In the Queen’s Speech in May of this year the government unveiled new plans to reform the UK prison system. In much of the mainstream media and by many politicians these reforms are being hailed as progressive and some even calling the reforms “revolutionary”. However, the reforms are anything but. Instead, what we are seeing with these reforms, together with Gove’s plans to build nine new megaprisons, is a cementing of a project started in the early 90s – a project to establish a highly privatized mass incarceration system.
Since the 90s we have seen the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex. The UK prison system now has 14 private prisons, not to mention the extent to which building, transportation, healthcare and other aspects of the prison system have been outsourced to for-profit private companies. The UK currently has over 90,000 in its prisons. This is does not include those in Immigration Detention Centres and Young Offenders Institutions. As such, the UK is the most imprisoning nation (as a percentage of the population) in Western Europe.
The reforms initially put forward by Gove are:

  • Prison governors will be given control over budgets, to decide which educational and rehabilitation programs to use and they will also be allowed to change the prison regime and the rules over family visits.
  • Prisons will be forced to publish statistics on education, reoffending and inmates’ employment on release.
  • Some prisoners who are still employed will be released during the week (on electronic tag along with specific conditions) and be sent back to prison on the weekends.
  • 8 police forces will use electronic tagging on people serving community service sentences.

These prison reforms will be gradually introduced, starting initially in 6 prisons across the UK. Gove promised that the planned nine megaprisons will also be run according to similar reforms. Since these “Reform Prisons” were announced there have been significant changes to the UK’s political landscape. In particular there has been a cabinet reshuffle with Theresa May now Prime Minister and Liz Truss as the new Justice Secretary. On top of this is the impact of Brexit on UK penal policy. Liz Truss has stated that she will carry out these reforms, although certain details of them might look somewhat different. Meanwhile, Brexit will likely have a significant and far-reaching impacts on the UK Criminal Justice System – a lot of which is still being figured out now.
The rest of this article will dedicated to looking at each of these reforms, their consequences and putting them in the context of UK’s Prison Industrial Complex.

New Powers to Governors
The new powers bestowed on governors mirror very closely the powers headmasters were given under academy schools – control over budgets and the power to make contracts with private providers. Gove and others argue that these new powers are beneficial since governors know best about running prisons and hence should be given the freedom and autonomy to run the prisons as they best see fit. As Michael Gove put it “We trust teachers and headteachers to run their school. By trusting governors to get on with the job, we can make sure prisons are places of education, work and purposeful activity.”
When similar proposals were introduced to academise schools, the headmasters in charge of the budgets gave themselves higher salaries and meanwhile cut teachers’ pay and jobs – hardly a surprising consequence when you give one person control over the budget. Prison governors will also make more contracts with private companies to run programs and services within the prison – especially as no extra funding is being granted. Given that in the UK the most dangerous prisons are the most privatised ones, what this inevitably means for prisoners is more dangerous prisons and prison regimes where governors will rule unconstrained.
Prison governance is primarily about keeping control. This is done through discipline and punishment. We will see prisoners being met with more punitive measures by prison governors. This might come in the form of: more severe punishments for prison offences, fewer family visits, less time out of cells or bans on certain books or literature. Businesses and private companies getting more of a foothold in the prison system is one of the main purposes of these reforms. Addressing MPs, David Cameron said prison governors will be granted “unprecedented operational and financial autonomy”, this will allow them to “opt-out of national contracts and choose their own suppliers”. He added to this, “we’ll ensure there is a strong role for businesses and charities in the operation of these Reform Prisons”. The purpose of these proposals is to privatise prisons.

Prisons will be forced to publish more statistics
By publishing more statistics Gove argues that prisons will be more transparent and more accountable. But the important question is what these statistics will be used for. In his address to the Justice Committee, Gove says he wishes to set up a Prison League Table, explaining that those performing poorly will be taken up by “stronger” prisons. As with the academisation of schools and as we are seeing with the Higher Education reforms, the rationale of the Tory government is to use these statistics to assess which prisons are seen to be “failing” and, if they don’t fulfil certain metrics, they will lose funding and be handed over to private capital. Moreover, any kind of league table like this for prisons is of little use to prisoners – a prospective student or family can choose a different school or university – prisoners cannot simply choose to move from a “failing” prison. Instead these league tables will be used by security and technology companies who wish to get a foothold in the emerging market of the growing UK prison estate.
This information will not be used to practically improve the situation in prisons. Statistics are already published about incidents of self-harm and suicides, yet the government refuses to make any significant changes to this state of affairs (e.g. by reducing overcrowding) and in some cases politicians even deny that this a pressing issue. The Chief Inspectorate for Prisons has been pointing out for years the state of UK prisons and, in particular, the rise in violence and suicide in the Cameron years, but this has continuously been ignored.

Weekend Prisoners
This “revolutionary” reform, and one that has gained much media attention, will see some prisoners doing time on weekends and on weekdays being on electronic tag outside. Gove explains that this will allow prisoners to see their families and also for them to continue work and be in the community as part of their rehabilitation. On the face of it this sounds like a very welcome reform – prisoners can be with their family and work. However, this reform will only apply to a very small minority of prisoners (those still employed despite being in prison with additional bail-like conditions, approved address, restrictions on mobility, etc.) Moreover, we need to view any proposed government lead reform with suspicion. Prison reforms usually mean something getting better at the cost of a whole lot of other things getting worse. Many of the reforms that have been pushed for and advocated by prison reform groups have resulted either in some distortion of that reform or an expansion of the prison system as whole. Calls for separate prisons for men and women lead to a rapid increase of women in prison. Similarly calls for more prisoners to have more time out of prison has lead to a large increase in prison labour (e.g. a form of slavery) and of companies exploiting prisoner workers. There is every reason to see this pattern continue – the prison establishment is expanding, the police is becoming more militarised, and sentences continue to get harsher. Yes, prisoners will have more time out of prisons, but with strings (or rather electronic tags) attached. The number of people on electronic tags will increase and more sentences will include the use of electronic tags. Prisoner numbers will not decrease – Gove quite clearly and proudly ruled this out and the new Minister for Justice, Liz Truss, is noticeably harsher on crime. The group that financially benefits from this are security and technology companies who will sell electronic tags and other surveillance technology and personnel. These are companies like Serco, Capita and G4S (a company regularly in the news over scandals such as overcharging the British government £109m for contracts to tag offenders). Moreover, employed weekend prisoners and the expansion of electronic gesture to a future where prisoners, more so than currently, will be allowed out on condition that their boss still finds them useful and at their bosses discretion.

Electronic tagging for community sentences
According to Michael Gove community sentences are not tough enough and electronic tagging is one of the ways to make them tougher. So who does electronic tagging actually benefit? As explained above, one group that benefits is security companies. What we are also seeing is a significant expansion of surveillance in non-prison life. The UK as well as being the most imprisoning nation in Western Europe is also the most surveillanced one. The internal security policy of the past UK governments has primarily been about monitoring and policing as much of everyday life as it can get away with. In particular it is about monitoring and policing poor communities or any other spaces where there is a threat of resistance – we can see this in the development and escalation of the UK’s Prevent strategy to counteract “radicalisation”, not to to mention the astronomical rate of stop and searches carried out on black people, the deaths of black people in custody and the intimidation and monitoring faced by the families who demand the officers be held accountable for their actions. More cameras, more tagging, teachers, doctors, counsellors being taught to spy – this is the future of the UK surveillance state.

Liz Truss and Reform Prisons
Liz Truss has clearly stated that she will carry on with these prison reforms, despite a report recently released by Chief Inspectorate of Prisons, Peter Clarke. This report concluded that the proposed prison reforms are not workable and lack any strategy to reduce the violence and overcrowding in prisons. It documents a 27% increase in prison violence on the previous year, as well as a 25% increase incidents of self-harm. The Chief Inspector concludes, “The situation in too many prisons is the lack of safety, and the inability to actually get prisoners to education and training poses a real risk to the government’s ambitions. Prisons need to be made safer for the reform programme to be achieved”.
Liz Truss takes a much more ruthless and brutal attitude to prisoners and criminal justice. On many occasions she has said that she did not like how “humane” he predecessor, Michael Gove, was to prisoners, going on to say that she does not understand why we should not be tough towards criminals. Her actions prove as much as this to be her attitude. She recently scrapped problem-solving courts. These courts had the role of handing out non-custodial sentences based on whether the offender was complying with their rehabilitatin program. These courts very marginally effected the number of women staying behind. The very fact that Truss was unsympathetic of even this should give some idea of the malice and contempt she has for prisoners and those in the criminal justice system.

Brexit and Reform Prisons
The overall impact of Brexit on UK prisons and the Criminal Justice System will be significant but the details largley depend on the deals the UK makes with the EU as it leaves. How brexit will impact on these planned reforms is also unclear, since how the UK budget will look post brexit is largley unclear. However, there are at least two likely outcomes. Firstly, EU procurement laws will no longer apply, this in turn will make it easier and faster for prisons to be privatised since these laws were put in place to reduce corruption and misallocation of resources when making private contracts for prisons. Secondly, the UK may no longer be allowed to use European Arrest Warrants, which allows countries to deport non-UK offenders to other EU countries – however, this will likely be negotiated.

Prisons Will Not Protect Us
“Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” – Angela Davis
None of these new reforms actually make us safer and none of these new reforms tackle the fundamental injustices in our society or the reasons why people “turn to crime”. This is not because these reforms are not “progressive” enough – it is because the Criminal Justice System is not set up to tackle fundamental injustices in our society but rather to criminalise certain types of behaviour committed by poor people.
Despite a significant drop in burglary and theft and parallel rise in middle class crime (e.g. fraud, embezzlement, insider trading), the number of people going to prison for the former crimes continues to increase, meanwhile prosecutions for the latter have fallen. Politicians cut domestic violence support services, bankers get bailed out through austerity measures, landlords and agencies raise prices and make rents unaffordable, businesses steal wages from agency and migrant workers, over 2000 people have died within 6 weeks of having their benefits cut.
Prisons do not “protect” us from violence. Prisons are the serial rapists and murderers. Prisons are the some of the most violent and harmful places in our society. Prisons are places of hyper-masculinity and rigid gender-norms. This is not because prisoners are inherently violent or problematic but a sociological fact of what happens when you throw people in cages. Prisons need to be abolished and funding and resources redirected towards communities, towards building schools, community centres, hospitals, and support services – and making these places, which are now places of discipline and social control, places of emancipation, care and cooperation. Most importantly we need to radically change our system of governance and economic distribution to something highly democratic, participatory, and sustainable. Attempts to reform the prison system only expand and cement this violent system as it tries to make itself look more humanitarian.

“Prison Industrial Complex” refers to the interrelation of private industry and the prison context. This includes, but is not limited to, such things as private prisons, the outsourcing various aspects of the prisons such as healthcare, transportation, security and other firms lobbying for tougher and longer criminal sentences which serve the private interests.