Frances Crook: The idea that charities might run prisons is an oxymoron

A consortium of charities and services company Serco is to operate two private prisons. The director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, objects

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform

The idea that charities might run prisons is an oxymoron; prisons are inherently an admission of past societal and individual failure and in practical terms they continue that failure. Taking away a person's freedom is the most drastic step available to the state and the responsibility must therefore rest with the state.

Charities have provided services inside prisons for many years, often pioneering new ideas and best practice. Drug rehabilitation programmes, skills training, counselling and even circus skills are the stuff of countless small and national charities working inside prisons across the country. Prison relies on the added time and energy of volunteers to complement regimes. Interesting experiments are tested by charities across the estate. All this is legitimate and worthy.

Once charities become involved in management, they are responsible for punishment. A significant element of managing a prison involves setting up rules and punishing people when they are broken. Managers have the power to lock men, women and children who are in their care in solitary confinement for weeks on end. They can order physical restraint that involves inflicting pain on adult and child prisoners. They can order strip searching. They can stop contact with families. They can remove the only things that make the long hours of enforced solitude bearable: radio and television, reading materials and so on. They can stop people from participating in regimens such as work, socialising and education.

Having a financial stake in how a prison runs can create a more repressive regime, particularly as fines are levied on companies for failing to deliver on a limited range of activities. The introduction of the profit motive into running prisons has cut staffing levels, and that reduces opportunities for prisoners.

Private prisons have failed to reduce the number of suicides or get rid of violence. Charities would be part of the management team responsible when a death, a murder or a rape occurs. There is a suicide every five days in a prison. Establishments are awash with violence, racism and drugs.

Charities can bring experience, expertise and imagination to prisons, but they must not be part of the process of punishment. Why people do things matters, and motive is a matter of principle. The charitable motive is too important to contaminate with involvement in punishing people.

Read an interview with Joyce Moseley, chief executive of Catch22, which is part of the consortium that will operate prisons, in the 11 August edition of Third Sector


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