The Privatization Let-Down

Whilst there is a long history to the use of private companies to transport or house prisoners, the use of for-profit prisons in modern times emerged quite recently in the 1980s and 1990s. The governments of countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have relied increasingly on the use of for-profit private facilities to house inmates, in addition to other services. There has, however, been a momentary stoppage to the utilisation of private services for “tagging” – the post-conviction electronic monitoring of offenders—in England and Wales, as private security giants Serco and G4S have been stripped of these previously-contracted responsibilities after damning investigations into allegations the firms overcharged the UK government. At the same time, damning allegations have been made against HMP Peterborough, a Sodexo-run prison in the UK. These apparent failures and questionable practices have in part led UK Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan to voice support for the “renationalization” of private prisons who fail to meet rigorous inspection.

The Howard League for Penal Reform provided this criticism of the systematic failures of the privatization trend: ““[The tagging contract] decision is a welcome one, but it is surreal that the government is still allowing firms like Serco, who admitted to MPs that they behaved in a way that was ‘ethically wrong’, to bid for other justice contracts.”’ The investigation and controversy surrounding the contracts have led the Ministry of Justice to recall plans, at least temporarily, to privatize three English prisons. Jointly, Serco and G4S manage 10 of the 14 privately-operated facilities in England and Wales.

Criticism of private prisons is also prevalent in other countries. In the United States, one of the primary issues is the inter-state transfer of prisoners, which can limit an inmate’s ability to communicate regularly with family and support networks, thereby amplifying feelings of isolation and hopelessness and reducing any rehabilitative aims of the prison sentence. Moreover, the cost-benefit ratio of privatized services is also controversial; in its in-depth report on the economics of private prisons, the Sentencing Project found middling support for the assertion that they were more cost-effective than publicly-run ones, especially when including other financial factors, such as the higher turnover rate of employees and reduced staff benefits and pay seen on average in private prisons.

Given the concerns, the question remains: should states permit or encourage the use of for-profit private correctional facilities? Proponents of this free-market solution for incarceration argue that private prisons provide a method of reducing the taxpayer burden of detention and helping states meet mandates to reduce overcrowding whilst continuing to protect the human rights of detainees, meet safety standards, and deliver effective reintegration services.

However, even if this premise is true and private prisons proved to significantly reduce the costs of incarceration, ethical questions remain over the utilization of non-state companies for core state functions and the resulting impact on prison workers, prisoners and their families, and society as a whole. For example, as the Sentencing Project report highlights, one of the primary benefits touted by advocates for privatization – the increased cost-efficiency of such facilities – comes at the cost of worker salary and benefit. (For example, a new recruit would, on average, receive $5000 USD less than the same worker at a public prison).

Furthermore, the reality of the oppositional relationship between corporate profits for such companies with movements to facilitate ‘decarceration’ cannot be ignored. The New York Times and other outlets have reported on the so-called “lockup quotas” of private prison contracts, whereby state governments are required to pay for cells and beds, regardless of whether or not an inmate is assigned to it, eliminating a major financial incentive for the state to reduce its rate of incarceration. Indeed, it would seem that private prison companies directly benefit from increasing numbers of inmates;

In light of these concerns and the recent controversial elements of government contracts with private prisons and detention facilities, it is vital that judicial bodies take a cue from the recent incidents in the UK and reinvigorate efforts to investigate and review the efficacy of such models.


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