NOTE: This replaces an early version posted on 22 October, following helpful comments from Phil Wheatley.
That Chris Grayling's savage cuts in staffing levels in public sector prisons helped propelled them into violent chaos is understood by everyone (except, naturally, the Secretary of State). But what of privately run ('contracted') prisons? Until now, we haven't had their staffing numbers. However, I recently obtained numbers of PCOs in contracted prisons for each year 2013-2016. There is also data for 2011. Analysis throws up some interesting and partly unexpected points.
I used figures for PCOs in contracted prisons on 1 January each year 2013-17, recently supplied by MoJ in response to a FoI request. The data is missing for some prisons in 2013. I stitched onto the front of this data from a PQ for PCO numbers in March 2011 (1), thus giving a trend 2011-17. The quality of the data is uncertain: MoJ do not regularly collect it, do not quality assure it, and there is ambiguity e.g. the FoI release states these are 'funded' PCO posts, implying an unknown number may be vacant, and it is unclear whether these are all FTEs. I am seeking clarification. I also looked at changes MoJ's annual payments, prisoner numbers (annual average to avoid seasonal fluctuations), rates of assaults and self harm, and compared trends in public sector prisons.
So, what can be said?
Since 2010, staffing in public sector prisons have been cut by over a quarter, but hardly at all in the private sector – charts 1 and 2
Over the period 2010-17, public sector prisons cut the number of prison officers and Operational Support grades grades by 27%; during 2011-17; but the number of PCOs in the contracted sector rose by 8% (chart 1). But the underlying change – once one has stripped out switches of prisons between one sector and other, and opening of 3 new prisons by the private sector - was a reduction of 23 % in the public sector, but a reduction of just 3% for the private sector (chart 2)
Was this unfair? No. MoJ cut numbers in the public sector because it believed, rightly or wrongly, that these prisons could be run safely with fewer staff. No one ever suggested that was true of contracted prisons as a group, which already had much lower staffing levels. In my time as FD, at least, staffing levels in successful bids were as lean as we thought safe. So to cut levels in contracted prisons, as a group, would have been unjustified and unsafe.
Chart 1 - changes in workforce numbers, public and private sector prisons, 2010-17
Notes: Public sector POs and Opp Support grades, private sector PCOs. Data missing for some prisons in 2013 only.
Chart 2 - underlying change in workforces, 2010-17
Note: data as chart 1 but stripping out switches between sectors and effect of new prisons in private sector.
KEY: BLUE = public sector ORANGE = private sector
Raw numbers in workforce Underlying change
More important for prisoner and staff safety and the quality of regimes than absolute staffing levels is the staff:prisoner ratio. In some contracted prisons, this was affected independently of staffing cuts, either by new capacity came on stream, or by more overcrowding in existing prisons. Three contracted prisons opened in the period that were larger than any previous prison, specifically with the aim of enabling higher staff:prisoner ratios to reduce costs. Thus, although less than half contracted prisons suffered staffing cuts, a majority increased the staff:prisoner ratio, as shown in chart 3. But it wasn't necessarily those with the largest staff cuts that suffered the biggest increase in the staff:prisoner ratio.
Chart 3: cuts in staff numbers mapped onto changes in staff:prisoner ratios, 2011-17
KEY BLUE=% change staff numbers ORANGE=% change in staff:prisoner ratio
Different prisons followed different paths
Contracted prisons did not follow the same staffing trends. Rather, they fell into different groups, as follows.
deep cuts: Altcourse
Only one contracted prison suffered the same deep cuts as the public sector: Altcourse. Francis Maude on appointment Cabinet Office Minister from 2010-12 was charged with securing reductions in contract prices across Government in the aftermath of the banking crisis. This is an aspect of the monopsonist market behaviour analysed in my book. When contracting out started, in the 1990s, it was claimed that contracts would protected operators against constant change, of the kind that public sector managers had to endure. But in a market dominated by a single customer, suppliers will find it hard to resist determined interference in contracts by that customer. (Other exmaples of such interference are MoJ's attempts to foist new national contratcs, for FM services and throughcare, both of them now proved disastrous mistakes, on contracted prisons.)
Altcourse was an obvious target for Maude's cuts because it had always been by far the most costly. When the contract was let in 1995, it was no cheaper than the then extremely inefficient public sector. Partly because it was so generously funded, it had always performed well, as evidenced by Inspection reports, performance measures, the views of successive Director Generals and comparative research by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology (2). It had been an outstanding prison. PCO numbers were cut 25% over the period – as deep as the cuts in the public sector. This was partly because MoJ cut prisoner numbers, thinking it would get more places for its money elsewhere. But by 2017, the staff: prisoner ratio had increased from 1:3.8 to 1: 4.4.
lesser cuts: Bronzefield, Rye Hill, Forest Bank
Less steep cuts were made at Bronzefield (-6%, Forest Bank (-4%) and Rye Hill (-8%) and at all of them, the staff:prisoner ratio also increased significantly.
initial cuts, later partly reversed: Doncaster, Dovegate, Lowdham Grange
At Doncaster and Dovegate, early cuts were later partly reversed, so that the ratio at the end of the period was not far off that at the beginning. At Doncaster the contract was re-competed in 2011. At that point, SERCO had high hopes of winning neighbouring prisons in the massive competition then underway, which would have enabled substantial savings through synergy. Understanding that the only thing that mattered to the customer by then was cutting costs, SERCO bid much lower than the existing contract, and won. But it did not win the other prisons – the scandal of SERCO and G4S's shameless milking of the tagging contracts broke, and SERCO was out of the running. So SERCO was stuck with a too-cheap contract. PCO numbers fell by 17% 2011-2013 and payments fell by a quarter. The staff cuts were almost wholly reversed after 2015, and by 2017, the staff:prisoner ratio of 2011 was restored. But MoJ did not restore previous funding, so the extremely lean profit margin the SERCO accepted in 2011 must now been thin indeed. It is even conceivable the place is now being run at a loss.
Dovegate similarly initially cut PCO numbers by 12% modified by later increases to 9%, and the staff: prisoner ratio rose slightly from 1:4.3 to 1:4.6. Lowdham Grange staff numbers were cut by 8% and the staff:prisoner ratio suffered accordingly, although the staffing levels had by 2017 been increased above 2011 levels, and staff:prisoner ratio also slightly improved from 2011 levels.
prisons where staffing increased: Parc, Peterborough
At Parc, numbers were substantially increased, by 14% , but as prisoner numbers increased also, the staff:prisoner ratio rose from 1:4 to 1:4.8. At Peterborough, staff numbers also increased, by 18% - but again, increases in prisoner numbers pushed the staff:prisoner ratio up from 1:3.8 to 1:4.2.
prisons which opened in the period on very tight staffing, later increased: Thameside, Birmingham, Oakwood, Northumberland
Prisons opening during the period were as it were born into austerity, with extremely tight staffing levels from the outset. They faced extra challenges – start up, or transfer of operator, are notoriously volatile periods, and three were much larger and thus more challenging to run than existing prisons.
In three of these prisons, staffing levels were actually increased over the period - but so were prisoner numbers. So ratios did not necessarily improve. At Oakwood, the staff:prisoner ratio rose to 1:6.6, at Thameside to 1:6.3. Only at Northumberland did an increase in staff very slightly improve the ratio, from an astounding 1:7.2 in 2015 to 1:6.9. At Birmingham staff numbers remained unchanged and so also the ratio, although it has fallen in 2017.
Because of missing data and its complete change of role in the middle of the period, it is not possible to make any statement about staffing trends for Ashfield.
Different prisons also fared differently as regards funding cuts, as MoJ tore up contracts in search of savings. Some suffered really deep cuts: Altcourse lost about £4m a year in real terms 2011-14, which could be justified to some extent, as it was always an expensive place and prisoner numbers dropped. Doncaster, never regarded as an expensive prisons, lost much more as a result of the ultra-low re-bid, about £6m a year (without any reduction in numbers of prisoners). Northumberland also did badly, yet adding to staff numbers, one assumes by cutting margins to the bone. Lowdham had no increase for 6 years, thus a real terms cut of 6% at least. Other prisons fared better: Bronzefield, Parc, Peterborough, Dovegate all got increases.
Exploring the link between staffing cuts and deteriorating conditions
Given that different contracted prisons suffered more or less severe staffing cuts, or none at all, it is possible to test the proposition that the main cause of deteriorating safety in prisons, as measured by rates of assault and self harm, has been reduction in staffing numbers.
Clearly, if staffing is cut too far, hours of unlock have to be reduced, witness the recent shaming report that over a third of young offenders are now locked in their cells at least 22 hours a day (and of course that makes nonsense of grandiose ministerial statements about working to reduce re-offending) (3). And a point must be reached that when prisoners are unlocked, there are too few staff on a large wing spot or intervene to stop bullying, trafficking or outright violence, to help the vulnerable or suicidal.
Staffing cuts may additionally cause problems if the more experienced staff choose or are chosen to go, meaning a loss of knowledge and confidence amongst staff. Additionally, if pay is cut, recruitment and retention may become more difficult. Further, if conditions deteriorate, new staff may feel unsafe and intimidated and may not stay, especially if they can easily earn similar pay elsewhere that is less stressful. All these things have happened in the public sector. But what about the contracted sector?
Impact of staff cuts on safety in contracted prisons
The deepest cut was at Altcourse and was accompanied by huge increases in both rates of assault (two fold increase) and self harm (tripled). The last inspection report on Altcourse focussed on rising violence (4). At first sight, it seems plain that the Maude cuts wantonly destroyed one of the best prisons in the country.
But it isn't as straightforward as that. There were actually bigger increases in rates of violence and self harm in prisons where the staff:prisoner ratio had not increased - or had actually improved. Chart 3 shows prisons with those suffering the greatest increases in staff:prisoner ratios at the top, those with no increase or a reduction in the ratio at the bottom, and in each case show the % change in rate of assault and of self harm. Plainly, there isn't much correlation between worsening staff:prisoner ratios and violence or self harm. Equally striking, there isn't much correlation between changes in rates of assault and changes in rates of self harm.
I am at a loss to explain the figures, and would welcome comments. It is always possible - in the prisons world - that the figures cannot be trusted - and some data certainly looks unlikely. But the data is bound to lead one to question the simple proposition that staff cuts directly caused the present crisis.
Another way of looking at it is that if public sector prisons got into trouble by cutting staffing levels by 27% to match those in the contracted sector, one would expect the contracted sector itself to suffer much the same problems – even without cuts - since they were already at that much lower level. (Though presumably the contrracted sector did not have the same problem of losing experienced staff, and turnover levels seem to be lower than in the 2010s).
Thus, the data is somewhat consistent with the proposition that while the causes of deteriorating safety were (as Minsters have insisted) the spread of the new psychoactive drugs, and gang culture, higher staff: positioner ratios made prisons far less able to cope with these challenges. That is also consistent with the experience of Scottish prisons, where there were not cuts, and conditions have not deteriorated to anything like the same extent (5).
But there remain significant variation in the fate of different prisons that cannot be explained through changes in the staff: prisoner ratio. Is it possible that intangibles such as management style or local culture accounted for that variation?
The case of Thameside
Thameside is an interesting exceptional case: rates of violence and self harm reduced, despite a rise in the staff:prisoner ratio. The prison recently received what was, for a prison nowadays, and especially a London one, a pretty positive inspection report (6). Someone ought to take a closer look and find out what they are doing right.
Chart 4: changes in staff:prisoner ratios mapped against changes in rate of assault and self harm 2011-2016
Note: this covers a slighty different period than chart 3.
Prisons are ranked vertically with those with the largest increase in their staff:prisoner ratio (BLUE BAR) at the top, those with the largest fall in that ratio at the bottom, and in each case case the change in the rate of assaults (ORANGE BAR) and self harm (GREY BAR) are shown for each prison. Thus, one would expect all 3 bars to move together.
Since 2010, the 'race to the bottom' has been driven by the public, not the private sector
The line put about by crusaders against privately operated prisons, that because they are run for profit, they must inevitably cut staffing to unsafe levels in order to maximise profit, has been completely turned on its head by the trend 2010-2017 - three time over.
Firstly, because it was the public sector that made really deep staffing cuts – not the contracted sector.
Second, because where staffing cuts were made in contracted prisons, they were made not by contractors seeking bigger profits, but by the public sector as customer, forcing changes in contracts in order to save money - and forcing contracual changes on operators to do so.
Third, because some contracted prisons responded to gathering operational pressure by increasing staffing levels, sometimes without funding to cover it.
Staff: prisoner ratios at contracted and publicly run prisons have converged
Charts 5 shows staff:prisoner ratios in male locals in each sector. Data for Operational Support Grades on the public side is not available by establishment for the whole period. As the ratio of Operational Support grade staff to Prison Officer grades is roughly 1:3, I have shown the public sector staffing levels inflated by that much. I have drawn on research published by the Howard League for these graphs (6).
Chart 5: staff:prisoner ratios at male local prisons 2010-2016
Public sector: Coldingly, High Down, liverpool, Wandsworth
Contracted sector: Altcourse, Doncaster, Forest Bank, Oakwood, Birmingham
These aren't precise comparisons of course, as no two prisons are ever exactly alike in all respects, and I could have chosen other comparators. Still, it's striking how exactly public and contracted sector staff:prisoner ratios converge in 2016.
So are staffing levels, and staff costs, now the same between sectors?
No, for 2 reasons.
First, research we conducted when I was FD showed that about 12% of the cost difference in staffing was because the private sector gets more hours worked from staff: holidays were shorter, they took much less sick leave, they worked a longer week. That data is now a quarter of a century old; but I'm not aware of changes in the public sector that would much erode that difference (if you know of any, please tell me!). So in terms of staff time actually on duty, the work of 100 Prison Officers can be done by around 90 PCOs (7).
Second, staff unit costs remain higher in the public sector. True, MoJ has dramatically reduced starting pay for Prison Officers, Prison Officer pay has been held back by pay restraint, and the Civil Service Pension Scheme has been overhauled. But still, public sector remuneration is bound still to be significantly ahead, for various reasons:
Why aren't staffing data for contracted prisons routinely published?
I had to make a FoI application for this data. In the past, MoJ and before that the Home Office used sometimes to argue that staffing data for contracted prisons couldn't be produced, either because it wasn't held by the Department, or it was commercially confidential. This release disposes of those arguments.
Where a vital public service is delivered under contract, information that is key to understanding the safety and quality of that service ought to be routinely published, even more so where the same data is routinely published for public organisations delivering the identical service, unless it can be shown compellingly to violate commercial confidentiality in a way that would do real damage. That is not the case here. Staff:prisoner ratios are at the heart of prison safety. Some staffing data for contracted prisons – not precisely the same as for public ones, as different issues arise there, but the basic data on numbers of operational staff – should be published routinely alongside the public sector data.
A final thought
Writing this has reminded me how different the crisis now is from that in 1990. Then, we understood that the near collapse of the system reflected decades of appalling physical conditions, weak or non- existent management, waste, a powerful, anarchic and reactionary trade union, negative and oppressive attitudes and behaviour by some staff and absence of any positive sense of mission. These were things we could do soemthing about, and eventually did. By the late 2000s, the service was in an entirely different and much better state.
This collapse, by contrast, overwhelmed the service in just 3 short years. And I am not sure that anyone really knows how to restore safety and decency in our jails. We seem well and truly lost.
I am not confident that all the data is reliable, or that I have always interpreted it correctly, especially for individual prisons. If you can see something wrong, please comment below.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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