The figures for the cost of keeping people in prison are interesting, though, and not only because they would appear to be high in relation to the quality of service offered, but also because it is not at all clear that they are cost-effective - or indeed that the concept of cost-effectiveness is often considered. If the sorry saga of our prisons in recent weeks has any value it should surely be to encourage us to think rationally and logically about what our objectives for prisons should be and how better we might achieve these.
The parallels between a hotel chain and the prison service are sufficiently close to be instructive: both provide board and lodging; both, to an increasing extent, offer some leisure activities; both have elaborate security (though in the case of the hotel, surveillance and complex locks are to keep criminals out, rather than in); both have the difficulty of providing consistent quality of service over a range of outlets.
Of course there are differences, but most of these ought to make running a prison easier than a hotel group. The obvious difference, that people do not choose to go to jail, means that the prison service does not have to run a marketing operation: that is subcontracted to the courts. It has consistency of demand for rooms and meals, rather than facing large short-term swings in occupancy rates. It has no units overseas and few foreign customers, unlike the major hotel chains, which are increasingly inte rnational operations. Naturally most prisons have to provide a higher level of security than most hotels, though anyone who travelled through the Intourist system in the old Soviet Union will have experienced closer surveillance than would be normal ina British open prison.
So what has the hotel industry to teach prisons? There are at least three areas where hotels' experience might be useful.
One is the practice of substituting capital investment for labour. You see this most clearly in a Scandinavian hotel, where labour is very expensive. There, every detail both of the room and the public areas is designed to minimise the servicing labour: bathrooms can be wiped down in seconds, breakfast is invariably a buffet, room service is frequently unavailable. Everything is done to make the place stylish and pleasant, without using people.
The second lesson is the drive for consistency. International hotel chains go to enormous lengths to deliver consistent service across continents and cultures. This makes them tedious, but it is apparently what customers want. It also gives the hotels a system of benchmarking: if the product is consistent, it is much easier to compare costs at different locations, identify best practice and then seek to apply that practice throughout the network. Since one of the most remarkable features of our prisons is the range both of different costs and (as far as one can judge) quality of service, aiming for consistency ought to be a prime objective. It should be possible to bring the performance of the worst closer towards that of the best.
The third lesson is the pressure for customer satisfaction. This might sound absurd, but it is not: the ultimate customer of the prison service is not the offender, but the taxpayer, or indeed society as a whole. We pay the bill; are prisons doing what we want them to do?
I suggest that prisons meet three main objectives for society. One is vengeance; a second is incarceration; and the third is rehabilitation. Of these, the last is overwhelmingly the most important for both its social and economic implications.
The importance of rehabilitation has been repeatedly stressed by Judge Stephen Tumim, HM's Chief Inspector of Prisons. His argument is that the majority of prisoners, those who were not a danger to society, need remedial teaching. They were mostly men aged under 30. "They need to be taught working skills and they need social training to cope with the problems of drink, drugs, Aids, and, above all, their own offending behaviour. They need to learn how to cope with job interviews, budgeting a nd, often, hygiene," he has said. The good prisons were those which, aside from being secure, were able to encourage prisoners to lead a law-abiding life.
Looked at with regard to cost-effectiveness, and therefore customer satisfaction, the question is how to apply techniques and disciplines developed in the private sector to improve the "conversion rate" from criminals to normal citizens: how to cut recidivism.
In fact, a segment of the hotel industry is already involved in a market-based approach to Judge Tumim's prescription. It is fascinating to see how - albeit in a disorganised and poorly controlled way - safari trips to Kenya and weeks at Centre Parcs areemployed to try to turn young offenders into upright citizens. These outrage taxpayers, but if they can be shown to be cost-effective, then it may well be that society is getting a good deal. The trouble is that is hard to persuade taxpayers that this is the case.
Suppose, however, that the contract with the taxpayer were made explicit. A rational government would be seeking tenders from companies to run prisons not just at the lowest cost, but in the most cost-effective way. The principal measure of performance would be the conversion rate. The companies running the prisons (existing prisons would tender, too) would be set performance standards based on their ability to "turn" criminals. A large part of the payment to the company would be based on their success in meeting this target.
The whole effort of the prison would accordingly go into the sort of teaching stressed by Judge Tumim. This would encourage a host of experiments in the allocation of resources. For example, is it more cost-effective to put energy into training while in prison, or on support once people come out?
The market mechanism is a wonderfully powerful tool. Why do we so often think of it only in terms of cutting costs? Why are we so timid in our willingness to apply it to a problem which causes our society the gravest concern?