'It was absolute hell': inside the private prison.

Author:Taylor, Phil


A primary aim of the neoliberal project, of which privatisation is a signal feature, has been to open up new fields for capital accumulation in areas previously considered immune from the 'calculus of profitability' (Harvey, 2005: 160; Kerr, 1998). Indeed, it is argued that privatisation should be seen as part of an effort by the state to disengage from investment while stimulating capital accumulation (Kerr, 1998), giving the private sector lucrative investment opportunities while providing the legal, social and economic structures to enable employers to drive down wage levels and increase worker efficiency. All kinds of public utility, transportation, social welfare provision and public institutions have been privatised to varying degrees throughout the capitalist world; but prison privatisation provides an excellent example of the marketisation of a core state activity that seemed fanciful only a short time ago. In the UK, an outlandish proposal made by a marginal far-right think tank (Adam Smith Institute, 1984) became mainstream government policy, and generated a multi-million-pound market (Cavadino & Dignan, 2006).

The privatisation discourse of successive UK governments has always stressed the importance of market disciplines in breaking up 'unnatural' monopolies, subjecting them to efficiency-generating competition, restoring managerial prerogative, and improving service quality. Yet it is not universally acknowledged that labour and the labour process have been central concerns of those driving privatisation. Apart from the desire to reduce absolute numbers in what were stigmatised as the bloated public-sector workforces, the aim is to use labour more flexibly, hence intensively, through process re-engineering in order to raise productivity (Ellis & Taylor, 2006; Glyn, 2006). The achievement of these objectives is related to the euphemistically termed 'reform' of employment relations, which is essentially the recasting of workers' terms and conditions through a sustained assault on trade unions. The abrupt and radical nature of the Conservatives' privatisation of nationalised industries during the 1980s stimulated a body of critical literature exploring the consequences for employment relations (e.g. Coiling & Ferner, 1995; Ferner & Coiling, 1991; O'Connell Davidson, 1993; Pendleton, 1997; Pendleton & Winterton, 1993). While the impact was uneven (1) and sectorally contingent (Arrowsmith, 2003), common outcomes were observed: widespread redundancies, decentralised bargaining, new management styles ('macho' or 'partnership'), diminished union influence, lean staffing and work intensification.

Of course, the application of market mechanisms was not restricted to nationalised industries. Compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) was followed in the early 1990s by the private finance initiative (PFI), which significantly expanded the private sector's role in providing services in local government, the civil service, the NHS and elsewhere (Corby & White, 1999). Notwithstanding rhetorical claims to the contrary, New Labour extended privatisation and broadened the rationale of PFI to encompass public-private partnerships (PPPs), in which public-sector organisations commission and pay for services, but do not directly provide them (Treasury, 2000). The modernisation agenda was centred on 'best value' (BV), which put 'users of services centre stage' while maintaining a 'strong emphasis on competition'. Ostensibly intended to remove the narrow prescription and cost minimisation that tarnished CCT (Blair, 1998), BV actually led to tighter performance management directed at raising service standards and leveraging efficiencies (Richardson et al., 2005). The interests of 'producers' were further subordinated to 'consumers' as Blair (2002) insisted on 'more flexible staff working practices' and a 'break away from outdated systems' of industrial relations.

In contrast to the first privatisations, much less attention has been paid to the impact on employees from PFI and, particularly, from Labour's PPP initiatives. Despite the large numbers involved, the emergence of a public-services (as opposed to public-sector) workforce, and the centrality of new performance management, which pose enormous challenges for labour, the paucity of evidence-based research is striking (Morgan & Allington, 2002). To an extent, this is mirrored in academia where, for example, journals in the broad fields of employment relations (2) contain only a handful of articles on the effects of PFI/PPP on workers. Exceptions include Hebson et al.'s (2003) study of contractual approaches to managing and the emphasis placed upon the meeting of performance targets. Worker interviews revealed cost-cutting, work intensification and understaffing. An NHS Trust porter bemoaned the halving of his section's staff following PFI. His cri de coeur, 'They are running us ragged' (ibid: 493), may well capture the largely unreported condition of many among the post-privatised workforces. Additional literature has generated insights, including Toynbee's (2003) account of the quotidian experiences of contracted-out hospital porters, care-home workers and school cooks. Often, we rely on trade union sources (Unison, 2002; 2003) or critical think tanks (Sachdev, 2004) to provide an understanding of consequences of PFI/PPP at workplace level. More specifically, in respect of this paper's focus, despite the controversial nature of prison privatisation, academic studies (Black, 1995; Corby, 2002) have yet to engage with the workplace consequences of contracting-out under PFI/PPP within the UK penal system.

Evidence, aims, theoretical reflections

This paper contributes to the remedying of some of these deficiencies by providing detailed evidence of workforce management, working conditions and employment relations at Scotland's only private prison. HMP Kilmarnock opened in March 1999, operated by Premier Prison Services (PPS or 'Premier'), which is itself jointly owned by the multinationals Serco and Wackenhut. The context for the case study was the Scottish Executive's proposal to extend privatisation by building three new, 700-prisoner establishments under PFI. Three complementary reports advocating privatisation were published simultaneously: the Scottish Prison Estates Review by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS, 2002), the Financial Review of Scottish Prison Service Estates Review by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC, 2002), and a Consultation Document by the Scottish Executive (2002A). Had their proposals been implemented, 36 per cent of Scotland's prisoner population would have been incarcerated in private jails, compared to 8 per cent in the UK and 7 per cent in the USA (Hallett, 2006: 13), the latter being the country with the longest history of prison privatisation. Widespread opposition from politicians, unions, prison reformers and from across civil society forced the Executive to institute an inquiry into its proposals through the Scottish parliament's Justice 1 Committee.

In the course of this paper, we draw on evidence in the public domain that contributed to or emerged from the public debate. We outline the Scottish Executive's main arguments in relation to labour utilisation and cost, and PPS management's defence of its management of Kilmarnock. Since working conditions were portrayed as essentially non-problematic by government, the Scottish Prison Service and PWC, they formed part of the justification for the extended programme of prison privatisation. Against this, we present data critical of Kilmarnock's performance and specifically of its labour management, drawn from official sources including Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP, 2000; 200l; HMCIP, 2001) (3) and submissions to the Justice 1 Committee (Scottish Parliament, 2002), all of which were wilfully disregarded by those driving privatisation. Notwithstanding the significance of this evidence, the paper's real empirical bite comes from data sources that expose the hidden realities of a UK private prison and, more generally, cast light on what are the typically opaque processes surrounding privatisation. The first source is of a kind that critical researchers are rarely able to access: internal company documentation including more than fifty briefings, reports and reviews for consideration by management at establishment and corporate levels. These are supplemented by email and other written correspondence between management and with the Prison Service and the Prison Service Union (PSU). This data covers the period May 200l to February 2003. The second source consists of five contemporaneous, in-depth interviews with prison officers currently or recently employed at Kilmarnock.

This paper's import stretches beyond the particular cases of HMP Kilmarnock, Scotland's polity or the prison sector. New Labour has hailed prison privatisation as a success not only in penal policy terms, but also because it provides a paradigm for the public sector generally (Sachdev, 2004: 17). Former Prime Minister Blair declared that the private sector has triggered 'major improvements in the way that public prisons are operated with considerable efficiency gains' (2002: 16), and the (then) Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, making a specific reference to prisons, claimed that 'the use of private contractors is not at the expense of the public interest or need be at the expense of terms and conditions of employees' (Brown, 2003). Consequently, the primary evidence presented below, which demonstrates that a private contractor did degrade the conditions of staff to such an extent that the public interest was undoubtedly compromised, implies a broader critique of the privatisation project.

Traversing the empirical and the theoretical, this paper raises questions about the relationship between capital and the state in the privatisation process. It is incontestable that privatisation...

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