In an exclusive story yesterday [Monday] the NZ Herald reported that the National government is looking to privatise jail management across New Zealand.
Where do the party hacks come up with these ideas?
Today there’s a follow-up by Simon Collins in which the union representing prison officers vowed to fight the privatisation plan and described it as “driven by ideology“. At the same time a Corrections plan to put two beds in every cell was also revealed. This move might be necessary because the prison population is anticipated to increase by close to 1000 inmates over the next 18 months. I wonder if this has something to do with the projected “Three strikes” policy that’s also on the cabinet agenda in Wellington.
Unfortunately for the government, the first step in their cunning plan to hand over the prison system to the profit system may derail them (or, at least slow down the plan). The Herald is also reporting that the State Services Commissioner has refused to offer up the beleaguered head of Corrections as a sacrificial lamb.
The State Services Commissioner said today that corrections chief Barry Matthews should not be sacked.
Corrections Minister Judith Collins received the report into accountability at her ministry from State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie this morning.
Mr Rennie said Mr Matthews’s “dismissal of the chief executive would not be justified”.
You can hear a mumbled “Bugger!” emanating from the Ministerial wing of the Beehive, right about now. However, I don’t expect this will slow down the government’s hasty desire to privatise prisons. Even though there are more pressing issues as outlined in the briefing given to the incoming Minister late last year.
According to a summary provided by the amazingly tough Howard League for Penal Reform, there’s a long list of problems to be dealt with, but it’s interesting to note that privatisation of corrections was not on the list of suggestions:
‘in common with many other countries, meeting society’s expectations and demands has become increasingly challenging’. Two key challenges are faced:
- - the strong growth in the community-based offender population
- - the ongoing pressure on prison capacity
The most critical issues have arisen from:
- Accelerated growth in the community-based offender population following the introduction of several new community sentences in October 2007 (the single biggest changes to community sentencing in New Zealand history);
- The Community Probation and Psychological Services arm of Corrections has grown by 95% since 2003 – 48% of probation officers now have less than two years experience. The number of requests for pre-sentence reports, and for sentenced offenders continue to grow beyond funded levels;
- The growth in prison numbers commenced in 2003 when the prison population stood at less than 6,000. Despite slowing down following the introduction of the new community sentences, the prison population is currently 8,000 and forecast to exceed 10,700 by 2016;
- It is expected that current prison capacity will be fully utilised by mid-2010, despite significant prison expansion over the last four years. This pressure is exacerbated by the need to replace some obsolete and unsafe facilities which cannot be upgraded cost-effectively;
- The over-representation of Maori remains a major and more longstanding challenge. Maori make up almost half of the offenders the Department manages, both in the community (45%) and in prison (50%). Succeeding for Maori is identified as a key priority
- The growth in the number of offenders to be managed combined with inexperienced staff means that staff training and support remain a critical focus for attention.
- Further large-scale growth in the justice sector [particularly Police numbers] poses severe fiscal and operational challenges if not restrained. Funding for additional Probation and prison capacity will be required.
- - Upward trends in some types of crimes, especially serious drug offending and certain types of violence, especially family violence, as a consequence of changing public attitudes and police practices;
- - Much of the growth stems from changes in justice sector policies and operations in recent years: higher Police Officer numbers, higher crime resolution rates, greater use of custody remands, longer averaged imposed sentence lengths, and tightening of parole release decisions.
- At around 190 prisoners per 100,000 population, New Zealand has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the developed world (of Western countries, only the USA is higher at almost 800 per 100,000. Australia’s rate is 126. Many European states are under 100). NZ also has comparatively high numbers of offenders on community sentences – the NZ community sentence population is proportionally three times higher than Australia’s.
‘As a consequence, Government decisions are required within the next few months on strategies to address looming capacity deficits, in both the community and prison settings’.
The National government is ideologically driven to privatisation. It’s a hang0ver from the heady days of American neo-liberalism and unfortunately the Nats’ brains trust has not caught up. Today the Prime Minister confirmed that National is also looking at some form of privatisation for the Accident Compensation Commission [Private involvement in ACC possible – Key].
So, let’s hope that now the prison privatisation story is in the public domain that the media does its job and thoroughly investigates the background and policy evidence for privatised prisons.
To get the flacks and flackettes started, here’s a quick summary of some of the research on private prisons.
According to an American thinktank – the Commonwealth Foundation – private prisons save taxpayers’ money and are also better managed. According to the Foundation’s website, its founding principles spell out its commitment to smaller government:
The Commonwealth Foundation is an independent, non-profit research and educational institute that develops and advances public policies based on the nation’s founding principles of limited constitutional government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility for one’s actions. [Our Mission]
We can expect the libertarians in the National cabinet to be quoting at length from organisastions like the Commonwealth Foundation. Here’s a sample of what we might expect:
Private prisons have many institutional, contractual and legal safeguards to ensure quality, and contractors have compiled an enviable record of providing secure, safe, humane and well-run correctional facilities. Privately-managed correctional facilities have contractual requirements and inherent financial incentives to maintain order and security, provide educational and rehabilitation programs, and respect inmates’ civil liberties. A private prison that fails to provide an adequate level of service is likely to suffer contract revocation or the threat thereof, which adversely affects the corporation’s ability to offer its services elsewhere and survive among it competitors.
There’s a whole bunch of facts and figures presented in this piece by the Foundation’s Nathan Benefield, but as with all statistics, the source must be questioned too. If you look at the charts you’ll see that the savings are uneven and, in some cases, not much at all.
The move to privatise incarceration is not new. There’s a body of academic literature, looking at the issue dispassionately, that goes back nearly two decades. Most of it is based on empirical studies in the USA.
This paper, by Pratt and Maahs, appeared in Crime & Delinquency in 1999:
Advocates of private prison management assume that the competitive marketplace motivates private entities to develop efficient prison construction practices, programming alternatives, and other related services (Hutto 1988; Logan 1987, 1990; Steelman and Harms 1986). Some scholars also argue that private agencies are less encumbered by bureaucratic constraints than are public organizations, and are therefore more flexible (and less fiscally wasteful) in responding to various correctional needs (Donohue 1985; Logan 1987; Mullen 1985). Furthermore, Hatry, Brownstein, and Levinson (1993) note that states are unlikely to contract for a correctional facility with a private contractor whose price to the state would exceed its existing unit-cost.
Critics of privatization, however, predict that any cost savings attributable to privatization will be short-term only, and that long-term costs are likely to exceed current levels of spending due to the need to keep a stable or growing inmate population to ensure profits (Anderson, Davoli, and Moriarty 1985; Henig 1985; Shichor 1995). Critics also argue that independent of who operates the facility, a number of institutional characteristics of prisons are responsible for explaining the variation in operational costs.
This paper argues that the economic evidence that private jails are more efficient is “inconclusive”. However, the Reason Foundation supports the privatisation of corrections. The organisations “Q&A” on the issue is quite definite in supplying affirmative answers to all your questions. Not surprisingly, this organisation is, according to its website, “founded on libertarian principles”.
Founded in 1968, Reason advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law. [About Reason]
You might start to see a pattern emerging here, right-wing libertarian ideology supports private prisons. Not necessarily because they are good at what they do, but because they have a fundamental belief in “smaller” government and private enterprise.
At the other end of the spectrum, Sarah Armstrong [Bureaucracy, Private Prisons, and the Future of Penal Reform] makes a strong case that prisons don’t work, whether private or public. It is the institution and normative purpose of punishment that is at fault. This is a fairly dense philsoophical argument, but it is worth considering in this debate. Amrstrong makes the point that examining private prisons purely on the functions of cost and efficiency is an amoral and ultimately unethical practice.
This is underlined by a February 2009 story about two American judges who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a private corrections operator for handing down long sentences to juevenile offenders. [Judege plead guilty – NYT]
In the US there’s a group calling itself the National Public Service Council to Abolish Private Prisons. It’s a slightly amateurish and wierd-looking site, but it’s worth a look.
Clearly, this immoral profit driven system is without parallel in its resemblance to the most heinous institution to ever exist upon American soil. Slavery.
The San Francisco-based NPSCAPP monitors the private prison operators in the US and it’s likely that at least one of them, GEO Group, which operates private prisons in Australia, could be a bidder for any contracts put up in New Zealand.
A final note about prison reform, there has to be more to this story than the cheap option of privatising incarceration. This long piece by Dr C Cayenne Bird at American Chronicle, makes a strong plea for an alternative to prisons. The Private Corrections Institute site (PCI) also performs a useful watchdog role on the American private prisons business.
Meanwhile, business is booming. GEO Group (formerly nown as Wakenhutt) has around 55,000 prison beds under its direct control in the United States alone according to Texas Prison Bid’ness, which is a good site for dirt on the corporate greedheads, including a growing list of problems at GEO facilities in Texas. Things are so bad for GEO that a Texan law-maker has filed a bill to cancel contracts for private prisons.
This might not faze the company too much. According to CorpWatch, the GEO Group remains very profitable. Thankyou very much:
While the nation’s economy flounders, business is booming for The GEO Group Inc., a private prison firm that is paid millions by the U.S. government to detain undocumented immigrants and other federal inmates. In the last year and a half, GEO announced plans to add a total of at least 3,925 new beds to immigration lockups in five locations. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and the U.S. Marshals Service, which hire the company, will fill the beds with inmates awaiting court and deportation proceedings.
GEO reported impressive quarterly earnings of $20 million on February 12, 2009, along with an annual income of $61 million for 2008 – up from $38 million the year before. But the company’s share value is not the only thing that’s growing. Behind the financial success and expansion of the for-profit prison firm, there are increasing charges of negligence, civil rights violations, abuse and even death. [Prison firm turns a handsome profit]
Part of the group’s global operations are several facilities in Australia, including prisons and an immigration detention centre in Queensland. However, a 2004 report by the NSW Parliament Research Service, suggests that private prisons in Australia have not led to a good result in terms of public policy.
In the NZ context it seems that good public policy is not an issue. Corrections Minister Judith Collins today confirmed that the government wants to move quickly in this area and that she would meet this week with a potential contractor.
So much for a reasonable debate. I started this post yesterday afternoon [Monday around 3pm] and now that I’ve finally got it ready it’s already too late. The discussion is very instrumental – it is focused on the cost issue, which is not about justice at all – there’s not much room in a pragmatic policy environment for subtle intellectual nuance.