The advantages of private prisons in Australia
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The advantages of private prisons in Australia

Just over a month ago I wrote an article for this page which raised the question of whether we should be proud or ashamed of the fact that Australia has a higher proportion of its prisoners in private prisons than any other country in the world. A clear answer to that question did not emerge, even though I did receive some strongly stated views.

In that article I deliberately did not express my personal opinion, even though a few very perceptive readers suggested they could guess what I really thought from my choice of words in a few places. I had intended to write a second piece with my own views to be published a week or two later but other more pressing topics came up. Hence, this rather delayed follow-up article.

Before setting out my own views on this subject, I should in the interests of transparency let it be known that for a period of a little over 10 years from 1996 I was paid a small retainer to be a part-time adviser to one of the largest private prisons companies in Australia. I hasten to add that during that time I undertook a number of consultancy projects for government corrections agencies, including some Pacific island nations, which gave me a foot in both camps.

With one specific reservation, which I will outline below, I have formed the overall view that the introduction of private prisons in this country in 1995 has had a very positive impact on the corrections industry in this country. This development should therefore be welcomed even though it must be kept under close scrutiny by governments that contract them to provide a wide variety of correctional services.

Contrary to one of the reasons given in the early days of privatisation, private prisons are in fact much more accountable than are prisons run by governments. This is the result of contracts which specify financial penalties for failure to meet standards of service or for mistakes that might occur. For example, if there is a death in custody in a private prison (and it is not found by a coroner to be from natural causes) the company will be required to pay $100,000.

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A similar penalty would be imposed for an escape, and lesser amounts would be required for failure to meet clearly-defined requirements for education programs, health standards, drug testing and many other minutiae of day-to-day administration. All of this has come about because governments have become smarter in drawing up contracts which specify exactly what they want from service providers. For obvious reasons, governments could not impose the same requirements on their own prisons.

Furthermore, as required by their contracts, private prisons engage more professional staff than are generally found in government-run prisons. Thus in Junee, the closest private prison to Canberra, there are at least four qualified psychologists and a similar number of social workers or welfare officers, and these people run a number of therapeutic programs such as anger management, intensive drug treatment and sex offender programs which aim to reduce recidivism in these sub-groups.

Not only are private prisons more accountable, but they are also considerably less expensive than government-run prisons even though the actual saving cannot be specified as the financial parts of the contracts are still held to be ''commercial in confidence''. This is not unreasonable as all of the companies offering correctional services, both in Australia and overseas, are all competing with each other by trimming their costs as far as possible.

One of the reasons why private prisons companies are able to offer less expensive services is the fact that they are not dominated by staff unions. Staff in private prisons are generally members of unions, but those unions do not try to dictate their demands to the administration as they did in the past in government prisons. It was not uncommon in the past for unions to order ''rostered sick leave'' on their members or to demand expensive minimum standards such as requiring at least three officers to be present if there is any contact with prisoners. Costs in private prisons are cheaper because of sound management, efficient staff levels and flexible work practices.

It is not surprising that private prisons are generally more popular with prisoners as they offer a range of treatment programs as well as recreational and sporting activities. I am not suggesting, however, that the popularity of private prisons is of overriding importance, but treatment or therapeutic programs are unlikely to be successful unless the prisoners themselves are fully cooperative.

Taking a broader view, the presence of private prisons has resulted in the cross-fertilisation of ideas and experience in both private and public institutions. This has occurred particularly at the senior levels, to the point where many of the people in charge of prisons have had experience in both the public and private systems, and the person holding the top government position in one state who is responsible for the total system has come from the private industry.

My one reservation about private prisons in Australia is that all of the private prisons companies currently operating here are owned by larger companies overseas which means that any profits they make are lost to Australia.

It is regrettable that no Australian entrepreneurs were apparently prepared to invest in this area of business.

I believe that the evidence in favour of having a proportion of our prisoners in private prisons is so strong that when the time comes for the ACT to start thinking about the need for a second prison, perhaps in five to 10 years, we should not rule out the possibility of that being an institution which is privately managed, or even perhaps one which is designed, financed, constructed and managed by a private company as was the case with the Junee prison.

  • David Biles is a Canberra criminologist. The advice of corrections consultant Dr John Paget is acknowledged.
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