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Private Prisons Are a Very Australian Problem

In the early days of the pandemic, the largest prison in Australia opened its doors on the mid-north coast of New South Wales.

The management and operation of Clarence Correctional Centre is outsourced by the New South Wales government to a UK-based multinational called Serco. Proud of its accomplishment, the state government has repeatedly boasted of the jobs and economic boost brought by the facility, which can house 1700 inmates.

But there are serious concerns around the privatisation of incarceration in Australia, something that is more prevalent here than in the US. A lack of transparency – and redacted contracts – make it impossible to test the claim that privatisation is more cost-effective, while numerous issues have been raised around safety, care and “inadequate” services in these facilities.

Serco was paid $167 million in 2021 to run the Clarence prison, and will be paid about $2.6 billion over the course of its two-decade long contract. The outsourcing of the prison – and the focus on its economic potential – are standard for Australia’s approach to jails. We commonly associate these things with America – but it is a uniquely Australian problem.

In the US, about 8 percent of the prison population are in privately-run facilities. In Australia, that figure is more than 20 percent. The three largest prisons in Australia are run by private, typically foreign companies that also run prisons in the US and around the world.

And while the US has shown signs of a shift away from the privatisation of incarceration, Australia’s biggest states have insisted on continuing it. There aren’t many signs this will change and companies are locked into contracts for decades to come.

University of Sydney Business School Professor Jane Andrew, who focuses on financial accounting, has studied the arguments for and against private prisons in Australia. She says that, crucially, the Australian public needs to become aware that private prisons exist before any major debate can begin.

“We imagine it’s America that privatises core services, not us,” she told VICE. “It’s a wonderful distraction to imagine it’s not us whilst it’s actually happening here”. 

“Incarceration is such an overused instrument that’s so ratcheted up as a powerful instrument in politics. We need to use incarceration for a relatively small percentage of criminal behaviour. We excessively rely on it.

The central argument for private prisons is the same used for privatisation in general: that letting the private sector take the reins will lead to the more efficient and cost-effective operation of these facilities.

For private prisons, this claim remains largely untested.

There are four private companies operating prisons in Australia: Serco, G4S, GEO Group and MTC-Broadspectrum. Just these four companies combined will be paid $613.28 million annually by the Western Australian, New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian governments.

According to the mother of a man incarcerated at Parklea prison in NSW, the impact of this privatisation is felt across a number of touchpoints: the cost of basic items, the cost of phone calls, the standard of medical care and issues with booking video calls with inmates.

“Only three staff are available during restricted hours to field phone calls from families of over 1000 inmates,” she told VICE.

“I can make 200 calls and spend several hours each week trying to make a booking. The systems are inadequate to handle the volume, but that is more money from their bottom line”.

Contracts for private prisons typically run for decades and are heavily redacted, making an informed debate about just how successful privatisation has been difficult.

Meanwhile, health services – typically run by a separate private company or the state government – make up another level of prison privatisation.

At Clarence prison, in NSW, the state government has reverted to a model where one private company is responsible for all the operations of the facility.

According to a former doctor in Australian prisons, who has worked across private and publicly-run facilities, said the level of commitment to the work – and rehabilitating people – differs greatly.

“The public providers are all committed. They’re often under-resourced and under-respected, but everyone under the public system is there for the public service and are committed,” he says.

“The private system I’m seeing will run to a standard which is the lowest common denominator which they perceive their contract means.”

Elsewhere, the Human Rights Law Commission (HRLC) has campaigned strongly against private prisons for several years. 

Senior lawyer at the HRLC, Monique Hurley, says private prisons can often see “profits trump respect for human rights”.

“Human rights do not end at prison gates, and governments shouldn’t try to shirk responsibility by caging people in private prisons,” Hurley told VICE.

“Private prisons are run off a business model where their existence depends on locking more and more people up. Instead of enabling private companies to profit off people’s punishment, governments across Australia should be focused on reducing the number of people being funnelled into prisons in the first place.”

Professor Andrew has attempted to prove that privatisation makes prison operations more cost-effective while also improving public accountability.

“What was tricky about our project was that we discovered that not a lot of information is in the public domain,” she said. “That challenges the first claim about accountability – if there’s no information then we can’t hold the government to account.

“And there’s absolutely no evidence that it’s cheaper.”

While Australia’s two biggest states have continued to embrace private prisons – and are locked into decades-long contracts with multinationals – the tide has turned elsewhere.

As of last year, there are no longer any private prisons in Queensland, after two prisons were brought back into public control following scathing reports by the corruption watchdog.

The Crime and Corruption Commission report in late 2018 found higher levels of assaults on staff in the private prisons along with lower levels of transparency.

The WA government has also cut short a contract with private operator Sodexo for the Melaleuca prison, after the independent inspector found a “bewildering” lack of clarity around basic operational matters.

Despite this move, the state government has committed to keeping its largest prison – the Acacia Prison – in private hands for decades to come.

According to the mother of a man imprisoned at Parklea, there is an inherent contradiction at play.

“They need to make a profit and there’s a lack of transparency and accountability,” she said. 

“Providing a public service and making money is surely a conflict of interest.”

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