Pri­vati­sa­tion by stealth A sneaky bench­mark­ing process is putting pub­lic jails against pri­vate operators, putting ev­ery­one at risk

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Opinion - JOHN HEFFERNAN John Heffernan is a for­mer gover­nor of Grafton Jail

G overn­ments to­day are ob­sessed with sell­ing off as­sets and out­sourc­ing ser­vices. But what hap­pens when one fi­nally re­alises they are pos­si­bly push­ing the bound­aries of com­mu­nity ac­cep­tance by con­tin­u­ally di­vert­ing their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties onto the shoul­ders of pri­vate en­ter­prise?

Well, if you are the NSW gov­ern­ment you sim­ply recre­ate the old gov­ern­ment service us­ing the pri­vate model as your bench­mark. That’s ex­actly what is hap­pen­ing in the state’s prison sys­tem.

At present NSW Cor­rec­tives Ser­vices over­sees 36 cor­rec­tional cen­tres, of which two are pri­vately man­aged. In ad­di­tion, an­other large pri­vate fa­cil­ity is cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion on the far north coast. There is a strong ar­gu­ment that in­car­cer­a­tion should be the sole re­spon­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ment and that cor­po­ra­tions should not profit from hu­man mis­ery.

But politi­cians are quick to claim that pri­vate en­ter­prise can do it more cheaply, brush­ing aside ques­tions about how the pri­vate sec­tor man­ages to keep the costs of run­ning a cor­rec­tional cen­tre down.

Cor­po­ra­tions are all about profit and the only way they can ef­fec­tively re­duce their costs in a prison is to have fewer staff on the ground and/or de­liver less in­mate ser­vices. And therein lies the prob­lem with the pri­vate en­ter­prise model.

Look­ing at staffing, while less man­power may be good for the bud­get it se­verely com­pro­mises the safety and the se­cu­rity of a prison and those who work and re­side within. You don’t have to look far for ex­am­ples of how re­duced staffing in pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties has re­sulted in ma­jor is­sues.

Just re­cently a New Zealand coroner found that staff short­ages and a lack of cell searches pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for an in­mate to com­mit sui­cide at the then-pri­vately man­aged Mt Eden cor­rec­tional cen­tre.

Closer to home, fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and drug traf­fick­ing, the state gov­ern­ment has just or­dered a full par­lia­men­tary in­quiry into Parklea Jail cur­rently op­er­ated by the GEO Group.

Driven by fi­nances the state gov­ern­ment has now de­cided to in­tro­duce one of the most con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of pri­vati­sa­tion into the pub­lic sys­tem. In­cred­i­bly, the state gov­ern­ment is about to man all our cen­tres us­ing the pri­vate model as the bench­mark. In essence, this means that they are cre­at­ing pseudo-pri­vate jails.

NSW Cor­rec­tive Ser­vices are cur­rently re­assess­ing the work prac­tices and staffing struc­ture of ev­ery cor­rec­tional cen­tre and set­ting per­for­mance tar­gets. Bench­marks are be­ing de­vel­oped through a process of com­par­i­son with other pub­lic and pri­vate service providers.

Real­is­ti­cally, it means that the only way to achieve that ob­jec­tive is to adopt sim­i­lar staffing lev­els. Staff have been ad­vised that if their cen­tre’s man­age­ment is un­able to achieve the re­quired service “im­prove­ments” in a re­al­is­tic pe­riod, the prison may be mar­ket tested. In other words, if you don’t co-op­er­ate your cen­tre may be pri­va­tised. Even though pub­lic and pri­vate prisons share the same core busi­ness, the in­car­cer­a­tion of of­fend­ers, in some re­spects they have com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties. One of the main ob­jec­tives of the gov­ern­ment prison sys­tem is to re­ha­bil­i­tate of­fend­ers. The fewer in­mates that re­turn to prison the less of a fi­nan­cial bur­den on the tax­pay­ers.

Pri­vate prisons, on the other hand, op­er­ate pre­dom­i­nantly to make a profit. They are renu­mer­ated ac­cord­ing to the ac­tual num­ber of in­mates they hold. Put sim­ply, the more in­mates they house the more money they make. Con­se­quently, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is ac­tu­ally not in the best in­ter­ests of their share­hold­ers.

While the gov­ern­ment’s de­sire to save money is to be ap­plauded, in this in­stance they are so ab­sorbed with the per­ceived sav­ings they are com­pletely over­look­ing the con­se­quences.

Cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers work in a dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ment. Pre­vi­ous staff re­views have al­ready re­duced the num­ber of of­fi­cers on the ground to what most would con­sider the thresh­olds of safety.

Presently, our prisons are over­crowded and re­sources are stretched to the limit. Gov­ern­ment cen­tre man­agers see dan­ger in over­crowd­ing. Pri­vate cen­tre man­agers see dol­lar signs. What re­ally de­fies logic in this en­tire ex­er­cise is the fact that the state gov­ern­ment is pre­sent­ing the pri­vate sec­tor model as the one to fol­low. There is a say­ing in the cor­rec­tional en­vi­ron­ment: “It’s not the barbed wire that keeps the in­mates in, it’s the cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers.”

I can’t stress enough the im­por­tance of hav­ing the cor­rect staff/ in­mate ra­tio. The ef­fec­tive op­er­a­tion of a cor­rec­tional cen­tre re­lies on a com­bi­na­tion of static and dy­namic se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures. Static se­cu­rity es­sen­tially re­lates to the phys­i­cal equip­ment, CCTV sys­tems, perime­ter se­cu­rity, alarms, metal de­tec­tors, and the like, while dy­namic se­cu­rity re­lies on staff in­ter­ac­tion, case man­age­ment, com­mu­ni­ca­tion with in­mates, in­tel­li­gence, build­ing re­la­tion­ships with in­mates, and so on.

If a cen­tre has an in­ad­e­quate num­ber of of­fi­cers to ex­e­cute dy­namic se­cu­rity, it might just as well be a ware­house. That’s when ma­jor is­sues arise, the type we are presently wit­ness­ing at Parklea.

Our cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers are among the best in the world, but our state gov­ern­ment wants the best of both worlds. They wish to main­tain the present high stan­dard of our pub­licly man­aged cen­tres but at the same time want to re­duce the num­ber of staff to a level set by the pri­vate sec­tor. The two goals are at odds with each other, the lat­ter will greatly im­pact the for­mer.

The depart­ment pro­pa­ganda claims that bench­mark­ing will de­liver an im­proved level of service, but it is lu­di­crous to sug­gest fewer of­fi­cers on the ground could pos­si­bly achieve the same level of service let alone make it even bet­ter.

In truth, the qual­ity of service de­liv­ered by gov­ern­ment prisons is go­ing to de­te­ri­o­rate and the safety and se­cu­rity of both of­fi­cers and in­mates will be com­pro­mised.

It is to be hoped the mem­bers of the com­mit­tee ex­am­ine the is­sues ob­jec­tively and with­out prej­u­dice. Lives may lit­er­ally de­pend on it.

Gov­ern­ment cen­tre man­agers see dan­ger in over­crowd­ing. Pri­vate cen­tre man­agers see dol­lar signs

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