Long Read | Mystery of G4S and its prison stranglehold

The company controversially continues to bag huge contracts despite dramas and scandals in the correctional facilities it runs in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The British multinational security services provider G4S is one of the best-kept secrets in South Africa. It is one of the country’s biggest private employers with about 15 000 people on its payroll, running a prison and providing cash-in-transit as well as banking, ATM and cash-processing services. 

G4S is also the world’s biggest private security services contractor. It runs operations in about 90 countries and employs at least 570 000 people worldwide. In 2019, it delivered revenue worth £7.7 billion (about R155 billion). G4S runs prisons in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa under its so-called care and justice services

Soon, however, G4S may be no more. American security provider Allied Universal made a £3.8 billion bid to buy the company, which the board accepted but shareholders still need to assess. If the bid is accepted, G4S will cease to exist. Allied will take its place as the world’s biggest private security services provider with an estimated revenue of £13.5 billion. “The combination of G4S and Allied Universal creates the global leader in security with over 750 000 employees, industry-leading capabilities and unrivalled market coverage,” said G4S chief executive Ashley Almanza.

It remains to be seen if Allied will be in charge of Mangaung Correctional Centre, a G4S-run detention facility in Bloemfontein, the Free State’s capital. Allied announced it would sell G4S’ prison business because the company lacks the experience and desire to work with the government, an article in The Times in the UK recently pointed out. The future of G4S’ rather troubled prisons remains unclear. The equally troubled private prison contractor Serco, which was criminally fined for fraudulently tagging inmates, has shown an interest. 

The future of Mangaung prison might be unclear, but its past is very clearly marred by violence, lawlessness and abuse. About 500 men and women work at the all-male prison, which houses nearly 3 000 inmates. The Department of Correctional Services took control of the prison in 2013 for 10 months because G4S had lost control. The department promised it would release an investigation report that same year, but only released it in February 2020 following a court order. 

The report confirmed that the company used antipsychotic drugs irregularly and factually documented the violence used to subdue inmates. But the department has not taken any action against G4S, despite evidence that it endorses and allows the abusive treatment of those incarcerated in Mangaung prison. 

History of misdeeds

This pattern of bad behaviour, marked by a lack of any form of accountability, is extreme in South Africa but not so unusual. In the UK, where G4S is headquartered, the company has run into a long list of incarceration-related scandals. And though on the face of it there seems to be more consequences for its misdeeds in the UK, a deeper analysis reveals that this might just be lip service. 

The news that G4S had landed a £300 million contract to run a so-called mega-prison in the UK barely made headlines in October 2020. Yet it should have raised red flags because, a month earlier, G4S was fined £44 million for defrauding the British government by listing about 3 000 “phantom” inmates under its contract to provide electronic monitoring to prisoners. Three managers who were involved in this fraud were arrested and brought before court. 

What should also be a cause for concern is that because of mismanagement, the company’s prisons have been taken back by the state in two territories. The British government took control of a G4S-run prison in Birmingham in August 2018 because violence and drug abuse were rife. This followed televised BBC undercover reports in 2016 and 2017 on a G4S-run immigration detention centre, Brookhouse, and a youth detention centre called Medway in Kent. 

The reports revealed issues similar to those that were uncovered at Mangaung prison. G4S staff were verbally and physically abusing the detainees in both centres, and racism and drug use were rife. Following the reports of abuse at Medway, G4S withdrew from running youth detention centres in the UK. Similarly, it is also no longer running immigration detention centres, following reports of abuse and violence at Brookhouse. 

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G4S announced recently that it will leave the South African prison sector once the contract expires in 2026. It can continue to run the troubled prison for another five years. According to the National Treasury, G4S earned a 30 % return-on-equity rate on the prison, an indication of very handsome profit margins. 

How can G4S globally continue earning a profit from its incarceration contracts without suffering any real consequences? Are the civil servants tasked with overseeing the criminal justice sector sleeping? Or are the government and the multinational protecting each other? G4S hides behind “corporate confidentiality” clauses that make it hard to find out the monetary value of contracts or determine who exactly was involved in securing the deals. But a closer look at G4S’ detention operations in South Africa and the UK brings some pertinent issues to the fore. 

Mangaung Correctional Centre

Mervin West is an inmate at Mangaung prison. He has been held there since 2012 on, so he claims, wrongfully levelled charges. On 11 August 2020, West reported that the prison management had not provided the inmates with face masks or hand sanitiser. On 8 November, West claimed that staff members had stopped wearing masks and that the prison did not dispense soap to inmates any longer. 

The SABC reported in August that angry Mangaung inmates, who accused prison management of trying to conceal Covid-19 cases, set fire to their cells and damaged property. In July, a G4S official was allegedly stabbed by an angry inmate and ended up in hospital. The South African Human Rights Commission announced it would take action, but as of mid-November it had not yet done so. 

West claims several people have died in Mangaung prison from Covid-19. This has been confirmed by two staff members, who said: “Two inmates died of corona in an outside hospital. Two staff members died of Covid – one of them was a guy who worked at the pharmacy and the other was a regular staff member. The management is trying to create a hush-hush atmosphere, whereby this information does not leave the prison. But we won’t stand for it.” 

According to West’s record-keeping, since the outbreak of the pandemic, at least 111 staff members and 52 inmates have been infected. 

Worryingly, the violence at Mangaung Prison continues. A former G4S worker, Audick “Shakes” Letsoara, said that on 11 October an official was stabbed by an inmate so badly that he had to be admitted to an external hospital. He nearly died. 

No answers

“G4S is not permitted to engage with the media without the express permission of the [Department of Correctional Services],” is all that G4S would comment. 

Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts is the consortium of shareholders – G4S is one of five – that formally signed the contract to run and maintain Mangaung prison. Its chairperson, Itumeleng Mokoena, did not answer any of the questions sent to him about the Covid-related deaths and riots. 

Instead, he stated: “Since the onset of the pandemic in South Africa, the Mangaung Correctional Centre has applied the strictest Covid-19 protocols, which include the provision of [personal protective equipment], social distancing, deep cleaning, the rotation and management of shifts, and ongoing employee and inmate screening.”

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Singabakho Nxumalo, the department’s spokesperson, was sent the same list of questions that G4S had received, yet despite several reminders he never responded. 

Mangaung prison, mired in bloodshed, abuse and violence for nearly two decades, seems to continue along its path of destruction without much change. This is evident from West’s recent run-in with prison authorities. 

Two prison guards found him in possession of a cellphone on 25 November. West heard the guards say to each other: “Let’s take him to a unit where there are lots of Air Forces [a prison gang] so that they can stab him and he can phone the journalist […] We will tell her that you are busy with gangsterism and are jeopardising the security of the prison.” 

West is a general in the 26s prison gang and inter-gang warfare is common at Mangaung. He asked to be placed in an isolation cell for his own protection after he heard the threats. The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, a semi-governmental prison watchdog, visited West recently to find out if he was safe. He filed an affidavit under oath with the inspectorate outlining the threats made against him. 

Track record in the UK 

G4S’ recent win of a £300 million contract to run a “mega-prison” – housing about 1 700 inmates – in the town of Wellingborough was met with surprise and consternation. Various reports mentioned the company’s chequered and problematic prisons track record in the UK. 

Martin Field worked as a correctional officer at the defunct Wellingborough Prison, the site of the new jail. He was the regional chair for the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) union when the prison, run by the state, was put to a so-called market test in 2008-2009. 

Private contractors and the public prison service compiled competitive bids. Field was part of the team that put together the bid for the public prison service. At the time, it was known that private prisons were performing much worse than public prisons, following a freedom of information request by Channel 4. 

20 August 2018: A view of Birmingham Prison in England. It was taken over by the British Ministry of Justice after inspectors said it had fallen into a ‘state of crisis’ while run by G4S. (Photograph by Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images)

Wellingborough Prison was withdrawn from the process because the building was considered too dilapidated. The government then financed the renovation of the building before it awarded G4S the contract in 2020, to Field’s surprise. He says G4S’ bid was probably very similar to its 2009 bid. “The main focus in privatisation processes is labour costs. The bids at the time all centred on reducing the number of staff and cutting down wages.” 

Still fresh in the minds of most British people is the dramatic takeover of G4S-run Birmingham Prison in 2018. The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, described the correctional facility as being in “a state of crisis”. 

The inspectorate released a report in August 2018 in which it warned the government to launch an investigation into the prison because there had been a “dramatic deterioration” at the facility. Clarke said Birmingham was the worst prison he had ever seen. It had been marred by extensive drug use, and inspectors found blood, rat droppings and vomit on the floors. Alarm was also raised because of an unusual number of prisoner deaths. 

State takeovers

In 2018, the government took over control of the prison and decided that the takeover was permanent. In the UK, it was the first time the government had to resort to this, but it was not the first time G4S had to relinquish control of a prison it ran to the state. 

In October 2013, the South African state stepped in to take control of Mangaung prison. The department ran it for 10 months and handed it back to G4S in August 2014. There was no public explanation of that decision and no accountability imposed on the company for its transgressions. 

In South Africa, a private contractor accused of torturing and involuntary medicating inmates can continue running a prison, even after the government itself concluded that torture and irregular distribution of antipsychotic medication were taking place in the prison. 

In the UK, Birmingham Prison was not returned to G4S. The jail had been state-run before G4S appeared on the scene. Around 2009, the government wanted to “market-test” prisons in the UK whereby the private and public sectors would compete for the contracts alongside each other. G4S won the contract for Birmingham Prison, much to the chagrin of labour unions. At the time, the prison employed 752 officers.

Brian Clarke is a former prison guard and a POA union official who worked at Birmingham Prison from 1984 while it was in state hands and after G4S took over in October 2011. He retired in 2016. According to Clarke, a toxic mix of circumstances affected the situation at the prison when G4S was in charge. The old guards with their civil servant contracts were too expensive for the company, says Clarke. The company hired much cheaper, younger and often barely experienced prison guards. 

“The turnover of staff was immense,” Clarke said. At the same time, national budget cuts in the field of prisons meant spending on prisons and prison guards was substantially reduced. 

Clarke says the prison was well run before G4S took over. Three other former Birmingham G4S guards agree with him. 

Increasing dangers

“After G4S took over, assaults on staff members went through the roof,” said Adrian Watts, who started work as a prison official at Birmingham Prison in 1992 and left in 2017. Watts was assaulted in 2015. An inmate bit him in the leg and he needed antiviral treatment and had to recover for three months. The increase in assaults happened, says Watts, because the ratio of officials to inmates went down drastically. Staffing levels were halved. 

“Everything deteriorated. We did not have enough staff members to handle our work. Some nights, there was just one other prison official in the entire prison besides me.” And, he says, “the cells were in a horrible state of disrepair, absolutely disgraceful”. This last observation is confirmed by investigation reports of the prison inspectorate. 

Paul Meadows, a former G4S guard who worked at Birmingham Prison from 2002 to 2012, was assaulted at work twice in 2011. The last time he had to be taken to hospital. “Assaults increased during the period the prison was being market tested in the run-up to G4S’ takeover,” Meadows said. 

“When I started the job there would be two officers on every landing. There were four landings – or floors – on each wing [the prison contains 11 wings]. A wing would house approximately 120 to 150 inmates. There would be nine officers per 150 prisoners. Plus, officers working on other wings could offer help in emergencies. We were down to about three officers per wing. G4S hired people who were not qualified or trained to do this work,” Meadows explained. 

“Before the prison was market tested and staff was reduced, I felt confident at work. Yes, inmates could assault you, but your colleagues would immediately be there to rescue you. One day, I was assaulted, and I was the only officer on the top two landings.” A prisoner had grabbed him and bashed his face several times. Meadows sustained a broken jaw and a bruised face. The psychological damage was more severe. “I suffered from PTSD for months.”  

20 August 2020: G4S prison officers walk past Birmingham Prison, where the alarm was raised over widespread drug abuse and a high number of prisoner deaths while under G4S control. (Photograph by Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images)

Eddy Povey started work at Birmingham Prison in 2003 and retired in 2017. “Staffing levels were amazing,” he said about the period before G4S took over. “The wing I worked on had 12 officers. After the G4S takeover, staff on my wing was reduced to five officers.” 

Birmingham Prison used to employ close to 750 officers. After G4S took over, this dropped to below 300. “The staff reduction led to more injuries,” said Povey. “Prisoners acted out and knew that there was not enough staff to control them.” 

In 2017, there were 1 147 assaults recorded at Birmingham. It was the highest figure for prisons in the UK that year and a fivefold increase in attacks that had taken place in the prison since G4S took over in 2011. 

Arguably, the situation at Birmingham Prison was caused by G4S’ poor management as well as by nationally imposed prison budget cuts. 

Political ties 

In the UK as well as globally, G4S has a verifiable bad track record in the field of prisons. Yet this does not seem to affect its potential to win huge contracts. Megan Hawkins, a spokesperson for the British Ministry of Justice, explained its choice: “G4S developed a detailed proposal that meets our quality and financial thresholds and provides a high-quality, value for money, sustainable approach underpinned by the right resources. This meets our requirement for a custodial service that is safe, secure and rehabilitative, supporting our priority to protect the public and reduce reoffending.” 

Hawkins added: “Privately run prisons are among the best-performing across the estate and have been consistently praised by independent inspectors. In jails managed by G4S, 95% of the scores marked by HM Inspectorate of Prisons show their establishments are performing as ‘good’ or ‘reasonably good’ – the top ratings available.”

The ministry refused, after repeated follow-up questions, to share the value of the contract. Neither would it clarify what its position is on G4S’ lengthy list of national and global prison scandals, or the fact that the UK government is handing G4S a huge prison contract while the company stands accused of defrauding it. 

In May 2019, an analysis based on parliamentary data revealed that private prisons in the UK are more violent than publicly run jails. 

While the UK government’s approach to G4S is seemingly different to that of the South African state, the company enjoys governmental protection in both countries. It is very hard to properly analyse this entanglement, but a few salient appointments do raise eyebrows and might help to explain why G4S keeps landing profitable contracts despite its terrible track record. 

Appointments and alliances

Peter Small was appointed by the ministry as interim governor of Birmingham Prison in the period before G4S stepped in. When G4S took over in 2011, Small started working for G4S and became the new governor of Birmingham Prison. “A total conflict of interest,” Clarke said. 

Around the same time, Phil Wheatley, the then national director general of the prison service, was appointed by G4S in a consultancy role. Right up until the moment he left the prison service, Wheatley had oversight of the tendering process. His appointment enraged the labour unions. 

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G4S also hired John Reid, a former defence secretary of state, former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Condon, and former energy regulator Claire Spottiswoode. Last year, G4S appointed as a director a former commissioner on low pay, Claire Chapman, during the same period that a big Norwegian shareholder withdrew its support for the company because G4S treated its workers in Gulf states inhumanely and allowed slavery-like conditions in their workplace.  

In South Africa, G4S hired Frikkie Venter to run Mangaung prison. He was a high-level correctional official at the Department of Correctional Services and had been responsible for the contract negotiations between G4S and the department. The ink had barely dried before Venter was in G4S’ employ. 

Further close political alliances are also noticeable at the top of the company in South Africa. Sandile Zungu is one of them; his company, Zungu Investments, has a 13% stake in the business. Zungu is known to have bankrolled Zuma’s presidential campaign and collaborated with the Gupta family, notorious for their corrupt business dealings and government ties. 

G4S provided security for practically every Gupta enterprise, including four mines: Optimum Coal, Brakfontein and Koornfontein in Mpumalanga, and the Shiva uranium mine in Hartbeesfontein, Gauteng. The company also provided private security at the Gupta residence in Johannesburg as well as for the family computer business, Sahara Computers. 

Furthermore, a 2009 parliamentary investigation revealed that high-ranking department officials owned shares in Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts, the consortium of shareholders that signed the contract to run Mangaung prison. The then national commissioner for correctional services, Xoliswa Sibeko, and former judge Thabani Jali had shares too. Ironically, Jali had chaired the so-called Jali commission of inquiry into the department and its running of prisons in the early to mid-2000s and exposed widespread prison corruption

What concrete agreements exist between these high-profile former government officials and G4S will remain a mystery. But the closeness of government officials and the for-profit company contracted to carry out essential tasks of the nation state is typical of the entire private security sector and should be cause for concern. 

This article was developed with the support of the journalismfund.eu.

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