Privatisation in the International Context

The Argument for Privatisation
Conventional arguments for privatisation of prisons generally canvas the same issues. These characterise privatisation as a response to increasing inmate populations and exploding costs, claiming the potential for private involvement in public services to generate “sustainable value” by bringing public and private interests closer together, and generating the capacity to innovate by identifying and pursuing new opportunities for service provision, which may, in turn, generate positive sectoral spill-over effects.

Despite this, there is an obvious and basic conflict between the interests of society in ultimately minimising the number of people confined in prisons, and the financial interests of private prison operators in maximising the number of prisons, prisoners, and sentence lengths.

Additionally, there is no international measure of prison performance against which private prisons can be effectively adjudged. This is compounded by the fact that a number of private corporations - such as Serco, G4S and GEO - enjoy a monopoly over private prison management in countries including Australia, USA, The UK, New Zealand, South Africa and Israel. 

2013 Report: The Sentencing Project
In 2013, a report on privatisation internationally by US not-for-profit criminal justice research and advocacy organisation The Sentencing Project found that private prisons:

   • Perform no better than publicly operated facilities
   • Are not guaranteed to reduce correctional costs,
   • Provide an incentive for increasing correctional and detention populations.

Despite these repeated failings, many countries, including those facing serious problems in the quality and capabilities of their correctional systems, have followed the United States in adopting a flawed and shortsighted scheme. The same report found that Australia had the highest proportion of prisoners in privately run prisons in the world at 19% (compared to, for example, Scotland at 17%, England at 14% and the US at almost 7%). This number was inflated by the high proportion of privately-run prisons in Victoria, where nearly one-third of prisoners are held in private prisons, and by the growth in detainee asylum seekers.

The following graph describes figures of prisoners in private facilities internationally, with Australia having the highest proportion.


Victoria, Australia
A longitudinal evaluation of Victoria’s partially privatised prison system over two decades (1992-2010) found that:

• A focus on recurrent operational costs ignores issues of effectiveness, prison accountability, prison conditions or service delivery
   • Though 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), this cost escalated to $241 per day by 2010

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

Read the report here.

In Australia, states like Victoria have a gretaer proportion of prisoners in private prisons - almost one third - meaning Australia has the highest level of prison privatisation of any international jurisdiction.

The US has the highest number of prisoners in privately managed prisons. Due to the hardship of economic conditions in many states, where debt limits were often reached, contracting out management of prisons to private companies has been seen as a financially attractive option to reduce immense overcrowding and direct state financial resources elsewhere. As a result, by 2001, the prison population in the US had risen to over 2 million, with inmates in private facilities accounting for 6.8% of all prisoners. 

Read more on this here. 

An empirical analysis of privatised prisons in the US concluded that:

   • Privatisation provides neither a clear advantage nor disadvantage, in terms of cost savings and improvements in quality of confinement, when compared with publicly managed prisons.
   • Publicly managed prisons tend to provide better skills training programs and seemed to generate fewer complaints or grievances. Conclusions drawn from these findings are tentative, however, given that improved training programs may not result in benefits to inmates or society, and the number of grievances filed may not accurately reflect the quality of life in prison.
   • Chief private prison operators are headquartered in southern US states, where governmental and historic background appears advantageous to the private mistreatment of prison populations.

Read the rest of the analysis here. 

United Kingdom

In Europe generally, several models for private sector involvement in prisons have emerged. These include:

   • Public finance, design and construction with private management contracts for all services
   • Public finance, private construction, the state employs the prison officers but all non-custodial services are contracted out
   • Private finance, design and construction, the state employs the prison officers but non-custodial services are contracted out
   • Private finance, design, construction and operation (preferred option, being exported by the UK)

England and Wales has the most privatised criminal justice system in Europe. Since 1992, all new prisons in England and Wales have been privately financed, designed, built and run; the private sector now operates 14 private prisons. An analysis of 114 prisons across England and Wales, 15 of which were privately managed between 1998 and 2013, found that privatization appeared to be associated with better prison conditions and activities, but worse prison order and safety. 

Access the analysis here. 

Private contractors are paid in terms of the number of prisoner places available, not by the allocated number of prisoners. Contracts also specify the number of prisoners the private facility is permitted to accommodate, though simultaneously identify ‘‘acceptable’’ overcrowding rates. As such, private contractors have the right to refuse to admit additional prisoners, and thus have a strong profit-maximization incentive to reduce overcrowding rates, especially as they may receive financial deductions for unauthorized overcrowding.

In 2012-2013, private prisons in the UK held an average of 29.3% of prisoners in overcrowded accommodation, compared to 21.8% in the public sector. In particular, Forest Bank, Birmingham, Doncaster and Altcourse private prisons reported rates of overcrowding at 41.4%, 47.2%, 65.9% and 67.4% respectively. 

Failures in meeting contractual stipulations for prison performance are common, and include:
   • Between 2003 and 2004. six private prisons failed to meet their target on preventing serious assaults on prisoners or staff
   • Serious assault rates in Parc private prison in Wales were three times higher than the contracted target; Parc also had the seventh highest level of serious assaults compared to all prisons in England and Wales, and the highest rate in the private sector
   • Dovegate and Parc prisons fell below targets for the average number of purposeful activity contractually required to deliver weekly; only one prison, Altcourse, successfully met its targets for purposeful activity


New Zealand
Read our reporting on privatisation in New Zealand here.


Fundamental Arguments Against Privatisation
The information and statistics above illustrate that a system of privatisation does not lead to improvements in performance of operational and rehabilitative duties, when compared with publicly operated facilities. It also exemplifies the reality that private prisons are induced by financial profit to increase incarceration rates. 

Prison privatization is based on enlarging profits by incarcerating the greatest amount of individuals at the smallest achievable cost. If private prisons appear to be “saving money” then consideration must be given to the potential that their prison support services, staff, operational activities and overall facilities have been significantly lessened in quality and quantity if compared with public prisons.

The ineffectiveness of privatisation must be accurately and adequately recognised by both lawmakers and politicians, understanding and acknowledging the detrimental effects on prisoners, as well staff and indeed the wider public, of a model of prison management removed from the foundations of a democratic society. This issue obtains significant pertinence for countries such as Peru, Nicaragua and Jamaica, all developing countries, who are considering privatisation. 

Efforts directed towards privatisation should instead be utilised to formulate actual solutions for current problems such as prison expenses, overcrowding and recidivism. Reforming sentence lengths or pursuing alternatives to imprisonment such as restitutive and rehabilitative justice are two keyways this could be achieved. 

Media sources

Right Now, an Australian human rights organisation, published a damning report covering 20 years of privatisation in Australia. Read the report here. 

The Sentencing Project 2013 Report: "International Growth Trends in Prison Privatisation"

A summary of the Sentencing Project’s report

An introduction to the way the Nordic public prison system works

A comparison of incarceration goals and outcomes between American and Nordic prisons

A video about privatisation in USA


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