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From private prisons to the future of food, and will robots take our jobs?

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 05 Jun 2017

Prisons are pretty grim places at the best of times and those in the UK are currently enduring the worst of times. A short spell actually spent inside, even if only as a visitor, is usually enough to revise the opinions of the most enthusiastic members of the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. Our jails are currently filled to bursting and rife with violence and drug-taking. And, with 48% of individuals imprisoned reoffending within a year of release, they can hardly be said to be fulfilling one of the critical roles for which they exist in the first place.

Prisons have always interested me and I've visited about 10 including a mother and baby unit at Styal, which housed drug 'mules'. (The Stansted Airport transparent WC that stuffers and swallowers are invited to use once arrested is quite a convenience.) I once even spent the day with a murderer, his wife and three kids in a caravan housed within the walls of a high-security institution in Canada.

In the UK, we followed the example of the United States and 25 years ago began an experiment handing the running of some prisons over to the private sector. There have been some notable advances, but amid riots in recent years, little of the news has been good. The three private providers G4S, Serco and Sodexo admit privately that there are far easier ways to make an honest living. The Ministry of Justice shows no sign of issuing any new contracts.

Contracting out or selling state-run institutions to the private sector began with Margaret Thatcher but has run into problems across the board. Few now praise the services of the railways or the utilities. Corbyn would renationalise them. The market can hardly be said to have done its job in the provisions of water or power and gas. With nuclear power, the risks and costs proved far too much for any private company to underwrite. The state is effectively stuck with the job of buying and decommissioning nukes. The difference between prisons, railways and utilities is that the former had never been in private hands previously.

By contrast, McDonald's couldn't be in a keener pure market. (The godfather of fast food has a battle on its hands and finds itself under attack from all sides.) This may not, however be the case forever. The state has well and truly tied tobacco down, which is a good thing. It will focus on alcohol next - blank label Chateau Margaux, anyone? - and, in the battle against obesity, it will turn its full attention to the food industry in due course.

One thing that hasn't yet emerged from Maccy D's HQ is the prospect of robot burger flippers (although they exist). The question of whether - and how soon - technology will decimate the labour market is as vexed now as it was back in the Luddites' day. AI has the potential to bring a whole new meaning to the McJob.

Also in MT's Issue 2 2017: 

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @MatthewGwyther

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