Champagne for Serco shareholders, 23 hour lock-ins for Serco prisoners

Serco shareholders gather in the City of London today to celebrate financial success. Just across the river, Britain's newest private prison HMP Thameside, run by Serco, is failing.

“This is what happens when you hand the justice system over to vast multinational corporations, who put cost-cutting and the interests of their shareholders ahead of concern for public safety."

That's Andrew Neilson, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, responding to yesterday's report from HM Prisons Inspectorate on Thameside, Britain's newest private prison. Located next to Belmarsh and Isis prisons in South East London, Thameside opened in March 2012 and holds up to 900 adult and young adult male prisoners.

Inspectors who paid a surprise visit in January found high use of force, and a regime that "was one of the most restricted we have ever seen".

Time out of cell was "very limited". During the working day 60 per cent of prisoners were locked up and some spent 23 hours a day in their cells. The inspectors said: "There were far too few activity places for the needs of the population, and much of the provision required improvement. There was too little vocational training, and most of the work available was low skill."

Thameside is run by Serco, the company that inspects Britain’s schools, trains our armed forces, runs our prisons, maintains our nuclear weapons, and is taking over big chunks of our NHS. Shareholders met in London this morning to hear about a 20 per cent increase in their dividend payouts.

That's especially good news for chief executive Christopher Hyman who has amassed close to one million shares in the company. At today's price his stake is worth £5.8 million. The dividend payment alone will make him £91,702 richer.

That's on top of his annual remuneration of £1.9 million. On top of that is his "performance share plan" which adds another £1.5 million. Plus, to ease the chill in his retirement, he's got a pension pot that is already valued at £2 million — Chris Hyman is 49 years old.

Meanwhile, inside Britain's newest private prison, conditions are grim.

Her Majesty's Inspectors found that: "Levels of assaults . . .  were too high and of concern — prisoners seemed to lack confidence in what in fairness was an inexperienced staff group, to deal with and protect them from violence or delinquency."

In response to rising levels of violence last Autumn, the prison had "taken the unusual step of effectively locking down the prison, severely curtailing the regime and in particular prisoner access to time unlocked".

The Inspectors said: "The prison had done little to evaluate the success of this quite extreme strategy and at the time of our visit there seemed only vague plans to restore the prison to normality."

As for healthcare, commissioned by the NHS from the private company, Harmoni for Health, which is part of the crisis hit Harmoni Group:

"The head of health care was a nurse; she was supported by a clinical lead. The team structure under them was described as being ‘in transition’. There were several vacancies, and long-term agency staff were used. Staff training was appropriate but clinical supervision was in its infancy."

During the visit, "We witnessed nursing staff who did not listen to the patient, and who were dismissive and rude."

That's strong language for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons. The Howard League's Andrew Neilson's is stronger still:
“Conditions at Thameside are truly alarming," he said. "Violence was so common that the Serco management put the prison in a state of lockdown, and yet this extreme measure has done little to bring down the number of attacks."

He went on: “Staff are inexperienced and often resort to physical force. The prisoners have no confidence in them. Despite enforcing one of the most restricted regimes ever seen by inspectors, this is a large private prison out of control."

Less than a week after Justice Secretary Chris Grayling demanded that prisoners work harder to earn privileges, Neilson said:

"this flagship private prison is revealed to be locking up inmates for 23 hours a day because they don’t have anything constructive to do. With a pathetic lack of activities and barely any vocational training available, Thameside is doing nothing to help prisoners turn their lives around. It is merely making matters worse."

Serco tells a different story: "At HMP Thameside we provide a safe, decent, secure and respectful environment that encapsulates a wide range of constructive activities," says the company. "HMP Thameside's vision will be to provide the most productive and decent regime practicable within the contract."

The company's custodial services director Wyn Jones, taking the sunny corporate view, told the BBC yesterday: "These are early days at the prison, and we accept completely the report's recommendations for future improvements. Among many areas of good practice across the prison identified by the report, we are especially pleased that it commended the extent to which prisoners feel safe in HMP Thameside," he said. "Much remains to be done, but this is a very positive start."


Notes:

Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Thameside  14–17 January 2013  by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, published 14 May 2013. PDF

Chris Hyman's remuneration details are taken from Serco's Annual Report & Accounts 2012, (page 127) PDF

 

About the author

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist. Co-editor of OurKingdom and co-founder of End Child Detention Now. Winner of Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism in 2010. Orwell Prize nominee in 2013.