As it happens yesterday was Serco's AGM, ironically held almost within a stones-throw of the brand new, but failing prison. We know it's failing because that's the conclusion that must be drawn from the unannounced inspection carried out by HMI staff in January:-
"Information we received about Thameside suggested a need to bring forward our first inspection of this establishment and, as a consequence, we inspected the prison when it had been open for just 9 months. Our findings overall were very mixed and improvement was required for most aspects of the prison - in particular, safety, the provision of purposeful activity and meeting the resettlement needs of prisoners.
Prisoner's reception into custody was reasonable if a bit chaotic and our survey findings suggested prisoners felt safe. Levels of assaults however, were too high and of concern - prisoners semed to lack confidence in what in fairness was an inexperienced staff group, to deal with and protect them from violence or delinquency. In the autumn, and as an operational response to rising levels of violence the prison had taken the usual step of effectively locking down the prison, severely curtailing the regime and in particular prisoner access to time unlocked. 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.
The prison's regime was one of the most restricted we have ever seen. Time out of the cells was very limited. We found 60% of prisoners locked up during the working day, and some spent 23 hours in their cells. 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."
Apart from excellent accommodation (it is a brand new prison) it's hard to see much in this report that's positive. No wonder private prisons are keen to supply Sky subscription channels to prisoners as a way of keeping them 'occupied.' I'm also intrigued by Nick Hardwick's opening words "Information we received....One could speculate about the HMI getting shoals of letters from angry inmates, but that must be routine, or possibly a whistelblower?
Maybe the answer is a bit more straight forward than that. With all private prisons, NOMS/MoJ don't just hand the keys over, they always install an official 'spy' who I suppose is there to ensure contract compliance. Now I'm not an expert on these matters, but I could speculate that Serco might well have had reason to feel that they were indeed performing to what was specified in the contract - and we all know how good the MoJ's track-record is on drawing-up contracts - but that might not be the same thing as running an efficient, effective and safe prison regime. I wonder if the official MoJ spy just gives the HMI a call? Anyway, the Howard League for Penal Reform were quick to make comment on the report:-“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."
Of course Andrew Neilson is right and should serve as a warning to us all as to what we can expect if Serco win significant probation contracts. The OurKingdom website covered the story in some detail and picked up on the money Serco was making out of lucrative government contracts:-
"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."
They also picked up on the fact that healthcare provision at the prison has been contracted out by the NHS to a campany called Harmoni for Health. This sort of sub-contracting doesn't sound promising for what will be the norm in a privatised probation service:-
"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."
But we shouldn't be that surprised should we, because it's supposedly all about a more efficient and cost-effective service isn't it? The first thing Serco did when they took over the London Probation Community Payback contract was make a whole load of staff redundant, thus reducing the supervision of offenders on CP.
As for Harmoni for Health, well that gives yet another bit of insight into the privatisation going on in the NHS as this Guardian article highlights:-
"Harmoni's finances are complex, with hundreds of shareholders and different classes of stocks. According to an analysis of documents filed with Companies House, five GPs figure prominently and own a quarter of the company between them. If each share has an equal stake, the GP founders of the company, David Lloyd and Nizar Merali, would share £2.8m. This could easily more than double, if just their preference shares are valued, to £6.3m.