Frances Crook: Charities involved in running prisons should have their charitable status revoked

Charities are being used as a veneer by commercial companies and don't have any power over how prisons are run, says the chief executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform

Frances Crook
Frances Crook

It has been reported that security firm G4S is recruiting staff to carry out criminal investigations for a police force. As well as investigating suspects, G4S ferries detainees from court to a G4S prison or puts G4S electronic monitoring tags on them. Over the past few years, the incarceration arms of multinational conglomerates such as G4S and Serco have grown enormously. And during that time, they have teamed up with an unlikely bedfellow: the charitable sector.

Many charities have become involved in the management of jails since 2010, after Turning Point and Catch22 won a £415m, 26-year contract in partnership with Serco to run a new prison at Belmarsh West. At the time, the Howard League and Navca met with the Charity Commission to ask that it rule, under charity law, that running a prison was not a charitable undertaking. Disappointingly, the Charity Commission said it was "satisfied that both charities are acting within their objectives in these arrangements".

For many years, small local charities have been involved in providing services in prisons; for example, the Samaritans provides much needed support for suicidal prisoners, WRVS helps with visits, and Ormiston Trust works with the children of prisoners.

There is a significant difference between providing services inside a jail and being part of the management, which profits from the running of the institution. Charities should not manage prisons; it is a contradiction of charitable purposes. This would mean that the charity will be required to be part of the decision-making process to inflict punishments, including putting someone in solitary confinement. The infliction of punishment as part of a profit-making business is not commensurate with charitable objectives.

Most of the charities that are involved in partnerships with private security companies to run prisons raise the majority of their funding from contracts for services rather than donations from the public, so they do not benefit from taxpayers money through the Gift Aid scheme to any large extent. However, as charities are exempt from company taxes they are being subsidised by the taxpayer and should therefore adhere to the highest standards of probity.

Charities may think they will have a say in how prisons are run and be able to minimise bad practice to ensure that the culture of prisons is changed. But it is the private companies who will be managing the prisons (while lobbying to manage many more), and it is naïve to think charities will have a morsel of leverage with these billion-pound conglomerates, without whom they couldn’t have won the contract. Never forget the golden rule; whoever has the gold, makes the rules.

Our criminal justice system already provides a highly profitable supply chain to corporate interests. Do not be fooled by the glossy pamphlets; the private sector’s primary motive in prisons is not to reform or rehabilitate. It is to create massive profits for their shareholders by banging people up. Charities are being sucked in by commercial companies, which want them to be part of the system to create a veneer rather than giving them any power to change the way the prisons are run. Rather than getting into bed with these companies, we should be trying to stop them at every turn. The charitable motive is too important to be contaminated by involvement in corporate punishment.

Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

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