Thornton Hall and GSL: A Stalking Horse for Privatisation?

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Following developer Bernard McNamara’s decision to pull out of several regeneration projects proposed under a Public-Private Partnership arrangement with Dublin City Council, there has been some speculation regarding the future of another McNamara project. The Leargas consortium headed by McNamara – which also includes international prison operators GSL and Barclays Private Equity – has been awarded the contract to design and construct the new facility at Thornton Hall, and to provide unspecified ‘other services’. Despite the concerns expressed by opposition politicians, it is in fact unlikely that McNamara will renege on this deal: unlike the regeneration projects, under the terms of which McNamara would have sold some housing units on the open (and falling) market, the Thornton Hall project poses no financial risk to the Leargas consortium. Under the terms of the contract, Leargas will pay for the prison’s design and construction in return for fixed payments from the state over a 25-year period. At a time of increased uncertainty in the housing and commercial property sectors, this arrangement actually represents a welcome cushion against future shocks.

What is significant about this consortium is not the participation of McNamara, but that of GSL – a ‘provider of critical support services for governments’ which currently operates private prisons and ancillary services (such as prison escorts) in Australia, South Africa and the UK. In May of this year, GSL was acquired by G4S plc., which in turn resulted from a merger between Securicor plc and Group 4 Falck A/S.

There is a real concern that the involvement of GSL in the Thornton Hall project could be a stalking horse for plans to privatise parts or all of the prison system. There have been subterranean official and quasi-official mutterings about prison privatisation since 2003, when then Minister McDowell was engaged in negotiating new work practices with the Prison Officers Association: the prospect of privatisation provided the Minister with a handy ace up his sleeve, as is apparent from his replies to Dail questions tabled by Green Party TD Ciaran Cuffe and Sinn Fein’s Aengus O’Snodaigh. The issue then re-surfaced in 2005 when the then Inspector of Prisons, the late Justice Dermot Kinlen, in his Third Annual Report, stated that private prisons cost less to run than state facilities – a view hotly disputed by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, which was concerned enough to issue a document arguing against prison privatisation. While wholesale prison privatisation remains a twinkle in the Right’s eye, the option of privatising prison escorts was enshrined in the 2007 Prisons Act.

Prisons are big business. Unsurprisingly, America has led the way: the ‘incarceration industry’ now generates $30 billion per annum – outstripping the pornography sector – and there are currently over 150 private prisons in the US. Private prison operators cash in on the double: not only are they paid by the state for providing what GSL, on its website, coyly terms ‘outsourced justice services’ – they are also able to profit from access to a large pool of cheap labour. In his book Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, Washington Post reporter Joe Hallinan writes that:

“At the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution . . . inmates don’t make licence plates any more, they make money . . . $6.25 an hour, on average, manufacturing casual clothing. The prison here, like prisons across America, is turning itself into a for-profit factory, cashing in on a tight labour market.”

Roughly half an inmate’s hourly wage goes to the prison corporation.

Prison labour may benefit prison operators, but its benefits for prisoners are often less apparent. Not only is prison labour – by definition – not free; in many cases the work is unskilled, with little or no training element, and thus does little to prepare prisoners to compete in the employment marketplace once released, unless work in prison is designed to mirror the world of work outside. The Howard League for Penal Reform in the UK has found that, while a quarter of prisoners would like to learn a new skill, nearly half are in fact performing mundane and repetitive work for outside firms. The organisation’s director, Frances Cook, concludes that “Jobs in most prisons only teach prisoners that crime is more exciting and pays better than lawful employment“.The GSL website explains its own approach to prison labour:

“Our objective is to provide an environment that emulates in all respects the terms, conditions, practices and ethics both offered and expected by industrial employers. Thus giving prisoners “real work” experience and best preparing them for work and life on their return to the community.

Examples of current work:

  • Large commercial laundry – 15000 pieces / week to industry standards
  • Decollation and secure destruction of audio and visual media for the film and music industry. All materials are processed and prepared for recycling. 20 million + items per year
  • Assembly of office furniture and manufacture of metalwork parts for a national sales and distribution company
  • Manufacture of bespoke PVC windows and conservatories in a partnership operation with local industry
  • Casting and painting ceramic figures
  • Welding, assembly and packing of ironmongery
  • General and specialist packing
  • Manufacture and testing of transformers and circuit boards
  • Woodwork
  • Digital media centre

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad. While much of the work described is unskilled, the company does state that its objective is to “provide an environment that emulates in all respects the terms, conditions, practices and ethics both offered and expected by industrial employers“. But the reality is not quite as glossy as the website description. In late 2005, a Bangladeshi asylum seeker interned in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre took GSL – which runs the centre – to court. According to a report in The Australian, Motahar Hussein alleged that:

“GSL, which runs the nation’s detention centres, acted in contravention of the Migration Act by illegally employing detainees under a “merit system” classifying them as volunteers, to be paid the equivalent of $1 an hour. Mr Hussein, a detainee at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney for more than a year, will ask the Federal Court to grant orders preventing GSL from employing detainees without rewards. He is also seeking an injunction forcing the company to immediately cease its employment of detainees under the volunteer system. Mr Hussein’s case has prompted a campaign by the union movement, which accused GSL of profiting from federal government money intended to pay kitchen hands, cleaners, gardeners and other providers for their services at detention centres. “Our information is that the majority of workers are actually volunteers, so GSL must be making a motza,” said Unions NSW deputy assistant secretary Chris Christodoulou. “They are taking unfair advantage of the poverty and ignorance of the helpless detainees or refugees by paying them a paltry $1 an hour in phone cards and cigarettes,” Mr Hussein said. “Most Australians would regard it as slave work.” Mr Hussein said detainees had no choice but to work, because visitors could not bring them more than $10 a visit, there was no ATM within the detention centre to withdraw their own money and the federal Government charged detainees about $130 a day to stay there.

The case attracted the attention of Australia’s trade union movement, and Unions NSW sought – but did not obtain – a full review into detainee labour at Villawood. Hussein’s action was successful, and legislation was introduced placing conditions on work done by detainees, bringing their conditions into line with those governing convicted prisoners.

The Florida-based Private Corrections Institute – a rather misleadingly-named organisation monitoring private prison operators around the world – has compiled a dossier of press reports critical of GSL management of prison and detention services.

GSL’s questionable practices are not confined to prison labour: last year, the Guardian published a report into conditions at Rye Hill prison, a GSL facility in the UK which has been severely criticised by the UK Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owens. In her 2005 report on the prison, Ms. Owens summarises failings found during a previous inspection in 2003, and goes on to note that:

“The prison undertook to put in place more effective management and support systems. However, this full unannounced follow-up inspection found that those key concerns had not been dealt with. Indeed, the prison had deteriorated to the extent that we considered that it was at that time an unsafe and unstable environment, both for prisoners and staff. It was by no means apparent to us that the inexperienced and poorly supported staff group, 30% of whom had been in post less than 6 months, were fully in control of the very lightly-staffed units. So great were the concerns that I immediately informed Ministers and urged the Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service to take immediate and decisive action. In the period immediately before the inspection, the prison had experienced an apparently self-inflicted death, a hostage situation and concerted indiscipline; and positive drug test results had sharply risen. Over the preceding months, assaults on staff and adjudications had increased significantly. Several staff were under investigation. During the inspection, a death occurred which resulted in a murder investigation.

Commenting on the Inspector’s report, Judith Lyon, head of the UK’s Prison Reform Trust, said that “This is one of the most damning reports of a prison we have seen. This prison appears to be run not by a private company, but by the prisoners themselves. The advantages of prisoners having time out of their cells are overturned by their having to survive in an unsafe environment. The job of a prison is to reduce crime not to foster it” and went on to comment that “The staff turnover at Rye Hill would disgrace many burger bars. If contestability is driving down costs by cutting salaries and leading to staff coming and going, then it is a false economy. This level of staff turnover is hazardous to safety and undermines the work of a prison in guiding prisoners towards a responsible life on release“.

When awarding the Thornton Hall contract to Leargas, one must either assume that the Government did not check out GSL’s reputation (the incompetence argument), or that they did but were unperturbed. The counter-argument to this, of course, is that it does not matter: there are no plans to privatise any part of the prison service (except for prison escorts, as provided for in the Prisons Act), and therefore GSL’s participation in Leargas will not impact on the management of prisons or the welfare of prisoners.

In response to which there are some obvious questions – questions which the Left has failed to put. Given that the common model for erecting private prisons is a tri-partite consortium involving a construction company, a financing company and a prison management company, and given that Leargas is precisely such a consortium – what role is GSL expected to play? Why are they on board? Are they there merely to provide prison design advice to McNamara? If so, would it not make more sense to simply retain a firm of consultants? Have there been direct discussions between the Government and GSL? If so, what was the subject of these discussions?

Until such questions are tabled and answered, the involvement of GSL in the Leargas consortium can only be viewed as an initial step on the road to prison privatisation. And such privatisation would spell an end to any progressive reform of the Irish prison system – reform focussing on rehabilitation rather than containment. To quote the criminologist Dr. Paul O’Mahony, speaking in 2003 when privatisation was first mooted:

“Crime reduction must be the goal of responsible government. The private sector does not and cannot share this goal, as corporations that imprison people for profit can only maximise that profit when prisons are full to capacity. If the Government privatises Irish prisons, they will be putting corporate interest before public interest”.

Image above taken from the Thornton Hall Prison – Visual Representations of the Proposed Development section of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform website.

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