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Are Private Prisons Actually Worse Than Public Ones?

It's an important question given that Australia has the highest percentage of privately incarcerated prisoners in the world.

Jason J. Cohn

Acacia Prison is operated by Serco in Western Australia. Image via Google Maps.

Our prison population has doubled in the past 20 years to over 36,000 inmates, which is why state governments are increasingly relying on private companies to run our prison facilities. In fact, Australia has the largest percentage of prisoners in private institutions in the world at 19 percent. The United States, with its globally infamous prison-industrial complex, has a mere eight percent.

The justification for allowing private companies to administer justice on behalf of the state is to save taxpayer money with no trade-off in quality. But do private prisons really work as well as public institutions? The truth is that no one knows, one way or the other.

One of the main reasons for our lack of knowledge is that finding out would require a vast amount of resources. It would mean reviewing both private and public prisons on a range of metrics, which would require decades of primary research, as well as control groups of criminals who have never spent time in an alternate system. It would be time consuming and expensive, which is why it hasn't been attempted by anyone, including the state governments doling out contracts.

According to Criminal Justice Professor Andrew Goldsmith from Flinders University, there also seems to be a general lack of curiosity within the justice system. "I once contacted the ombudsman [for corrective services] to get information about grievances in private relative to public prisons," he explained. "They seemed almost confused as to why I'd even want that information."

Port Phillip Prison is managed by G4S in Victoria. Image via.

As a result, there's also no real data to suggest private prisons are any worse than public ones, even if this seems a little counter-intuitive.

For example, state-run prisons in the Northern Territory have less than 13 percent of prisoners enrolled in educational programs—by far the fewest in the country. Policing methods, failing schooling systems, societal disenfranchisement, and institutional racism all play a part in the NT falling behind, but there's nothing to say conditions would be worse under private management.

Associate Professor Guy Hall from Murdoch University originally held concerns about privatisation, but has since been convinced otherwise. "I was sceptical in principle, but it's hard to argue with the results," he said.

From the limited data we have available, prisoner violence toward other inmates and themselves is pretty much the same if not lower in private prisons. Studies also show that a prison's effectiveness is less to do with the public vs private argument, but more to do with evaluation, inspections, and transparency. This hardly proves privatisation is harmless, but it does seem to refute the notion that profit-incentives create bad prisons.

So do private prisons save the state money? Once again, the answer here is that no one knows. Even if the surface operational costs appear lower than what we would otherwise pay out of the public pocket, there are many hidden costs for taxpayers such as funding regulatory bodies, building infrastructure, and the possibility of being overcharged, which was taken to scandalous levels in the UK.

The largest unknown factor is how exactly these companies are turning a profit. Are they simply more efficient than state governments? Are they cutting corners? The financial terms of contracts and tenders are generally kept secret, which makes them difficult to examine. Public sector workers are worried they are simply being undercut for their dangerous work and have voiced concerns about the casualisation of their workforce.

Mount Gambier Prison is run by G4S in South Australia. Image via.

On the other side, Tasmanian public prison officers were found to be rorting the system in 2012, taking advantage of incredibly generous overtime pay, which blew out their budgets. It's no surprise that enlisting a private company with highly controlled wages would be tempting to combat this threat, although it's unclear as to whether the training, turnover, and overall quality of staff is lower as a result.

So back to the question, is privatising prisons a good or a bad idea? UNSW Professor Mark Aronson said in a 2009 NSW inquiry: "It is too big a question and too grand the answer".

Everyone I spoke to was quick to tell me they have no idea whether privatising prisons is truly cheaper or can achieve the same security, rehabilitation and recidivism outcomes in the long-term. Either way Professor Mark Halsey believes this hole in our understanding of the justice system is itself a good reason to stop handing out contracts until we know more it.

As he said, "prison is the most serious thing we can do to a person, so it's absolutely critical we need to know what's going on in those facilities. We need to be able to make a categorical statement as to whether private prisons are more cost-effective; it's important to be able to say that with certainty."

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