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Inspector's call for prison privatisation not credible, says Penal Reform Trust

5th July 2005

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has challenged the credibility of the Prison Inspector's call for the privatisation of prisons, stating that the Inspector's report on the alleged  "benefits" of privatisation is marked by "conjecture and inaccuracy".  The IPRT has also questioned the independence of the primary source cited by the Inspector, whose author is the director of the research arm of the UK's largest private prisons company.

On Friday, Justice Minister Michael McDowell released the Third Annual Report of the Inspector of Prisons, which among other things calls for the privatisation of a prison on a "trial basis", and the eventual opening up of the prison service to private competition.  Following two years of denials about his pro-privatisation intentions, the Minister has now announced he is considering privatising the new super prisons he wishes to build in Dublin and Cork.

"The Prison Inspector's report claims substantial benefits from prison privatisation, yet his research on the topic is thin, selective at best, inaccurate at worst and completely ignores the well-documented problems with private prisons witnessed over the past two decades," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines.  "This cherry-picking of evidence is perhaps explained by the fact that the only study ever cited by the Inspector in support of these views was authored by a researcher employed by private prison industry itself."

The Inspector's report for 2003-2004 quotes heavily from what it describes as the "fascinating publication", Competition: a catalyst for change in the prison service.  What the Inspector's report does not say is that the study was published by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) - "The Voice of Business" - which is on record calling on the British Government to create a policy environment favourable to expanded prison privatisation. Its author is the executive director of the Serco Institute which, according to its website, is "an arms length virtual organisation that carries out research on behalf of Serco".  Serco is the owner of Premier Prisons, the largest private prisons and correctional services contractor in the UK.

Said Mr. Lines, "The entire section in support of privatisation in the Inspector's last Annual Report was taken from the CBI report.  This is a report that was paid for by the UK business lobby, and written by the director of the research arm of the UK's largest private prison company. This certainly begs the question whether the benefits claimed in the Inspector's report are anything more than industry advertising masquerading as independent research."

"The Inspector's report freely admits there have been 'scandals' in US private prisons, yet ignores any further comment on these problems. Nor does the report address the numerous concerns about private prisons that have been raised by the UK Prisons Inspector, even as recently as last week," said Mr. Lines. "While one would expect an industry lobbying report to be one-sided, the Prison Inspector has the responsibility to conduct proper, balanced and thorough research on an issue before making public a recommendation.  On this issue, the Inspector's report in no way approaches that threshold."

The IPRT also highlighted numerous significant errors in fact about privatisation contained in the Inspector's report. Among the inaccuracies cited by the IPRT:

  • While the Inspector alleges cost savings through privatisation, there is NO conclusive independent evidence that private prisons are less expensive than public prisons.  This has been the finding of the General Accounting Office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the US, and the National Audit Office in the UK.
  • The private sector DO NOT "build and maintain and run at their own expense their own prisons", as stated in the Inspector's Report.  Private prisons are completely paid for by taxpayers.
  • The privatised Altcourse Prison is not "the best prison in England", as claimed by the Inspector.  Rather it is one of 23 prisons (two of them private) judged by the UK Prison Service as "high performing".  While there are 2 private prisons in this category, there are 3 cited in the lower category of the performance scale.

Said Mr. Lines, "It gives us no pleasure to challenge the Inspector in this public manner, but on such an important issue of prison policy -- and when conjecture and inaccuracy is being used to provide an excuse for a pro-privatisation Minister to speed ahead with regressive policies -- the IPRT has a responsibility to speak out."

"Despite his public statements to the contrary, the IPRT has believed for the past 2 years that the Minister has been searching for a 'credible basis' to move ahead with prison privatisation. While Minister McDowell may wish it were otherwise, the the Prison Inspector's recommendation provides no such credible basis to pursue the introduction of failed and expensive privatisation schemes."


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