Rosamund McCarthy: Charities running prisons? It's a step too far

They should not take on the coercive powers of the state the state, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

Charities should not run prisons. So says Kevin Curley, chief executive of local umbrella body Navca, in an impassioned Facebook campaign. Stephen Bubb, head of chief executives body Acevo, disagrees.

The visceral debate between Kevin and Stephen is, on one level, perplexing. No charity is actually running a prison; nor, as far as I know, do any intend to do so. Yes, Turning Point and Catch22 are working in partnership with Serco, but they are engaged in their usual excellent work of minimising substance abuse and resettling offenders. It is Serco that is running the prisons.

But on another level, the rawness of the debate is understandable. Defining the boundaries between the state and civil society is a critical issue. And it is a philosophical, not a legal, question. Legally, you can justify charities doing 90 per cent of what the state does. When promoting the efficiency of the armed forces is charitable, justifying the legal capacity of charities to run prisons is a no-brainer.

But I agree with Kevin about the public policy implications. Engaging in flights of fantasy, one could imagine there being a liberal Home Secretary who might allow charities to run intelligent, humane prisons. There could be a breakthrough in prison culture. But law and order is such a political issue that you are living in cloud cuckoo land if you think the state will surrender that amount of power.

In any case, it should not fall to charities to exercise the coercive powers of the state. Even the most liberal of countries recognise that punishment is a necessary element of justice, but dispensing punishment and depriving citizens of their liberty is not the job of a charity. Who would be the beneficiary? The general public, who want to feel safe, or the offender, who needs humane treatment? And where do you draw the line? A referendum tomorrow would restore the death penalty. If you believe charities should punish offenders, this must include the possibility of carrying out executions.

Even if you think this line of argument is a cheap trick, you have to admit that charities could be pushed into highly questionable activity: forcibly restraining prisoners; putting them into overcrowded or strip cells.

Prisons have a long history of breaching human rights. Why risk the deleterious consequences that could arise from a perversion of charitable activity? The boundaries between the state and civil society have never been fixed, but running prisons is a step too far.

- Rosamund McCarthy, is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite and writes in a personal capacity

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