Are private prisons a cause for pride or shame?
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Are private prisons a cause for pride or shame?

It is not widely known but there was a possibility that Canberra could have had a private prison rather than one which is managed by the government. When the Liberal Party was in power in the ACT Legislative Assembly and Kate Carnell, followed by Gary Humphries, was chief minister, a committee was established to consider whether or not ACT should have its own prison and thus terminate the ''transportation'' of our offenders to jails in NSW.

There were in fact a number of different committees, some comprised of government officials and other mainly made up of interested members of the community. This period of our history, 1995 to 2001, happened to be the period in Australian history when the establishment of private prisons was being hotly debated. In fact, three private prisons had already been opened in Australia, two in Queensland and one in NSW, at the time Carnell came to power.

It was inevitable that the committees considering a future ACT prison would give some thought to the question of whether or not it could be a private prison. As a matter of practical reality it could never have happened as it would have meant that a private prison would have been the sole custodial facility in the territory without any balancing influence of a government-run jail. Also, such a proposition would have been deeply divisive as the whole question of the strengths and weaknesses of private prisons was extremely controversial at that time.

Those opposed to private prisons argued that the whole idea was improper as the punishment and rehabilitation of offenders was a key responsibility of government which should never be contracted out to a commercial enterprise. Spokespersons for civil liberties and human rights also expressed their opposition to this idea. Prison officers in particular were fervently opposed as they saw private prisons as a direct threat to their jobs and working conditions.

Those in favour of having at least some prisoners in private prisons argued that this was no different in principle from governments allowing private schools and private hospitals, as well as private security officers. They also suggested that the costs to the taxpayer could be significantly less than the costs of government-run jails, but this was not certain in the early years of this development.

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To a considerable extent the public argument about private prisons was ideological with conservative governments tending to be more pro-business and Labor governments being generally opposed to moving government jobs to the private sector. As a result of this difference, new private prisons were only established in states with conservative governments, but Labor governments did allow existing private prisons to expand, provided that this was done without attracting too much public interest.

At the time when the ACT was considering whether or not to have its own jail, there were three private prison companies in Australia, all of which were either wholly or partially owned by overseas companies, which meant that if they were successful in making money any profits they made would be lost to Australia.

These companies were all seeking new business, and at least one of them made it known that they would like to submit a tender to the ACT to either design, finance, construct and manage a new prison in this territory or to simply manage a facility provided by the government. Neither of these options were apparently considered by the ACT government.

Notwithstanding the understandable reluctance of the ACT to open its correctional system to private industry, all of the five mainland Australian states allowed one or more private prisons to be a part of their corrections armoury. By 2002 eight private prisons had been established throughout the nation, and one of them (a women's prison in Victoria) reverted to government management after four years of private industry control.

At the end of the first phase of private prison development, about 18per cent of all Australian prisoners were being held in privately-run facilities, a proportion much higher than any other country in the world. (The second and third highest were Britain and the United States.) During this period, the private prison companies also gained contracts for the provision of escort services as well as correctional health services in many parts of the country, and in Victoria a contract was let for the management of a remand centre previously run by the police.

In a little over a decade the private prison industry had made significant inroads into correctional policy and practice in Australia, but the whole concept remained highly controversial for some years. One of the reasons for the controversy was the fact that all of the contracts were classed as ''commercial in confidence'' so the public did not know how much their governments were paying, nor did they know what they were paying for, all of which led to wild rumours and misunderstanding.

One of the rumours was that there were proportionately many more deaths in custody in private prisons than in government prisons.

This was so widely believed that nearly all newspapers were guilty of giving more space and bigger headlines to deaths in private prisons than to deaths in government prisons. I examined the data very carefully and published an article in the main Australian criminology journal in 2001 which showed the rumour was completely false.

We are now entering a new period of expansion in private prisons in Australia and I expect that we will very soon have 20per cent of all of our prisoners in privately managed jails.

The controversy surrounding this subject has largely subsided, but I am not sure whether the majority of people will be proud or ashamed of that fact. I would really like to know the answer.

  • David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.
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