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The first contracted (private sector) prison in the UK – HM Prison Wolds – opened in 1992 and since then the role of the private sector in running prisons has grown steadily. There are now 14 prisons in England and Wales run by the private sector, holding 17% of the prison population.

The contracting-out of imprisonment to the private sector remains controversial. Some argue that the involvement of the private sector has created a diverse market, driving up standards and promoting efficiencies, while others argue that imprisonment is a function which the state should not delegate and prisons should not be for profit. Debate about whether contracted prisons perform better or worse or represent better value for money than their counterparts in the public sector continues apace.

This note offers an overview of some of the main areas of controversy and debate.


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