-for-profits work with prisoners inside prison to develop skills, with the plan to continue this relationship outside of prison. Prisoners are much less likely to reoffend if they are able to obtain regular work and a steady salary after release.

There are very good examples of private firms providing excellent rehabilitation for offenders through employment. For example Timpson’s provide training during incarceration and employment upon release. They are vocal about their social values and investing in offenders and this is an important factor, as profit is no longer the sole purpose for working with prisons. Nevertheless, even when we do see good examples of private firms’ involvement in prison labour, we need to ask ourselves how comfortable we are with private organisations profiting from the incarceration of men and women. We are treading very dangerously in an area where there is a growing incentive to incarcerate individuals and keep them there for longer. When Boris Johnson talks about increasing prison places, who will be running these prisons? It is likely that private companies will be involved in the development and/or running of these prisons. With private companies making money from this, the question is: does anyone really want to rehabilitate, and stop this money-making cycle of incarceration?

Jenna Pandeli is Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at the University of the West of England

Image credit: kodda, via iStock

[1] INFlight is a pseudonym