Can Private Companies Be Trusted to Run Our Prisons?

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As countries around the world grapple with prison overcrowding, the United States has announced it will end privatisation of prisons at a federal level within the next five years.

The US was the first country to privatise prisons in the early 1980s, when privatisation seen as a way to reduce government spending. Private companies also promised to focus on rehabilitation and thereby reduce reoffending rates.

At the time, the US Government and the UK-led Thatcher Government believed that by enabling the private sector to take over the management of public services, better performance and cost efficiencies would result. Countries around the world followed suit, looking to emulate the privatisation model.

The UK got its first private prison in 1992, with the number now growing to 14. The proportion of inmates held in private UK centres has risen from 13% in 2007 to 18% in 2016.

Australia got its first private prison in 1995. It has nine in operation today, managed by three global giant security companies which also run prisons in the US and Europe. Today, along with the UK, Scotland and New Zealand, Australia has a higher proportion of inmates kept in private prisons than the US.

The private sector also manages all Australian immigration detention centres- a unique system, and, as a string of recent media reports suggest, an arrangement that has many failings.

Across the ditch, New Zealand opened its first private facility in 2011, and now has two. Both centres are in Auckland, but the Government has recently taken back the management of the Mt Eden prison after its operating company Serco was investigated over reports of inmates running ‘fight clubs’ inside.

Are privately run correctional facilities any better?

Prisoner advocacy groups have long argued that privately-run prisons are more violent, more expensive and contribute to tougher criminal laws and higher incarceration and reoffending rates.

Significantly, it is argued there is less emphasis on rehabilitation and support programs because there is no financial incentive for inmates to be paroled into the community.

Last year, in a report entitled Global Prison Trends 2015, advocacy group Penal Reform International recommended that governments around the globe review “whether or not imprisonment is playing an appropriate role in tackling crime.”

It also recommended a review of the need to build new prisons as the “construction of new prisons without penal reform may simply lead to an increase in the prison population.”

NSW increases prison spending

While the NSW Government recently announced that it will pour another $3.8 into more correctional facilities, and has started a recruitment drive dubbed the “largest recruitment drive in correctional services history,” other countries are looking at alternative solutions to simply ‘locking up’ offenders.

A range of strategies including rehabilitation, reintegration, diversion, the use of tracking devices and treating drug possession and use as a health issues rather than criminal law problem, mean that many prisons in the Netherlands are closing, because crime rates and reoffending rates have – and continue to – fall sharply.

Overseas innovations

Other ideas are being looked at too. In Scotland, for example, the plan to build a new prison was scrapped last year in favour of replacing it with a smaller facility and five community-based custodial units located close to offenders’ communities so they can maintain family contact.

This new model will be trialled with female inmates. The custodial units will each have the capacity to house up to 20 women. They will have minimal visible security – no high walls, razor wire or bars on the windows. In fact, they will look nothing like traditional prisons.

Authorities say the women will be held in “optimum security conditions for their individual needs, risks and strengths” with the majority of women in community-based custodial units serving short-term sentences.

“It is our hope that after a short period of assessment when women come into community custody units, they will be going out; they will be going out to access health services, they will be going to access social work services, they will be going out to access work placements, they might be going home for a visit, they will be using leisure facilities and so on in the community,” says a spokesperson.

“Many of these will be relatively low risk women still on the shorter end of the sentence scale who will be assessed for all of that.”

Scotland’s plan is being touted as ‘bold’, but there’s no doubt it is an important first step in looking at ways to do things differently.

And so too is the announcement by the US that it will stop using private federal prisons, because the phase out signals the start of a new debate over incarceration – how effective it is; whether the ‘one size fits all approach’ is the appropriate for our society and its future and what else we can possibly do, within the justice system, within the social services system and within the wider community, to diminish crime rates, rehabilitate law breakers and deter reoffenders.

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