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Issue #1763      February 1, 2017

Cagey record? Run our prisons

Just before Christmas, a small local authority in Texas called Willacy County launched a lawsuit. They were suing a private prison company called MTC for a 2015 riot at a jail they ran in Raymondville, the biggest town – population 11,000 – in Willacy County. The riot led to the prison closing.

”In each of the 200 inmate housing pods, a single correctional officer was posted for the duration of an eight-hour shift.”

Like a lot of small towns in the US, Raymondville really depended on the prison. The jail paid Willacy County for every inmate it held. This raised about US$2.7 million a year – about a third of the county’s US$8.1 million general budget. The prison also employed 400 local people. Willacy County are suing MTC for losses of “tens of millions of dollars”.

This is not just a sad story about how high US imprisonment rates mean small US towns end up relying on badly run private jails for jobs. The Willacy lawsuit wasn’t reported in Britain, but it matters to us.

It matters because our government has turned to the US firm who are being sued in Texas as one of their new favourite contractors. Following the embarrassing scandals around G4S and SERCO, the government didn’t admit privatising prisons and security was a bad thing. Instead they just tried to find a new firm to give the contracts. They chose MTC – who trade in Britain as MTC Novo.

In 2016 the government gave MTC the job of running the troubled Rainsbrook detention centre after G4S failed there. The latest Ofsted inspectors report say MTC’s Rainsbrook work is “inadequate” in key areas.

In 2014, the government also gave MTC the huge £982 million contract to run privatised probation in London. This service is supposed to steer ex-offenders away from crime and into jobs and housing. If probation fails, crime goes up and people get hurt.

Last year the Chief Inspector of Probation gave a deeply critical report of MTC’s probation work, saying their service was “unacceptable” as their “poor work means [the] public [are] more at risk.”

None of this would have been a shock if the government had paid attention to Willacy County, Texas. The prison was already a byword for misery when the American Civil Liberties Union began criticising it in 2014.

The jail was made up of huge tents. Close to 3,000 prisoners were warehoused in big open dormitories under the Kevlar tents. Their bunk beds were squished together in the tents. Inmates’ regular complaints about grim conditions and abuse by guards broke out into a riot which destroyed the jail. The Willacy County lawsuit paints a picture of management cynicism and squalor.

The County said: “MTC failed to properly oversee, manage, and repair the prison and turned a blind eye to the enormous problems that plagued the prison from its inception.”

“Problems with flooding toilets, water seeping underneath the property, rodents, and lack of access to basic inmate services plagued the facility on MTC’s watch.

“MTC allowed the abysmal conditions to continue without taking any action of notifying the County of or attempting to rectify the problems with the prison. Further, MTC failed to address the issue of prison overcrowding, presumably because MTC was paid an additional per diem for inmates beyond the 90 percent capacity threshold. Two hundred inmates slept in each housing pod, there was insufficient room between beds and new inmates were forced to stay in solitary confinement because of overcrowding.

“Tensions ran high due to MTC’s mismanagement of the prison and its conditions and inmates routinely protested, including refusing to return to the tents until the toilets were fixed. In each of the 200 inmate housing pods, a single correctional officer was posted for the duration of an eight-hour shift.”

Prisoners rioting and destroying the massive, squalid tent-pods in which they were held sounds like a scene from a dystopian science fiction film. It doesn’t sound like a good future for penal policy. But our government decided to give the firm behind the grim scenes probation and prison contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds. It never visited Willacy County jail. It didn’t revise its decision to hand over contracts to MTC after the jail burnt down. They turned a blind eye because their powerful urge to privatise all services cannot be stopped by anything as simple as evidence of failure.

Community sticks two-fingers up at union efforts

GMB and other unions are making real efforts to recruit in and change conditions among the zero-hours, agency-employee, bottom end of the labour market. But it appears that Community has stuck a big two-fingers up at their efforts, at a cost both to the other unions and the workers they represent.

As the Star reported last week, Community has cut a deal with the bosses to carve out rival union GMB around the Asos warehouse in Barnsley.

Community has signed a “sweetheart deal” with XPO, the agency which runs the fashion retailer’s massive warehouse. GMB has been organising at the warehouse for months, leafleting at the gates every morning, signing up members, highlighting bad conditions for the workers.

So Community has decided to become the bosses’ “sweetheart,” not the workers’ friend. They have signed a deal with XPO to represent the members, even though they haven’t recruited on the ground.

They want to become the union at the warehouse thanks to backing from the bosses, not membership among the workers.

XPO are letting Community offer “six month free” membership to workers inside the warehouse, as a trick to keep out the GMB. If they only have a place inside the workplace at the bosses’ say-so, how will they ever represent the staff properly? They will act like a company union.

Community are a small union, based on the former steelworkers’ union. Their leaders want to grow the union by undemocratic, dirty tactics. They have long been a main supporter of Labour’s right wing.

Their general secretary regularly appears on platforms with Progress, the organisation of the New Labour ultras. Last August, Community also gave £20,000 to “Labour Tomorrow Ltd,” the shadowy organisation set up to fight Corbyn.

Community’s rank and file membership should seriously question these moves by their leadership.

Morning Star

Next article – Divisive policies slammed

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