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City Desk
15 December, 2008  
The porridge business

The NSW government wants to privatise two large prisons. Making money out of jail birds is not new, but modern management methods of global operators have elevated the “corrections” business to an eerie new dimension. Private companies have the “solutions”. Jonathan Gadir reports

imageThe prisons privatisation agenda in New South Wales is picking up pace.

Amid the $3 billion worth of spending cuts last month’s state mini-budget contained a pledge to push ahead, subject to treasury’s “market testing”, with the privatisation of Sydney’s Parklea and the Hunter region’s Cessnock prisons.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the coalition, Greens and Shooters Party want an upper house inquiry into the privatisation.

If the inquiry does a proper job it should spell the end of this irksome little proposed revenue raiser.

In 2003 the NSW Labor government came up with a plan to privatise two “correctional facilities”, but until now nothing has happened.

The Public Service Association, which represents prison staff, doesn’t like this development one little bit:

“The only responsibility a private jail has is to its shareholders … safety and staffing would be compromised.”

The prisoners’ rights lobby, Justice Action, also thinks it stinks:

“It’s morally wrong and financially bankrupt.”

Justice Action spokesperson, Brett Collins, who has inside experience of correctional life, told Jusinian:

“The NSW government’s mini-budget decision to privatise Cessnock and Parklea prisons would add them to the disaster that prison privatisation has proven around the world.”

Justice Action believes the incentives for privately managed prisons are contrary to the public interest.

imageEvery prisoner represents a revenue stream and it is in the interest of private prison companies to promote law and order fears in the community, and to keep prisoners banged-up for longer rather than promote rehab.

The developments in NSW come as the Northern Territory government announced it is considering the option of a public private partnership to build a new $300 million prison in Darwin.

* * *

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, there are seven privately run prisons in Australia:

Junee Correctional Centre (NSW); Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre (Wacol, Qld); Borallon Correctional Centre (Ipswich, Qld); Fulham Correctional Centre (Sale, Vic); Port Phillip Correctional Centre (Laverton, Vic); Mount Gambier Prison (SA); Arcadia Prison (Wooroloo, WA).

There are other privately managed facilities and security services operated by the same group of companies, all of which have a dark human rights and industrial relations track record across the globe.

  • GEO Group Australia Pty Ltd runs Junee, Arthur Gorrie and Fulham prisons, along with a first time offenders, “adventure-based challenge program” next to the Fulham facility and the Melbourne Custody Centrein the basement of the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court. It is a subsidiary of a Florida-based company that manages prisons in the US, UK and South Africa. It formerly operated immigration detention centres.
  • Global Solutions subsidiary GSL Australia Pty Ltd runs Port Phillip and Mt Gambier prisons. In May 2008, it was bought by the giant G4S (Group 4 Securicor plc), which calls itself “the world’s leading international security solutions group” operating in 110 countries. Last year GSL also acquired Australian Integration Management Services Corporation (or AIMS).

    GSL also manages immigration detention centres, including the infamous Villawood, Baxter and Maribyrnong centres, and Christmas Island.

    It provides security at a Victorian psychiatric hospital for patients from the criminal justice system and a mental health unit in Risdon Prison Hospital in Tasmania.

    The company is also a large operator in the prisoner transport business for Corrections Victoria and the Victoria Police, transporting 44,000 prisoners a year.

    NSW has announced it will be transferring 500 prison security and court escort jobs to the private sector.

    A flack for the Justice Minister John (Colonel) Hatzistergos said:

    “The private operators will be trained to the same high standard as prison officers.”

    The UK-based Corporate Watch website says GSL has been at the forefront of the “export” of prison privatisation.

    Of course, an outfit opting to use “Solution” or “Solutions” as part of its name suggests that it has a sizeable sense of humour.

  • The Utah-based company Management and Training Corporation (MTC) is a big player imagein the American prisons and immigration detention game. It operates Borallon near Ipswich, Queensland. The company is infamous for its Texas “Tent City”, in which thousands of illegal immigrants are contained in windowless Kevlar pods (pics).
  • The sprawling British multinational Serco plc, like GSL, has made all manner of outsourced government services its thing. It is described as “an international task management company providing facilities management and task engineering”. The company manages four prisons in the UK and in 2006 secured the contract to run WA’s Acacia prison – taking over from Australian Integration Management Services Corporation (AIMS) Pty Ltd.
  • The AIMS website says it is the preferred partner of the WA Department of Justice for providing security services in the courts. AIMS isamember of the Western Liberty Group consortia, which is building Perth’s whizz bang CBD Courts Project in a public private partnership. AIMS will be providing all court security and custodial services to the CBD courts building.

    On the basis of the financial data that is publicly available it is evident that Australian prisons are a great money spinner.

    GEO’s latest annual report says that Australian “customers” – government correctional authorities – represent 11 percent of operating revenue.

    After the state of Florida, Australian government correctional departments and agencies are the company’s largest source of operating revenue by customer.

    The annual report says Australian revenues increased partly due to “contractual adjustments for inflation and improved terms and an increase of 50 beds at the Junee Correctional Centre”.

    Serco’s latest annual report says the company continues to build a presence in the “Australian home affairs market”.

    The contract with the Queensland Department of Corrective Services is valued at around $100 million over five years, with the potential for a further five-year extension.

    Serco explains its optimistic outlook:

    “In the UK we are well established across all areas and we are expanding our footprint in Australia. Key drivers include the threat of global terrorism, concern about immigration, perceptions of rising crime and the continued rise in prisoner numbers. These will increase governments use of the private sector to provide capacity and to develop new capabilities to meet new threats.”

    imageThe Sydney Morning Herald revealed on December 15 that Serco is linked to the former head of the NSW cabinet office Gary Sturgess. A spokespiece for the company said it is interested in the privatisation of both Parklea and Cessnock (pic) jails.

    Under its contract with the WA government Serco is allowed an annual quota of “incidents” before it risks a penalty or termination of its contract.

    Termination may take place if there are two or more “separate and isolated instances of death of a prisoner at the prison, or outside the prison while in the lawful custody, care and control of the contractor”.

    Two or more escapes in a year may also bring the contract to an end.

    * * *

    In February 2008 a Warburton Aboriginal elder, Ian Ward, collapsed in the back of a GSL van after a four-hour trip and died a short time later at Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital.

    The 46-year-old, who was being transferred to face a charge of drink driving, was found unconscious in the back of the van in the middle of the afternoon when temperatures outside exceeded 40 degrees.

    In the US, there is a mounting chorus of complaints in Congress, and lawsuits against these companies for civil rights abuses and poor labour practices in private prisons and detention centres.

    For examples, see this ACLU testimony before Congress.