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How big business profits from Britain’s borders

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In an extract from Leah Cowan’s upcoming book Border Nation, the author lays out the profit motive that keeps big business invested in maintaining the UK’s borders.

18 Mar 2021

Christo Musinguzi

‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ – Jimmy Mubenga’s final words, 2010 

All detention centres and short-term holding facilities in the UK, with the exception of Morton Hall, which is run by the government, are run by private security companies: Mitie, GEO Group, G4S and Serco. Running detention centres is a profitable business for many reasons, including the lack of laws regulating them and limited public outrage or concern for the human rights of people detained indefinitely under immigration powers. The companies listed above also run prisons and prison-related services in the UK, as well as globally – which we will discuss below.

As well as managing detention centres, G4S also runs the second largest private prison in the world – South Africa’s Mangaung Prison – and provided security for the notorious North Dakota Access Pipeline which threatened sacred lands and water supplies.

Serco runs eleven immigration detention centres in Australia (one of which made headlines in 2015, when 900 people inside launched a hunger strike – with some swallowing razor blades and washing powder, and others sewing their lips together) and is currently operating a twelve-year contract to implement part of Obamacare in the US. 

Among other workstreams, Mitie takes home a further £500m a year for cleaning and catering contracts across the UK, as well as being two years into a ten-year contract for escorting people to be deported or removed from the UK. GEO Group is one of the largest providers of private prisons in the US.

One of its subsidiaries donated $225,000 to US president Donald Trump’s ongoing electoral campaigns. For these huge profit-making companies, operating detention centres – places where people are torn away from families and communities and locked up – are just another slice of the pie chart of their business profits.

Extensive research by Corporate Watch has revealed how these private companies compete to secure contracts to run Britain’s IRCs by offering the lowest possible price for their services. As private companies receive a fixed sum from the government for each person they detain, any savings on that amount (for example, ways to avoid spending the whole amount on detaining that person) can be pocketed by the business – this is the ‘profit motive’ for providing cheap, inhumane living conditions for incarcerated people.

Low costs and high profits are achieved in different ways, including through paying people in detention a mere £1 an hour (one eighth of the national minimum wage) to cook and clean in the centres. In many cases people end up performing the same jobs they were detained for doing outside of detention, for an increment of their previous wage, while savings pile up for the government and profits pour in to private companies. 

“Mitie takes home a further £500m a year for cleaning and catering contracts across the UK, as well as being two years into a ten-year contract for escorting people to be deported or removed from the UK”

Another way of driving down the cost of detaining people is to offer very little or limited healthcare support or medication to people who are incarcerated – particularly if the required medication is costly. Many people in detention report queuing for a long time to see a health professional, to then be accused of exaggerating or making up their issue, and are often blanketly given basic painkillers. 

On occasions when people are taken to hospital, often they will be forced to attend their appointment in handcuffs, which can be both uncomfortable and humiliating – sometimes people will avoid hospital appointments because of this. 

On Detained Voices, one person explains the poor healthcare they received in Yarl’s Wood: 

“My legs [have] been so swollen that I was rushed to Bedford hospital for suspected DVT [Deep Vein Thrombosis], and immediately put on blood-clot-prevention-injection called warfarin, but since then nothing has been done [. . .] my medication[s] have been changed and downgraded because healthcare can’t afford them, and the meds given are generic.” 

Similarly, another woman I spoke to who was detained in Yarl’s Wood a few years ago reported staff refusing to take her health condition seriously: “When I told them I was suffering from [high blood pressure] [. . .] they just gave me paracetamol, until I started bleeding out of my nose, that’s when they took me to Bedford [hospital]. So from Bedford, that’s where they started treating me. They told me I will have to be on medication for the rest of my life.” 

“Even animals would not like it”

Substandard food with low nutritional value given to people in detention also contributes to deterioration in peoples’ physical and mental health. As one person in detention described on Detained Voices: “The food is tasteless, rice and chicken, potato every week, the chips are cold, the food is totally outrageous, totally s**t, tasteless, doesn’t taste of anything.” 

Another statement says that “even animals would not like it”, and a person detained in Harmondsworth IRC comments that “The food is very bad. They know the food is not good. Last night they just gave me bread and rice, no sauce, nothing”. 

Similarly, the 2016 Shaw review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention noted that food in detention is “poor”, that “portions were very small” and people inside commented that dishes failed to ‘reflect the diets of African people’.

This reality appears to disregard the UK’s 2001 Detention Centre rules, which stipulate that food in detention must be ‘wholesome, nutritious, well prepared and served, reasonably varied, sufficient in quantity and meet all religious, dietary, cultural and medical needs’. However, of course serving repetitive dishes of low quality, high-carbohydrate food helps the private companies who run detention centres to keep costs low. 

Low quality, unvaried food is not only unpleasant to eat, but can impact a person’s sense of self. A swathe of research and writing on incarceration has demonstrated that institutions are not just built with the bricks and mortar of prison walls, but constructed through the small, everyday ways in which prisoners’ lives are restricted. The connections we make between our food, our bodies, and our identities are at risk of disruption in a setting of incarceration where food is repetitive, tasteless and ethnocentric.

As Rebecca Godderis suggests, in her study based on interviews with people in prison: without the ability to make choices about our food, the result can be a sense of alienation from our own bodies. This process of alienation can have the consequence of keeping people compliant, or it can boil over into dissent and protest. 

“Beginning in 2002, G4S worked with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to co-manage the Israeli government’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza”

That the British government continues to award contracts to private companies operating in this inhumane way should raise questions, at the very least.

In 2013 and 2014, both Serco and G4S were forced to repay over £70m and £109m respectively to the Ministry of Justice, after it came to light that the companies had been over-billing the government for their prisoner electronic tagging services. This practice included charging for tagging over 3,000 people who weren’t actually wearing tags – it was discovered that some were dead, and others had been re-detained.

Evidently, competence and transparency aren’t key specifications when these contracts are awarded. These companies are notorious for engaging in shady and controversial business, such as G4S’s recently terminated contracts with the Israeli government.

Beginning in 2002, G4S worked with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to co-manage the Israeli government’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 2006, G4S took charge of checkpoints in an attempt to normalise and depoliticise Israel’s control of the movement of Palestinian people, in the same way that the British government uses private security companies (rather than ‘prison officers’) in an attempt to minimise the sinister optics of detaining people in the UK. 

“The UK now has 14 privately run prisons, all run by G4S, Serco and Sodexo, a company which has a 20% stake in CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), the second largest private prison and immigration detention provider in the US”

Based on government figures that the daily cost of detaining a person is around £87, a report by human rights organisation Liberty revealed that limiting immigration detention to 28 days would create potential savings of £55–65m a year.

As a short-term solution, ending indefinite detention could improve the lives of the 25,000 people who are currently detained each year, but it could also lead to a higher churn of more people being detained for short periods. A lack of political will, despite regular reports criticising IRCs, stands in the way of ending indefinite detention. This status quo works well for private companies who are hoping to expand their detention dealings, not limit the playing field. 

Academic Christine Bacon suggests that the boom in private immigration detention dovetails neatly with the UK’s plans to expand its private prison estate, noting the significance of “the number of detention places spaces [sic] available [which] began to sharply increase at the same time as private corporations were beginning to win lucrative contracts in the prison sector”.

The UK now has 14 privately run prisons, all run by G4S, Serco and Sodexo, a company which has a 20% stake in CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), the second largest private prison and immigration detention provider in the US, which is also responsible for detaining children and families at the US-Mexico border. 

No justice in the prison industrial complex 

The evident relationship between these different aspects of legal and justice systems have given rise to the prison industrial complex. The prison industrial complex (PIC) describes this interlinked web of institutions and companies which profit from prisons. The approach of prison abolition – which seeks to break down this web by reducing harm and building safe communities in order to end incarceration – recognises that high levels of incarceration don’t stop the root causes of many ‘crimes’, such as poverty and inequality.

Almost half of people sent to prison in 2018 were sentenced to six months or less, and at the same time, the use of long sentences over ten years has more than doubled since 2006.18 This means that huge numbers of people are having their lives thrown into complete disarray in order to serve very short sentences, and that the amount of people being locked away for substantial chunks of their lives is also skyrocketing, while the actual ‘offences’ aren’t increasing in number or severity. The PIC underpins this set of circumstances – creating and growing the motivation to continue locking people up. 

Common perceptions that the US criminal justice system is notoriously unequal and racist (which it is) often overlook the fact that the UK actually imprisons more black people, proportionate to its population, than the US does. Black people make up only 3% of the general population in England and Wales, but 12% of the UK’s prison population – whereas black people make up 13% of the general population in the US and 35% of the American prison population.

More broadly, over a quarter of adults and half of young people in prison in the UK are people of colour (PoC), despite the fact that this demographic only makes up 13% of people in Britain. The Lammy review into the treatment of PoC in the UK criminal justice system also revealed that the amount of Muslim people in prison has doubled since 2002.19 These stats paint a picture, similar to immigration detention, in which minoritised and marginalised people are locked up in high numbers, as a ‘quick fix’ response to acts of survival in the face of poverty and inequality.

Prisons and immigration detention overlap in function, as people who have served prison sentences will sometimes be transferred straight to detention at the end of their sentence, and can be detained in designated ‘Foreign National Offender’ (FNO) prisons. Such prisons include HMP Huntercombe near Oxfordshire, which according to Conservative MP John Howell, ‘has gone down terribly well with the locals, who wanted to see those prisoners transferred back. They can go to say goodbye to them, waving as the coach takes them back to the airport.

“Over a quarter of adults and half of young people in prison in the UK are people of colour (PoC), despite the fact that this demographic only makes up 13% of people in Britain”

Howell refers to the practice of FNO prisons to operate as a holding bay for people who are set to be deported. His comments are particularly callous considering that just three years prior, a young man incarcerated in HMP Huntercombe called Darius Lasinskas had taken his own life after being informed that he was to be deported to Lithuania. Lasinskas’ suicide note, which was addressed to a friend who had been supporting him through the process, said that he was fearful of spending three years in a Lithuanian prison, where European human rights watchdogs have reported overcrowding and extreme levels of psychological, physical and sexual abuse. 

The deaths of people in UK prisons threatened with deportation like Lasinskas is a growing issue as the hostile environment continues to intensify. A culture of contempt and disbelief by prison guards, as with guards in immigration detention compounds this situation: in one case study examined by the IRR, a prison officer who found 18-year-old Vinith Kannathasan hanged in his cell described him as having a ‘smirk’ on his face.

Leah Cowan is the former Politics Editor of gal-dem. She works at Project 17, an advice centre which supports migrant families with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). She speaks on race, gender and migration, including for UN Women, in the House of Commons, and at the Trade Unions Congress, and has written for VICE, openDemocracy and the Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @la_cowan.

This edited extract was taken from Border Nation: A Story of Migration, published by Pluto Press on 20 March 2021. Pre-order now.

Editor’s note: The illustration accompanying this article does not depict the borders between England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland. gal-dem recognises that the Republic of Ireland is not part of the United Kingdom.