Should Punishment Be Profitable?


In last year’s mini-budget, the NSW Government announced plans to privatise two prisons: Cessnock Correctional Centre in the Hunter Valley and Parklea Correctional Centre in Sydney. Opposition to prison privatisation was spearheaded by the NSW Public Service Association (PSA) and resulted in the plan to privatise Cessnock prison being scrapped.

The PSA’s "Stop the Cell-Off" campaign, widely supported by prison workers and officers, coincided with a NSW Legislative Council inquiry into the privatisation of prisons and prison-related services, the results of which were released last month. The committee cautiously endorsed the privatisation of Parklea prison but recommended that no further prisons be privatised in NSW. Significantly, it pointed to the need for increased government monitoring of private prisons and greater transparency. The NSW Government will continue to assess whether prison-related services, such as transportation and court security, will be privatised.

The PSA, on the other hand, argues that the proposed Parklea privatisation will compromise the welfare and safety of both prison staff and inmates on the grounds that private companies will be looking to cut staff and costs. Furthermore, it claims that it is ethically wrong to profit from the "suffering" of others, suggesting that the profit motive of private corporations may lead to higher levels of incarceration.

The push toward privatisation in Australia began in the late 1980s and the motivation was cost-reduction. There are currently seven privately-run prisons in Australia: Fulham Correctional Centre and Port Phillip Prison in Victoria, Junee Correctional Centre in NSW, Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre and Borallon Correctional Centre in Queensland, Acacia Prison in Western Australia and Mount Gambier Prison in South Australia. The NSW Government’s privatisation proposal, reportedly initiated by Commissioner of Corrective Services Ron Woodham, also focused on cost reduction. The recent parliamentary inquiry, however, found no conclusive evidence that privatisation of the two prisons would cut costs by $15 million. A 2005 NSW parliamentary inquiry into prison privatisation also found that no definitive conclusions could be drawn as to the cost-effectiveness of privately run prisons.

Worryingly, several privately operated prisons and detention centres in Australia have already been closed down or reverted to state control due to mismanagement and abuse. The Metropolitan Women’s Correctional Centre in Victoria was taken into state control after widespread reports of abuse, drug use and self-harm led the Correctional Services Commissioner to launch an independent investigation. The Commissioner found the contractor — the Corrections Corporation of Australia — had failed to maintain security and address drug abuse problems within the prison. Woomera Immigration Detention Centre was closed down in 2003 after reports of detainee abuse.

Internationally, the major push for prison privatisation began in California during the 1980s, due to the growth of the prison population and the consequent overcrowding of the state’s prisons. California now has the biggest prison system in the western industrialised world, and over two-thirds of the 348 prisons and detention centres in the US are privately operated. By 1998, prison privatisation had become such a politicised issue in the US that Atlantic Monthly journalist Eric Schlosser coined the now ubiquitous term "prison-industrial complex". Schlosser used this term to reflect the "set of bureaucratic, political and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need", and to draw attention to the problematic relationship between corporations, profit and punishment.

The growth of the prison system in California shows that the profit imperative of privately run prisons, coupled with government policy, can lead to increased levels of incarceration. There is a great deal of evidence that prison privatisation — rather than giving rise to a more cost-efficient and "effective" penal system — in fact encourages higher levels of sentencing and incarceration of non-violent offenders and increased spending on corrections.

There are significant differences between the size, scale and ethos of the criminal justice and penal systems in Australia and the US. However, the companies that are major players in private prisons in Australia are subsidiaries of US prison companies, such as the GEO group, Management and Training Corporation, and Australian Integrated Management Services — as well as Australasian Correctional Management, the operator of Woomera Immigration Detention Centre and a subsidiary of American company Wackenhut Security Corporation.

Privately owned prisons can’t be held accountable in the same way as state-run bodies because of "commercial privilege". This means that what goes on inside privatised prisons is often not disclosed to the wider community because commercial law and privileges inhibit disclosure of information to the public. Furthermore, there is often insufficient government monitoring and regulation of private prisons, and state and federal governments are not always informed about what is happening on the inside. This was evident in both the cases of Metropolitan Women’s Correctional Centre and the Woomera Immigration Detention Centre. While private operators are ultimately accountable to the state, the lack of transparency and government oversight that is a product of the commercial nature of the relationship, means that they cannot be held accountable by the public.

Advocates of private prisons argue that a clear line can be drawn between the sentence handed down by the courts, and the enforcement of that sentence within prison. However, Wollongong University finance academic Jane Andrew, who has written extensively on the issue of accountability in relation to private prisons, draws special attention to the quasi-judicial powers of private prisons, which are not subject to the same checks, balances and procedures of the legal system. Many decisions regarding the mode and methods of punishment are made within the prisons themselves, rather than by the courts. For example, prison management can transfer inmates between different security levels, place them in solitary confinement, strip them of certain privileges and even play a role in determining the length of a prisoner’s term. Because private companies are not democratically elected, nor are they accountable in the same way state bodies are, granting them the power to make decisions about the length and methods of punishment is ethically fraught.

Our society justifies punishment in the name of democracy, but that means we need to make sure our system of punishment is run according to democratic principles — principles such as justice, transparency and democratic accountability. Can we realistically expect these principles to be upheld if we allow private companies to play a significant role in enforcing punishment?

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