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Canberra is not ready for a private prison - yet

Agree with him or not, but the determination of former chief minister Jon Stanhope to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Alexander Maconochie Centre is admirable. His latest suggestion is to hand the whole institution over to a private prison company.

While I am a strong supporter of private because they are generally less expensive to operate than government prison (though the gap between the two is closing) and also require a higher level of accountability, this is not the time for the ACT to pursue that option.

When private prisons were first introduced in Australia in the early 1990s, there was considerable controversy over whether it was morally or ethically acceptable for businesses to make a profit from the suffering or discomfort of offenders. There are people who believe that private prisons are unacceptable under any circumstances; however, the overwhelming majority of the general public now accept that private prisons are part of the overall correctional system in all of the mainland states.

In fact, currently, Australia has a higher proportion of its prisoners (around 15 per cent) in private prisons than any other country in the world. For example, the largest private prison company in Australia, the GEO Group (previously known as Australasian Correctional Management), now has four prisons with over 3800 prisoners in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

This company, as well as their competitors, Serco (with prisons in Western Australia and Queensland) and G4S (with prisons in Victoria and South Australia), all enter into detailed contracts with the respective state governments which specify exactly the services they are required to provide. The contracts include key performance indicators which are linked to financial penalties if the specified standards are not met.

For example, after an escape or a death in custody (if not found by a coroner to be from natural causes) a penalty of $10,000 is automatically imposed, and for failure to meet the standards for the provision of health, education and food services lesser penalties are imposed. The existence of these penalties underlies my claim that private prisons are subject to a higher level of accountability than is possible for government prisons.

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There is some talk in the private prison industry suggesting that contracts in the future may include incentive payments to companies that are able to demonstrate exceptionally good results, such as having a post-release recidivism rate which is lower than the state average, but this would be an extraordinarily complex concept to specify as private prisons have no say in the selection of prisoners who are assigned to them.

One of the reasons I believe the ACT is not ready at this time to experiment with private prisons is that it is highly unlikely there is sufficient knowledge and experience for ACT staff to prepare the detailed contracts that are required for such a development. It might be possible to get advice from other governments which have used private prisons for many years, but this would raise significant ethical problems as all of the contracts are classified as "commercial in confidence".

I have been shown parts of the contracts (especially as they applied to the provision of education, training and treatment services) but never the full documentation. These are always closely guarded secrets.

If the AMC was to be managed by a private prison company it would represent a complete takeover of the ACT custodial system and would give too much power to the company with the contract. In all of the other Australian jurisdiction where there are private prisons, they occupy a minority position in the system and could, in extreme circumstances, be removed by the government, as happened in Victoria in the 1990s.

The best time for the ACT to start experimenting with private prisons would be, in my view, in about five to 10 years' time when increasing prisoner numbers necessitate consideration of new facilities. For example, a separate institution for all women prisoners would be a sensible option and a minimum-security prison camp for, say, up to 50 male prisoners nearing the end of their sentences would take the pressure off the AMC. Either or both of these facilities could be managed by private companies if the government was willing to try something new.

The gap between the overall costs of private prisons and government prisons has narrowed in recent years, but I've no doubt a women's prison and a male pre-release prison camp would deliver cost savings.

Before that stage is reached, however, there is much more that could be done to improve the AMC. The new bakery and gymnasium are excellent developments, but more work opportunities for prisoners are still required, and, on a quite different plain, consideration could be given to the appointment of an ACT Inspector of Custodial Services, perhaps located within the ACT Human Rights Commission.

David Biles is a semi-retired criminologist who lives in Canberra.

biles@netspeed.com.au