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