The anonymous transport of prisoners

Yesterday, I had a deeply sinister and disturbing experience. Walking down Fleet Street in central London, on a beautiful, sunny day, I stopped to cross at an intersection. A large, immaculate white van pulled up alongside me. There were loud, repeated banging sounds coming from within the van. But no sign of any face, no sound of any voice. The row of almost aircraft-shaped, vertically rectangular windows were smoked-black and impassive.

On the side of the van was just one name and logo: Serco.

Serco’s website tells us that it is an “international service company which combines commercial know-how with a deep public service ethos”. Explicit reference to the fact that it runs four UK prisons is only to be found once one digs below the blandly euphemistic, “home affairs” moniker.

Surely it is simply evil to make money out of imprisoning people, if this absolutely has to be done? How can we give private companies the right to benefit from the numbers of people handed over to their care, when this creates an incentive for them to keep more, rather than fewer people in their facilities? How can a company that makes money out of holding prisoners have any interest in their rehabilitation?

I little suspected, when watching the film Taking Liberties on the flight from Cape Town to London, that I would encounter some evidence of the erosion of a civil society it describes. A civil society does not hide the fact that it takes prisoners, if it has to take them.

I have written to Serco, asking how one can contact prisoners in their care.

Update: There was never any response to my request lodged with Serco.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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3 Responses to The anonymous transport of prisoners

  1. Ian says:

    What a laughable piece of commentary. The government sets the terms of imprisonment and runs the parole system that manages early release. All that the prison operator does is hold inmates at the government’s direction. You really ought to think before you write.

  2. David says:

    Ian, I gather from your use of the word ‘laughable’ and observations on my thoughtfulness that you consider jeering to be essential part of online discussion. No matter. My points are that the experience of inmates in any institution is likely to affect their chances of rehabilitation; that a corporation has no interest in successfully rehabilitating prisoners or faciliating their good behaviour (and hence chances of parole); that corporate employees are unlikely to have the same sense of public duty as public servants; that the presence of prisons and prisoners within a society should not be disguised.

  3. Ben says:

    Sorry – I too disagree on almost all of this. In no paticular order:

    What you saw was a prisoner transport van (probably going to or from the courts on the Strand if it was on Fleet St) a separate service Serco offer to the prisons they run.

    It’s ‘home affairs’ because it’s services to the Home Office mostly.

    I don’t believe it’s evil to make a profit from running a prison – the government has selected this as a cost-effective way to obtain this service and all the people held are convicted criminals – they are the ones in the wrong. Standards are set out in a great deal of detail and inspected frequently. Under achievement = lost contract.

    Prisoners are sent to prison by the courts – Serco have no control over that.

    All the rules about prisoner detention facilities and standards are set by the government not by Serco. The process (if any – not sure?) for contacting their inmates would be the same for any other company or a government-run prison.

    Private companies are absolutely interested in rehabilitation and care because they’re inspected by the prisons service frequently, happier / engaged inmates cause less trouble and the people who work there are professionals who don’t forget their morals / profession because of who employs them.

    You condemn a well-respected company (in its sectors) on the perception that they are shady and uncaring. This isn’t fair or informed – it would be wise to investigate if your concerns are true before making a judgement.

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