Labour’s pledges on prisons don’t go far enough

The UK Labour Party manifesto pledges to end private prisons. But it misses the mark when it comes to harm reduction for the most vulnerable. Community Action on Prison Expansion pen an open letter.

We at Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) disrupted the annual shareholders’ meeting of the Kier Group construction firm on 15 November, because we want to stop its £253 million government contract to build a mega-prison in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, incarcerating 1500 men.

We believe that the billions being spent on prison expansion should instead be invested in addressing the root causes of crime and incarceration, namely social and economic problems in our communities.

Prisons disproportionately incarcerate survivors of state violence and neglect; 24 per cent of adults in prison grew up in the care system and 29 per cent are survivors of childhood abuse. People of colour are disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system; over half of the boys held in young offenders institutes are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, despite making up only 14 per cent of the overall population.

How can the government justify spending billions to lock away vulnerable and neglected people in cages, while also enabling companies like Kier intend to profit from the expansion of mass incarceration? This project must be stopped. 

The government claims that the construction of new prisons will reduce levels of overcrowding, but Corporate Watch explained in its report Prison Island: ‘If one thing can be learnt from the last 20 years, it is that building new prisons does not reduce overcrowding or reduce the prison population.’

‘If they build it, they will fill it’

Decades of expanding mass incarceration in the US and here has not led to reduced rates of convictions or reoffending – it just shows that if they build it, they will fill it. 

The only just way to end overcrowding in prisons is mass decarceration. The UK sorely needs this as it is the most incarcerated nation in Western Europe 

We at CAPE demand that the government revokes its Prison Estate Transformation Programme (PETP) to create 10,000 new prison places and instead invests the allocated £1.3 billion in resources and services that communities desperately need. Austerity cuts over the last decade have closed youth centres, domestic violence services and refuges, while schools, housing and hospitals have been starved of funding. Investing in these services to create a solid foundation for strong communities is what will make us safe – not cages. 

At Kier’s AGM, shareholders rebelled against executive pay rises set to award CEO Andrew Davies more than £1 million in bonuses, ‘despite disastrous profit warnings and a plunging share price’ as reported by the Financial Times .

We will not shed a tear for Mr Davies, who was set to become CEO of Carillion when the company collapsed one week before he was due to start. Frankly, we hope to see Kier go the same way. Carillion practised a cannibalistic acquisitions’ strategy that led to its downfall, (this approach has also tanked Kier’s shares), and also profited from giant prison contracts. According to Corporate Watch, Carillion won a £500 million prison facilities management contract in 2015.

On top of immoral business practices such as unlawfully blacklisting union members and denying them work, (for which Kier was successfully sued), in September this year the chairman of the company, Philip Cox, stood down after Kier posted losses of £245 million in the year to June.

All of this clearly illustrates that the government contract to build a shiny new warehouse of pain, complete with factory-sized workshops to further exploit prison labour, is propping up a failing company like a rotten walking stick. 

The prison in Wellingborough was originally budgeted at £143 million but Kier has already been awarded over £100 million extra. Moreover, it is inevitable that the costs to the public will grow and grow, as is often the case when the state works hand in hand in public-private partnerships. 

While we welcome Labour’s announced plans to ‘invest in proven alternatives to custody’ and end ‘ineffective short prison sentences', as well as bring prisons ‘in-house’, they ultimately call for the ‘restoration of total prison officer numbers to 2010 levels’. It is seriously worrying that Labour plan to invest in the people who routinely harm and torture people who are already vulnerable, this will do nothing to help reduce harm in our society.

This echoes Labour’s plans to put more police on the streets – the very agents who are responsible for racially targeting young black men (who are disproportionately incarcerated) and for murdering – with impunity – Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell and Mark Duggan, among others.

Transformative justice

Community-based approaches to justice have real potential to transform and restore when harm occurs in our society. As The Guardian states in its editorial line: ‘Expanding prisons is a bankrupt policy of which Labour has often been as guilty as the Conservatives.’ That’s why earlier this month we urged people of conscience to tell Labour to commit to a moratorium on prison expansion in its manifesto.

Women of colour and queer folks have been practising and building transformative justice approaches for years, because they know that the police and the state are some of the worst perpetrators of harm against our communities. We hope that Labour will base alternative approaches on the work of marginalized survivors who have so much relevant experience.

While we welcome the commitment to end private prisons – the business of cages is a huge income generator for firms looking to exploit prison labour – this does not go far enough, and vague plans to ‘end overcrowding’ still leave room for an abhorrent programme of public prison expansion. 

Whether privately-run or publicly-owned, prisons cause harm and outsourcing means companies like Kier and Sodexo (who oversaw HMP Bronzefield when a newborn baby died last month after the mother gave birth alone in her cell), gain business from locking people up, even when prisons are publicly run through huge ‘facilities management’ contracts. 

The only just way to end overcrowding in prisons is mass decarceration. The UK sorely needs this as it is the most incarcerated nation in Western Europe. As we veer close to the end of private prisons, we also demand that Labour ends the development and contracting of 'secure schools', mega detention centres and women’s residential centres or community custody units, or incarceration by any other name.