Since this article was written there has been a partial victory for the anti-privatisation campaign. The NSW government has scrapped plans to privatise Cessnock jail but will push ahead with the privatisation of Parklea. This is an indication that the campaign is having some effect but the fight is not yet over!
The NSW Labor Government, in contravention of party policy, is planning to privatise the management of two jail facilities at Parklea and Cessnock. At present, there is only one private prison in NSW. This is Junee, set up by the Fahey Liberal government over 16 years ago.
The government claim that private prisons are cheaper to run, estimating that they will save $16 million over three years, mainly from reduced overtime costs. Overtime has been an issue of contention between workers and management for some time.
The contracts to manage Parklea and Cessnock jails could be worth up to $30 million each. Some of the potential companies which could win the contract include the GEO group which runs Junee. GEO donated $45,000 to the Labor Party and $22,000 to the Coalition in the three years leading up to the 2007 NSW election.
Another potential contender is Australasian Correctional Management who ran the Woomera Detention Centre. They had their 10 year contract terminated after 5 years and was sued by the Federal Government for $18 million such was their incompetence.
So far, the Public Service Association (PSA), who represents prison staff, has taken industrial action including bans on overtime due to the secretive transfer of 107 prisoners from Cessnock jail to Windsor in preparation for privatisation. This puts a lie to the idea of Prison Officers abusing overtime- obviously the prison is so short-staffed that they rely on overtime.
Prison officers at Grafton Prison walked off the job over fears that this facility may also be privatised. 150 workers rallied in central Grafton calling on Corrective Services minister John Robinson to give assurances this will not happen. Prison officers and supporters also marched on State Parliament in April calling for Labor to drop its privatisation plans.
The problem with the privatisation of prisons, as with the privatisation of any public venture, is that you cannot control what you do not own. A privately owned or managed prison would be run only to maximise profits for the operator. This would mean lower wages, conditions, and safety standards (particularly staff numbers) for prison officers and worse facilities for prisoners.
If prisons exist to rehabilitate criminals and prevent re-offending, this is in direct conflict with the profit motive of a privately run prison. For profiteers repeat business is a good thing. It also paves the way for a new avenue of corruption.
For example, two judges in the US recently pleaded guilty to taking over US$2.6 million in kickbacks for sending teenagers to detention centres run by private companies. The judges sentenced over 5,000 teenagers since the scheme began in 2003. Some of these teenagers are still in detention.
Just as the dominance of the market has failed ordinary people with the downturn in the world economy, the market has also failed to improve services or reduce costs through privatisation. Privatisation always results in higher costs, poorer services and job losses.
By Gary Duffy