Role of the Prison Officer - Justice Committee Contents

5  Private prisons

The differences between the public and private sector

183.  During the inquiry we heard that the introduction of private sector prisons has had an impact on the role of the prison officer as a whole. Professor Alison Liebling told us in oral evidence:

…private sector competition…means there are experiments with how low you can set the threshold for staff numbers, pay, remuneration, those sorts of things. So in lots of ways the role [of the prison officer] has become more demanding, power has shifted upwards so managers manage staff much more closely, there are targets and performance indicators, there is more transparency about the performance of a prison, so I think prison officers feel more closely monitored, visible, to external management.[196]

Professor Liebling also identified different strengths and weaknesses in staff culture in the private sector prisons:

… it is really clear there are major differences all the way up from the custody officer to the managers, and the differences we have found - and there are others working on this question with me - is that private sector officers trust their senior managers more, they tend to be more committed to the company, they are not kind of anti upwards, they look as if they have very good relationships with prisoners but with a bit more investigation we discovered they have more punitive attitudes than officers in the public sector but are more vulnerable as employees, so it is quite complicated.[197]

She concluded:

…in the private sector so far, because the staff are inexperienced and less well-trained, they tend to struggle a bit more than staff in the public sector with using their authority, so what they do is tend to stand back from prisoners quite a lot and then sometimes jump forward, so they are a bit erratic and they can get it wrong at both ends of the spectrum sometimes, and we see that. In the public sector staff are much more confident; they can overuse their authority, as everybody knows, but when they get it right it looks very different. It is based on experience and it is a quite subtle, peace-keeping, informal use of their authority that is very professional. We do not always find it but I think we know what it looks like when it works well.[198]

184.  Stephen Shaw, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, agreed that there were differences between the private and public sector prison but thought they had narrowed over time:

What has, I think, happened over the years is that in most of the private prisons the rate of staff turnover, though still high and much higher, I think, I will not say all because I do not know, but in most of the private prisons the rate of staff turnover remains much higher than in the public sector, nevertheless staff have built up a great deal of experience, often in some difficult circumstances, and I think at the same time what has been, in institutional terms, the greatest single benefit of private sector involvement has been in terms of decency and treating prisoners as individuals, as flawed individuals but as individuals with needs and needs that it is our duty as staff to try to meet.[199]

185.  Professor Andrew Coyle highlighted the differences within the private sector prison estate:

…The National Audit Office, for example, in its 2003 report, said the best private prisons are better than many of the best public prisons, but the worst private prisons are down there with the worst of the public prisons. What it said was privatisation is neither a guarantee of success nor the cause of inevitable failure, and I think that remains the case. You have to take account of the fact that all private prisons are new prisons. None of the private prisons are old prisons. When private companies were given the opportunity to take over Brixton Prison, no-one would put their hands up. If you look at the league tables for best performing prisons, the private prisons, marginally, are doing worse than the public prisons. I do not think that is a terribly helpful comparison. What you also find is that it depends on the contract. It also depends on the company. Some private companies are doing better than other private companies, and I think that does reflect both on the contract and on the resources which are included in the contract.[200]

186.  He added that best practice was not shared across the sectors or between the different private companies because of the Ministry of Justice's focus on competition:

In terms of learning across the board, one of the consequences, of course, of what is called contestability is that it leads to what is called "commercial in-confidence issues", and that actually militates against sharing good experience across the board. If the public sector is going to be competing with the private sector, then it is not going to show all its cards, and certainly the private sector is not going to show all its cards to competitive private companies, let alone to the public sector. So, sadly, and the Chief Inspector has said this, there has been relatively little learnt from the experience since 1992.[201]

Professor Liebling said:

When private prisons were introduced there was a little phrase in the legislation which I am sure said "as an experiment", and it feels like it has been an experiment in the organisation of prison work. I think there is a phenomenal number of lessons to be learned from this experiment. Both sectors have significant strengths and weaknesses, and I think the service is missing a trick not sitting down and looking really carefully at this natural experiment.[202]

187.  It is clear to us that public and private sector prisons have the potential to learn from each other. An over-simplified view of 'contestability' appears to work against the sharing of lessons between sectors. We believe the Ministry of Justice should devise ways of ensuring that contestability does not prevent best practice being disseminated across all prisons in both public and private sectors.

196   Q 1 Back

197   Q 4 Back

198   Q 7 Back

199   Q 183 Back

200   Q 236 Back

201   Q 236 Back

202   Q 31 Back

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