The case for private prisons

 

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Reform presents a research note on the role of competition and private sector involvement in prisons. The report, The case for private prisons, brings to light new Ministry of Justice data on private and public prison performance and examines the evidence from two decades of competition in prisons from 1992 to 2012.

The aim was to analyse the impact of competition in light of the Government’s “new approach”, which will limit the role of private sector companies in prison management.

The Government’s “new approach”

The Government made two major announcements on prisons at the end of 2012: the effective abolition of whole prison contracting to private companies and the decision not to introduce local pay in the prison system.

Instead the Government will pursue a “new approach” limiting competition to rehabilitation and ancillary services. It will introduce an “efficiency benchmark” for public sector prisons. It will maintain national pay scales in prisons.

Higher performance by private prisons

The Ministry of Justice rates prison performance under four headings (“domains”). New Reform analysis of this data shows superior performance by the private sector against comparable public sector prisons:

  • Resource management and operational effectiveness: 12 out of 12 privately managed prisons are better than comparable public sector prisons
  • Decency: 7 out of 12 privately managed prisons are better than comparable public sector prisons
  • Reducing re-offending: 7 out of 12 privately managed prisons are better than comparable public sector prisons.
  • Public protection: 5 out of 12 privately managed prisons are better than comparable public sector prisons

Lower rates of reoffending

Reform has also conducted new research into reoffending rates by prison, which also show superior private sector performance:

  • 10 out of 12 privately managed prisons have lower reoffending rates among offenders serving 12 months or more than comparable public sector prisons
  • 7 out of 10 privately managed prisons have lower reoffending rates among offenders serving fewer than 12 months, compared to public sector prisons.

Why private sector prisons are more effective

Existing research has shown that flexible terms and condition are one of the key reasons why private operators have been able to deliver better performance. Flexible working conditions have resulted in better staff-prisoner relationships, more positive prison environments, higher staff satisfaction and a more diverse workforce.

Existing research has made clear that the threat of competition has itself been a spur for innovation in public sector prisons.

Recommendations to Government

  • Market test all prisons. Market testing has been limited to just 17 of the 131 prisons in the estate.
  • Introduce fixed term contracts for all prisons.
  • Publish comparable cost and performance data for all prisons.
  • Give prisons flexibility over pay and conditions.