Academic journal article Capital & Class

'It Was Absolute Hell': Inside the Private Prison

Academic journal article Capital & Class

'It Was Absolute Hell': Inside the Private Prison

Article excerpt

Introduction

A primary aim of the neoliberal project, of which privatisation is a signal feature, has been to open up new fields for capital accumulation in areas previously considered immune from the 'calculus of profitability' (Harvey, 2005: 160; Kerr, 1998). Indeed, it is argued that privatisation should be seen as part of an effort by the state to disengage from investment while stimulating capital accumulation (Kerr, 1998), giving the private sector lucrative investment opportunities while providing the legal, social and economic structures to enable employers to drive down wage levels and increase worker efficiency. All kinds of public utility, transportation, social welfare provision and public institutions have been privatised to varying degrees throughout the capitalist world; but prison privatisation provides an excellent example of the marketisation of a core state activity that seemed fanciful only a short time ago. In the UK, an outlandish proposal made by a marginal far-right think tank (Adam Smith Institute, 1984) became mainstream government policy, and generated a multi-million-pound market (Cavadino & Dignan, 2006).

The privatisation discourse of successive UK governments has always stressed the importance of market disciplines in breaking up 'unnatural' monopolies, subjecting them to efficiency-generating competition, restoring managerial prerogative, and improving service quality. Yet it is not universally acknowledged that labour and the labour process have been central concerns of those driving privatisation. Apart from the desire to reduce absolute numbers in what were stigmatised as the bloated public-sector workforces, the aim is to use labour more flexibly, hence intensively, through process re-engineering in order to raise productivity (Ellis & Taylor, 2006; Glyn, 2006). The achievement of these objectives is related to the euphemistically termed 'reform' of employment relations, which is essentially the recasting of workers' terms and conditions through a sustained assault on trade unions. The abrupt and radical nature of the Conservatives' privatisation of nationalised industries during the 1980s stimulated a body of critical literature exploring the consequences for employment relations (e.g. Coiling & Ferner, 1995; Ferner & Coiling, 1991; O'Connell Davidson, 1993; Pendleton, 1997; Pendleton & Winterton, 1993). While the impact was uneven (1) and sectorally contingent (Arrowsmith, 2003), common outcomes were observed: widespread redundancies, decentralised bargaining, new management styles ('macho' or 'partnership'), diminished union influence, lean staffing and work intensification.

Of course, the application of market mechanisms was not restricted to nationalised industries. Compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) was followed in the early 1990s by the private finance initiative (PFI), which significantly expanded the private sector's role in providing services in local government, the civil service, the NHS and elsewhere (Corby & White, 1999). Notwithstanding rhetorical claims to the contrary, New Labour extended privatisation and broadened the rationale of PFI to encompass public-private partnerships (PPPs), in which public-sector organisations commission and pay for services, but do not directly provide them (Treasury, 2000). The modernisation agenda was centred on 'best value' (BV), which put 'users of services centre stage' while maintaining a 'strong emphasis on competition'. Ostensibly intended to remove the narrow prescription and cost minimisation that tarnished CCT (Blair, 1998), BV actually led to tighter performance management directed at raising service standards and leveraging efficiencies (Richardson et al., 2005). The interests of 'producers' were further subordinated to 'consumers' as Blair (2002) insisted on 'more flexible staff working practices' and a 'break away from outdated systems' of industrial relations.

In contrast to the first privatisations, much less attention has been paid to the impact on employees from PFI and, particularly, from Labour's PPP initiatives. …

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