No case to sell gaols

But the government doesn't want to admit the evidence

Daniel Conlon

From New Zealand to the United States, evidence shows that prison privatisation leads to problems

Despite being given quantities of evidence that privatisation of gaols does not work and that the services provided to inmates in a privatised system suffer, the Better Prisons reform demanded by Corrections Minister David Elliott and prosecuted by Corrective Services Commissioner, Peter Severin, is progressing.

Is it not ironic that these people, working for the Justice Department, will not consider independent and objective evidence produced by highly-trained and professional practitioners?

Considering Mr Elliott’s statement in parliament that “you do not need to have a bachelor’s degree to teach literacy to a prisoner” his preferred evidence must be personal anecdote.

He also noted, “I cannot have a situation like we have in Cooma (correction centre) where they are learning music but they are not learning literacy and English skills." This is completely untrue.

Anecdotal evidence is certainly entertaining but hardly a standard on which decision-making can be held to account. Allied to the blatant disregard for objective evidence is something more curious: the dissemination of incorrect information to prosecute the case for privatisation.

The Minister is not alone in being welded to this deceit. Commissioner Severin stated that the new prisons model “will be assessing the literacy and numeracy and other education needs of offenders … something that is not happening at the moment”. This is absolutely incorrect.

Why would the Commissioner and the Minister peddle such misinformation? In essence, what we have is the sacking of prison-based qualified teachers and replacing them with for profit companies employing trainers.

What is driving this project? Is it the $5 million in savings touted by Assistant Commissioner Anne-Marie Martin? Is it a drive for yet more efficiency? It might very well be the 20 per cent increase in targeted training promised (in the future) by Acting Commissioner Luke Grant. Or perhaps it is another case of elected governments divesting themselves of the responsibilities attendant upon public office.

The Baird government is obsessed with privatising the assets that the community of NSW has paid for and owns. It is extremely worrying when one examines the evidence of failures that have resulted from this mania.

Is mania too strong a word? Not when one considers the news last month that the NSW government is also entering private public partnerships in the outsourcing of five public hospitals.

The state’s first attempt at this was an unmitigated failure as this report reminds us: “The state’s first trial of the private operation model, two decades ago with the Port Macquarie Base Hospital, ended with it being bought back by the state government” (Sydney Morning Herald, September 15). The buy-back cost was reputedly $35 million.

A similar story is writ large with the privatisation and deregulation of vocational education. Day after day, we hear of students being robbed by shonky private education providers.

This ill-informed choice by government to privatise education provision leaves the taxpayer with projected losses of billions over just four years’ worth of loans.

Needless to say, the politicians tut-tut and mouth platitudes in relation to strict standards and then look completely dumbfounded when these shonks are caught with fingers in the till. Of course, they then look around for someone to blame.

Returning to prisons, we heard last month that a privatised gaol in Auckland, New Zealand that had been run by private company Serco had to be taken back by the Department of Corrections.

Serco Asia Pacific chief, Mark Irwin, had this to say: “In the period before the department stepped in, the company had failed to meet its contractual standards or its own standards. For that I am truly sorry.”

And he was also presumably sorry for the $8 million fine that the New Zealand government imposed on his company as a way of paying to take over the prison.

From England, we also hear of the perils of privatising prison management. A report from the British Ministry of Justice states: “Two privately-run prisons, the G4S-managed Oakwood and Serco-run Thameside, are among the three worst-performing jails in England and Wales, according to newly published Ministry of Justice ratings” (The Guardian, July 25, 2013).

There may be accusations of over-egging the omelette here but one last piece of evidence should leave no-one in doubt about the failures in public service privatisation.

It comes in the form of a warning by the American Federal Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, in a memo dated August 18 announcing the ending of the use of private prisons to hold federal inmates: “They [private prisons] simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

Have we sunk so low that inmates and sick people are now fair game for entrepreneurial profit-gouging? And still Minister Elliott and his foot-soldiers march to the tune of the privatisation lobby, oblivious to the advice of experts in the field and with little else on their mind but the filling of war chests for the next election and perhaps somebody to blame when it all needs to be taken back into the management of the public service.

Daniel Conlon is Fed Rep at Long Bay Correctional Centre