I mean, what can possibly go wrong?
The government has announced the “biggest shake-up of prisons since Victorian times”. But while the media focuses on ‘iPads for prisoners‘ and ‘weekend inmates‘, the real story is in the handing of new financial powers to prison governors, allowing them “unprecedented levels of control over all aspects of prison management”. The government is using the academies model to privatise our prisons through the back door – and the results will be just as disastrous for prisons as they have been for schools.
In the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, the government announced its new prison and courts reform bill. At the heart of the bill is the creation of several new “autonomous reform prisons” which, says the government:
“will give unprecedented freedoms to prison governors, including financial and legal freedoms, such as how the prison budget is spent and whether to opt-out of national contracts; and operational freedoms over education, the prison regime, family visits, and partnerships to provide prison work and rehabilitation services.”
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The reforms are based on the academies model, as David Cameron admitted in a speech he made about the reforms in February of this year:
“It’s exactly what we did in education — with academies, free schools and new freedoms for heads and teachers.”
They were even introduced by the same man, Michael Gove. As Education Secretary in 2010, Gove said: “We trust teachers and headteachers to run their schools.” Now, as Justice Secretary, he says: “By trusting governors to get on with the job, we can make sure prisons are places of education, work and purposeful activity.”
As with academies, the introduction of reform prisons will be rolled out gradually. Six prisons will be turned into reform prisons by the end of this year. More prisons will follow later this parliament, and the government’s nine new super-prisons will also “be established with similar freedoms”.
And, as with academies, the prison reforms will open up commercial opportunities for those in charge of them. Prison governors will have “unprecedented operational and financial autonomy”, says David Cameron. They will be given “total discretion over how to spend” their budgets. They will be able to “opt-out of national contracts and choose their own suppliers”. And, just to be clear, “we’ll ensure there is a strong role for businesses and charities in the operation of these Reform Prisons”.
We know what happened when academies were handed power over their own budgets and contracts. They used that power to pay themselves millions in taxpayers’ money – both on their own salaries, and on contracting out services to companies they or their families own. And now the government seems to have gone to some effort to replicate that experience in reform prisons, by establishing them “as independent legal entities with the power to enter into contracts; generate and retain income; and establish their own boards with external expertise”.
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