Private Prisons

This speech was delivered on 20.09.2016 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the original contribution here.

The United States of America leads the world in many ways. One of those is in jailing its own, with the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Of course, that surge started with the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs”, which worked to entrench disadvantage and marginalisation while also massively increasing the prison population. It was as a result of that surge that the for-profit private prison industry developed. In the United States [US] the overall prison population has now reached a crisis point. With around 2.2 million people in the US locked up at any given time, jailing is one of the United States’ biggest industries. Falling US crime rates have not reduced prison populations as “truth in sentencing” and mandatory sentencing for drug offences continue to see prison numbers grow.

In 2013 The Sentencing Project found that not only do private prisons perform worse than public prisons but also they do not reduce correctional costs and provide an incentive to legislators and others to increase inmate populations. Private prisons have been considered such an insult to human rights that in 2013 the Israeli Supreme Court invalidated a law that would have allowed that country’s first private prison, saying:

… the very existence of a prison that operates on a profit-making basis reflects a lack of respect for the status of the inmates as human beings.

This was never more apparent than in the US “kids for cash” scandal, when judges accepted kickbacks from a private prison operator to impose harsher sentences on kids coming before their courts. In the United States the companies that run private prisons are extremely powerful, with 18 corporations locking up around 133,000 prisoners in 27 US states. That represents just over 8 per cent of the total US prison population and, of course, millions of dollars in profits. Getting prisoners to work is also big business, with those in private prisons working for as little as 17¢ an hour—often doing hard manual labour—making the corporations that hold and jail them multimillion-dollar profits each year.

It is therefore quite remarkable that, despite a strong trend towards private prisons, in August this year the Obama administration through the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced it would end for-profit prison contracts. As part of this announcement the United States Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, said “… the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services” than the Federal Bureau of Prisons and that:

They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security. The rehabilitative services that the Bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.

That decision was globally celebrated, as was the courage required to stand up to the power of the for-profit prison sector in the United States. To give an idea of how much money is at stake, the recent announcement by Barack Obama caused just two corporations responsible for private prisons in the US—the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation America—to lose more than $2.2 billion in shareholder value. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both committed in their presidential primary campaigns to working to phase out private prisons, and it seems clear that the era of locking people up for profit is slowly grinding to a halt in the US.

But it does not look like New South Wales has got the memo that private prisons should be left in the past. In New South Wales the Baird Government is privatising our prisons through the process of contestability—and Labor privatised them during its administration. Contestability forces public institutions to compete against the private sector. The Baird Government has created a $2.9 million Commissioning and Contestability Unit to push exactly this agenda. The competition has already been used to force so-called performance improvements on other prisons. We may not have the scale of the United States, but Australia does take the dubious honour of having the largest percentage of our prison population in private jails. An extraordinary 19 per cent of Australia’s prison population is in privately run facilities, compared with 11 per cent in New Zealand and just 8 per cent in the US.

Private prisons here are run by exactly the same for-profit corporations that we see in the US. They are names that everyone may recognise: Serco, GEO Group and G4S. Private prisons cost more. They provide less safety for inmates and prison officers. Most importantly, they also fail the whole community by not providing adequate rehabilitation, education or reintegration options.

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