Locking people up is big business.
If prison works, to stop crime and make society safer in the long term, why are private companies falling over themselves for government contracts to build, and run, more of them?
Think about it for a moment. Private companies operate for profit. They do short and long term forecasting to see if their latest ventures will bring in the money. If a private company bids on a contract to run a prison, it is because it believes it will have a steady supply of inmates committing future crimes, filling up the beds and bringing in the big bucks.
A business model that relies on prisons being full does not have a vested interest in making society safer. It needs criminals to make money. It does not need all these men, women and children becoming upstanding members of society. It requires them to be repeat offenders. Rehabilitation does not swell the numbers of the prison population - reoffending does.
It also needs us to continue to criminalise behaviours such as drug and alcohol use, instead of treating these as public health issues. If we lock up people with substance misuse issues, instead of treating them, the private companies can turn a tidy profit.
Prison numbers have increased by 84% since 1990. It costs an average of £41,000 per year to keep a person incarcerated. Each new prison space built costs £170,000 over the lifetime of the accommodation. Yet data shows no link between increased incarceration and reduced crime.
There is big money to be made, not only by the companies who build and run the prison estate, but also by the private companies that rely on prison labour. This is not an American phenomenon. In England and Wales, secretive contracts of up to £30 million are awarded to businesses to provide ‘work opportunities’ to people who are incarcerated. The work is often menial and repetitive and, crucially, paid at prison rates. There is no minimum wage for a con. He gets a few quid a day working a fulltime job for a business that is making profit from his labour. If he is lucky, he can get a couple of tins of tuna on canteen to supplement his ever-decreasing prison rations (because if costs can be cut on feeding inmates, they will be).
And don't get me started on the fines certain companies have had to pay for fraudulently claiming tax payers' money to electronically tag non-existent criminals. These companies 'dishonestly mislead' the government (and the taxpayer) to make extra profits.
In the 2021 budget it was announced that 20,000 new prison spaces would be created by 2026, at a cost of £3.8 billion to the taxpayer. They will cost an additional £900 million each year to run.
And who will be getting paid to run these prisons? Who is cashing in on this? In England and Wales, 18% of people in prison are now held in private establishments. This is set to increase. Profit, huge profit, is made from incarceration.
The whole prison machine is now organised to make money for private companies, shareholders and individuals. As we continue to build more prisons, as we continue to lock up more people, it is important to think deeply about who benefits from all this. Because it is not us, our communities or our families.