International Research Proves Prison Privatisation a Failure


The privatisation of prisons has been identified as providing a direct response to the crises of persistent inmate population growth and expanding costs. Many academics and governments around the world have studied the effect of this move, effectively concluding that despite the supposed financial gains, there are no benefits made to the welfare and rights of inmates in privatised prisons. It should be the aim of countries such as Australia to reconsider prison privatisation and redress fundamental failings of this approach through effective facilities and rehabilitation services. The following document serves to outline the impact of privatisation in both Australia and international prisons, with close reference to various reports.

The Sentencing Project 2013 Report

Cody Mason, 'International Growth Trends in Prison Privatisation' (2013) The Sentencing Project.

Colin Penter, 'The power of the corporate (private) prison industry' (2014) The Stringer Independent News.

The Sentencing Project is a U.S. not-for-profit criminal justice and advocacy organisation. In 2013, the organisation published a report titled “International Growth Trends in Prison Privatisation” which centered on the failures of privatisation in reforming and correcting ongoing issues. The report found the following:

-       Private prisons perform no better than publicly operated facilities;

-       They are not guaranteed to reduce correctional costs; and

-       They provide an incentive for increasing both correctional and detention populations

Despite the repeated failings of privatised prisons, many countries – including those facing serious problems in the capabilities and quality of their correctional systems – have followed the U.S. in adopting a flawed and shortsighted scheme. There are some countries however that have recognised this and put an end to any attempts to implement such a scheme. Such was seen in Israel, in 2009 when the nation’s Supreme Court found that the bid to open up a private prison would result in ‘harsh and grave damage to the basic human rights of prisoners…’

Of the 11 countries around the world that implement privatisation, many of them have issues with overcrowding, management of facilities and the rehabilitation of inmates. Thus a lack of provision for the very necessities needed in these prisons shows a blatant disregard for the care and management of those within them.

In conjunction with the aforementioned findings, the report found Australia as having the highest proportion of prisoners in privately run prisons in the world. The rate was seen to be at 19% in comparison to Scotland (17%), England (14%) and the US (7%). This number was inflated by the multitude of privately run prisons located in Victoria as well as by the growth of numbers of detained asylum seekers within these prisons. In April 2013, it was recorded that 8,797 individuals were held in Immigration Detention Facilities and Alternative Places of Detention, all of which were privately run. 

Penter (2014) also adds that privatised prisons are incentivised to reduce costs in important services such as medical care; compromising the welfare and security of prisoners. Privatised prisons have employed tactics to cut costs in an attempt to win contracts against publicly run prisons.

The graph below visually outlines the number of Australian prisoners held in private facilities in comparison to international figures, emphasizing the importance of this issue for Australia.

IMAGE Percent of Prisoners Held PrivatelyPrivatisation in the USA

Brad Lundahl, Chelsea Kunz, Cyndi Brownell, Norma Harris and Russ Van-Vleet, 'Prison Privatization: A Meta-Analysis of Cost Effectiveness and Quality of Confinement Indicators' (2007) Utah Criminal Justice Center, College of Social Work, University of Utah.

The United States was found to have the highest number of prisoners in privatised institutions. Due to economic hardship in many states, contracting management of prisons to private companies is seen as a financially attractive option. By 2001, the U.S. prison population had increased to over 2 million incarcerated individuals, with private facilities accounting for 6.8% of all prisoners.

An empirical analysis of privatised U.S. prisons conducted by Lundahl et al. (2007) concluded that:

-       When compared to public prisons, privatised institutions showed no clear advantages or disadvantages in quality of confinement or cost effectiveness

-       Tentatively, publicly managed prisons tended to provide better training programs and generated fewer complaints or grievances

Privatisation in the United Kingdom

José M Alonso and Rhys Andrews, ‘How Privatization affects Public Service Quality: An Empirical Analysis of Prisons in England and Wales’ (2015) International Public Management Journal.

The report finds significant failings with prison privatisation through contractual stipulations failures.

Within Europe there are several general models for private sector involvement in prisons, these include:

-       Public finance, design and construction with private management contracts for all services

-       Public finance and private construction, where the state employs the prison officers but all non-custodial services are contracted out

-       Private finance, design and construction in which the state employs the prison officers but non-custodial services are also contracted out

-       Private finance, design, construction and operation (preferred option, being exported by the UK)

The report data collected by Alonso and Andrews (2015) found that England and Wales contained the most privatised criminal justice systems in Europe. Since 1992, all new prisons in England and Wales have been privately designed, financed, built and organised. Furthermore, the analysis explains that privatisation appeared to be associated with an increase in prison conditions and activities but a decrease in prison order and safety.

Privatised prisons have strong profit-maximization incentives to limit overcrowding. But in 2012 and 2013, private prisons in the UK held an average of 29.3% of prisoners in overcrowded accommodation. This was in comparison to the public sector, which held 21.8%. Although there are financial benefits gained from privatisation, they should not outweigh the provision of adequate facilities and the welfare of prisoners.

Failures in meeting contractual stipulations for prison performance are common, and include the fact that:

-       Between 2003 and 2004, six privatised prisons failed to meet their target in preventing serious assaults on prisoners and staff

-       Serious assault rates in Parc private prison were three times higher than the normal rate 

-       Dovegate and Parc prisons fell below their assigned targets in providing an allocated number of hours spent doing purposeful activities; with Altcourse being the only private prison to reach this target

Privatisation in Victoria, Australia

Valarie Sands and Graeme Hodge, ‘The Victorian Government’s prison privatisation project (1992-2010): The pathway to cost efficiency? A longitudinal analysis’ (2014) 20 Contemporary Issues in Business and Government 1.

A longitudinal evaluation of Victoria’s partially privatised prison system over two decades (1992-2010) was published within the online journal ‘Contemporary Issues in Business and Economics’. The journal outlined numerous problems surrounding the long-term effects of privatisation. The main findings are outlined below:

-       By placing a focus on recurrent operational costs, issues such as effectiveness, prison accountability, prison conditions and service delivery are ignored; and

-       Competitive and privatised prison operations led to a significant decrease in average daily operational cost per prisoner (from an estimated $237 per day to $164-$183 per day), however this cost had relapsed to $241 per day by 2010

The report concluded that there was no overall long-term improvement in operational cost-efficiency.

Right Now Publication

John Alizzi, ‘Private Prisons in Australia: Our 20 Year Trial’ (2012).

Right Now is an Australian not-for-profit organisation focused on collecting and spreading information on human rights issues around Australia. In some of their work over the past years, Right Now has highlighted the threat that privatisation poses to inmates.

Their article ‘Private Prisons in Australia: Our 20 Year Trial’ highlighted the increasing problem of privatising prisons, as more gradually, it is seen as a cheaper and efficient system. Concerning Australia, the organisation reports that a move to privatise prisons would be a move to allow for the inhumane ‘containment and rehabilitation of prisoners.’

The article found the following:

-       A major issue with privatisation is accountability when considering the near immunity of privatised prisons such as GEO Group, Serco and G4S

-       The failure to meet obligations and duty of care can result in unfortunate events such as the death of Aboriginal Elder Mr Ward, who ‘died from heat stroke in the back of a G4S transport vehicle.’

-       Regardless of the ethical code behind privatised prisons, the very nature of them being private can result in failures in their systems; and

-       The cost-efficiency reason is increasingly playing a dominant role in the way that prisons are run, yet cutting costs can negatively impact the quality of the service provided.

The article further raises the question of whether private prisons are suited to manage all scenarios, when staff-training standards somewhat differ from public prisons (John Welsh, spokesman of WA Prison Officer’s Union).  According to Deputy Ombudsman John Taylor, privatisation is merely the means by which the government can reduce their responsibility by handing it to someone else.

The article concluded by stating that though privatisation holds appeal in its efficiency, flexibility and responsiveness, the reality is that success depends on the service itself.  Thought must be given to whether privatising prisons can hinder the actual purpose of prisons.

Further Reading:


ABC Stateline: Exposure of Prison Privatisation

Incarceration within American and Nordic Prisons: Comparison of National and International Policies

Nordic Prisons Reject Privatisation

Privatisation of Prisons: Analysis

Video: Prison Privatisation in the USA


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