Explainer: Private vs public prisons

Jasmine Camp

In July 2020, the Queensland Government completed the transition of the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre from private to public control.

The State’s last privatised prison, the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre, is scheduled for a similar change in operations in 2021.

Both prisons were originally contracted to private management by previous Labor governments.

What prompted this change in prison privatisation policy, and where do the other political parties in Queensland stand on this issue?

 

 What is the difference between public and private prisons?

Prisons are a correctional, institutional system responsible for rehabilitating individuals.

Prisons traditionally were completely controlled by local or state governments meaning that the operations of the whole system were made in accordance with laws and regulations, funded by tax-payer dollars, and specific information about the status of the prisons was required to be public, allowing them to be held publicly accountable.

Private prisons operate as for-profit businesses and receive a stipend from the government, either based on the size of the prison, a recurring set amount, or the number of prisoners it accommodates.

 

Quick Stats (Australia):

  • Australia is now fifth in the world for rates of imprisonment (2019), holding just over 40,000 inmates (2020).
  • Occupancy levels are at 112.2% (2017).
  • The annual cost of prisons is over $4.6 billion dollars (2018).

Source: The World Prison Brief

 

In Australia, and globally, there have been many critiques of the privatisation of prisons.

A major concern is the balance between the profit-driven nature of private prisons and prisoner welfare and rehabilitation.

 

PHOTO: Queensland’s prison population continues to grow. (Source: ABS)

 

Concerns:

 Cheaper?

With little publicly available data about the overall costs associated with running private prisons, it is hard to ascertain whether they are a cheaper alternative to government-run prisons.

It is also difficult to make comparisons because of the differing sizes, security classifications, and prisoner profiles.

Other factors to be considered are prisoner education and rehabilitation programs and activities which are offered across both private and public systems.

Overall, without the relevant data, the savings made from using private prisons remains unknown.

In Queensland, the contracts have never been made publicly available and details about costs in the private sector have been either in part or entirely obscured.

More accountable?

Accountability represents how contractors are held responsible for their actions and the operation of the prisons.

It seems there is a growing level of ‘internal accountability’ which is how the contractor is responsible to the government, however, ‘external accountability’ which is public awareness, remains low.

More efficient?

Efficiency looks at the relationship between the service provided and the overall quality and cost to the taxpayer.

An efficient prison provides equal performance at a lower cost.

Again, the data isn’t available to judge which system is more efficient.

Because of the lack of information surrounding their costs, accountability and efficiency methods, it is hard to judge whether private prisons are a viable option and can satisfactorily answer the ethical questions that surround them.

 

Groups that run the prisons:

In Australia, there are three companies that run private prisons:

  1. GEO Group
  2. SERCO
  3. G4S

These are the same global companies that run privatised prisons in the United States and United Kingdom and represent a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Public and private prison operations encounter the same, or very similar problems, (for example, contraband, gangs, violence) but because these are private companies, they are exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) applications, which means they don’t have to disclose complaints or ongoing disputes.

 

Australian private prisons:

 There are currently 111 prisons in Australia, eight of which are privately operated: two each in Victoria, Western Australia, and New South Wales, and one in South Australia.

The Northern Territory, Australian Capital Centre and Tasmania only have government-run (public) prisons.

Queensland is in the process of transitioning its last privately managed prison back to government control, scheduled for completion in July 2021.

 

Prison privatisation in Queensland:

In 1990, Queensland – under a Labor Government led by Premier Wayne Goss – became the first state in Australia to commission a private company to manage a prison – the Borallon Correctional Centre near Ipswich.

At the time, prison privatisation promised to be more efficient, cost-effective, and accountable.

In 2016, a report from the University of Sydney found “Queensland provides no evidence in support of further prison privatisation on the basis of improved public accountability, cost effectiveness or better performance outcomes”.

Up until 2019, there were two privately operated prisons in Queensland – the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre (SQCC) in the Lockyer Valley and the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre (AGCC) in Wacol.

Both correctional centres were contracted to private companies under Labor governments, in 2011 and 1992 respectively.

In 2018, the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) released a scathing report, nicknamed Taskforce Flaxton, about Queensland prisons, saying they were at risk of ‘significant corruption’, and detailing a plethora of systemic issues including excessive force, inappropriate relationships and overcrowding.

The report identified the two privately-run prisons as ‘profit-driven organisations’ where corruption risks were higher by nature of their model and strongly recommended 33 changes to address these concerns.

In March 2019, the Labor Government in Queensland announced the transition of AGCC back to public operations in effect from 1 July 2020, a program that will cost $111 million over four years.

The SQCC is also in the process of transitioning back to public operations and will be completed by July 2021.

Because of the growing prison population, it is estimated that Queensland will need to invest $5.2-6.5 billion to meet demand for prison capacity by 2025.

According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (June 2020), there were 8,801 inmates incarcerated across 16 prisons, at an annual cost of $904 million.

The prisons themselves are being filled with lower level offenders, with 65% sentenced for non-violent offences and the median time served stands at 3.6 months, just higher than the national average which is 3.2 months.

 

Where do Queensland’s political parties stand on the issue of privatisation?

Labor

Correction Services Minister, Mark Lyon, said transitioning the prisons back to public operation, the first undertaking in Australia, was ‘historic’, ‘ground-breaking’ and important for a number of reasons.

“Publicly operated correctional facilities have a far superior staff to prison population ratio.”

“This means not only elevated safety levels for staff and prisoners, it also greatly enhances the capacity to provide the appropriate rehabilitation programs that support breaking the cycle of offending,” Minister Ryan said.

In addition to these transitions, the Labor Government is building a new 1,000 bed correctional facility near Gatton based on a therapeutic model, which will include “programs and treatments for prisoners suffering from substance abuse issues”.

“Labor supports public operation, and all the safety and rehabilitation benefits that accrue from that approach,” Minister Ryan said.

 

The Liberal National Party (LNP)

 The LNP did not respond to our enquiries regarding their stance on prison privatisation, however, the party was against transitioning back to public control in 2018.

A 2019 statement from Shadow Treasurer Tim Mander said closing privately-operated prisons was an example of “Labor’s reckless and wasteful spending”.

 

The Greens

 Green’s MP Michael Berkman has continually campaigned against the privatisation of prisons in Queensland and supported the transition of AGCC and SQCC back to public operation.

In July this year, Berkman raised concerns surrounding certain legislation in the transition back to public operation.

He said he could not support “arbitrary measures that undermine our prison system’s capacity to rehabilitate people and genuinely enhance community safety,” such as a blanket ban on moving prisoners serving a life sentence to a low-security facility, or imprisoning individuals for failing to follow Covid-19 health directives.

Mr Berkman said the Greens support “boosting spending on social services, housing and rehabilitation services rather than spending more money on police and prisons”.

 Queensland candidates for Katter’s Australia Party and One Nation Party were also contacted for comment on their party’s stance on prison privatisation, however, did not reply.

 

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