Easington MP Grahame Morris challenged the government over its policy on private prisons, highlighting the link between understaffing and high levels of violence. 

At Justice Questions in Parliament, Grahame asked Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer: “Why is this government building a new generation of private prisons that will have no minimum staffing levels and no requirements for private operators to reveal staff numbers?” 

 And he added: “Quite frankly, this is an appalling policy of ‘don’t ask me any questions and I won’t tell you any lies’.” 

 Understaffing is widely acknowledged to be a key driver of prison violence, with the annual number of assaults across the prison estate more than doubling after thousands of frontline officers were cut (1). 

Although information about staffing at public prisons is regularly published by the Ministry of Justice, private prisons are exempt – and, as Grahame told MPs, are not even subject to Freedom of Information requests. This has led to fears from the Prison Officers Association and others that private operators slash staff numbers to maximise profit for shareholders. 

 These fears have only grown since independent research last year by the Guardian showed that private prisons suffered from 47% more assaults on average than public prisons (2). And the only piece of evidence on private prison staffing that has been released in recent years supports suspicions that prisoner-to-officer ratios are higher in the private sector (3). 

 At least five of the six new planned prisons will be run by the private sector, according to the Government, and the first of these, in Wellingborough, is set to be run by notorious security giant G4S – although this decision has been challenged by a rival privateer. 

 G4S was in charge of HMP Birmingham when the Government seized back control in August 2018 due to high levels of violence, with the prison eventually fully renationalised the following April. After “stepping in” to run the prison, the Government dramatically reduced the number of prisoners and brought in extra officers – a clear admission of overcrowding and understaffing. 

 Speaking after his question in the Commons, Grahame said: “The health and safety of prison officers should not be compromised depending on whether they work in a public or private prison.

The Government’s new private prison programme will not address the disproportionately high incidents of violence against staff in private prisons compared to their counterparts in public prisons.
A commitment to minimum staffing levels, across the entire prison estate, would offer greater protection to staff, and provide a safety benchmark irrespective of the prison setting.

I am concerned that Ministers continue to hold private prisons to a lower standard than public prisons. Instead of protecting profits for outsourcing companies, Ministers should be setting rigorous standards to protect our prison officers.”


 Notes for editors:  

(1) House of Commons Library briefings on prison violence: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cdp-2020-0060/ and https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7467/ 

 (2) Private jails more violent than public ones, data analysis shows (The Guardian, 13 May 2019): https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/13/private-jails-more-violent-than-public-prisons-england-wales-data-analysis 

 (3) Evidence from HMPPS to the Justice Select Committee (21 December 2018): https://old.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/Justice/correspondence/HMP-Birmingham-written-evidence.pdf (Annex A) showing that, in 2018, private prison HMP Forest Bank had a higher prisoner-to-staff ratio than all its public-sector comparators

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