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Resist private prisons

Published:Tuesday | October 6, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The outrage at the audacity of the British government's £25-million 'gift' towards the construction of a prison has left one question lingering on many people's lips: Where will the remaining money come from to construct this prison?

Much of the public discourse has focused on the limits of taxation in covering the projected costs. The Jamaica Observer's editorial of Friday, October 2, 2015 chose to jump into the conversation by promoting the idea of establishing private prisons in Jamaica as one way to resolve the cost issue. The editorial makes the erroneous claim that "there are examples of privately run prisons in other jurisdictions that provide humane treatment to incarcerated individuals and where correctional staff work in comfort".

This is not the first time that the idea of private (for-profit) prisons has been presented to the Jamaican public in such an uncritical and uninformed way. Each time, the same claims are made with no supporting evidence: private prisons are better than public ones.


economically smart move


As recently as 2013, the newspapers reported that the Development Bank of Jamaica had been charged with the task of exploring "public-private partnerships" that would share the costs of building and managing a prison. During that discussion, then-minister Christopher Tufton "recommended that the Government establish a committee to examine the possibility of private prisons, noting that hundreds of such facilities were now operating effectively and profitably in the United States and the United Kingdom". (Observer, February 2013). Curiously, he flagged the issue of private prisons as "controversial" from the perspective of religion, but left open the question of whether this was a politically or economically smart move to make.

First, it is not true that private prisons are "operating effectively and profitably" in the US and Britain. In fact, the opposite is the case. Yes, these are countries that have the most experience in designing and running the private prison facilities. Around 15 per cent of Britain's prisons (14 facilities) are run by three private companies: G4S, Serco and Sodexo. Correction Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) are the two largest companies in the $5 billion industry, and are responsible for more than 100 facilities. About 20 per cent of all federal prisoners, and seven per cent, of all state prisoners are housed in private prisons in the US. Since the 1990s, Britain has developed the most privatised criminal justice system in Europe. Prime Minister Cameron is a big champion of private prisons.


prison reform groups


Second, there is now broad international consensus across prison reform groups, human-rights organisations, prison abolitionist movements, social scientists, legal scholars, and academic think tanks that private prisons need to be abolished. They are the engine of the prison industrial complex (PIC).

In 2015, the tide has turned decisively against private prison companies, but you would never know it from how local politicians and media are treating the issue. The American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project revealed that several states in the US are ending contracts with CCA. American universities are divesting their investments in for-profit prisons. Some private prisons in Cameron's homeland are being returned to public management. While private prison contracts remain part of the landscape, they are not resolving the issues of cost, overcrowding or violence that they claimed to be able to do.


interests of the company


Third, the specific problems with private prisons cohere around three areas: incompetent management; social and economic costs (they focus more on warehousing and keeping costs low than on providing services; no public oversight, so they do only what is in the interests of the company); and they are paid per head, so there is a constant need to find ways to lock people up and to keep them in prison longer). Private prison corporations are very good at unleashing an appetite for punishment. We should resist them at every step.

The Sentencing Project's 2013 report on International Growth Trends in Private Privatisation noted a new shift in global prison industry antics. Indeed, private prison profiteers like GEO Group (US) and G4S (Britain) are now experiencing significant revenue growth from international contracts. Why? Overcrowding creates opportunity for private prisons to thrive. Just ask Australia, which has given more than 20 per cent of its prison population to private companies. Countries in the global south (like Jamaica) are viewed as emerging markets into which they can tap.

We should be aware that Cameron's offer and the Jamaican Government's desperation for a new prison is the perfect alliance of political interests that move decisively in the direction of private prisons.

- Natalie Bennett, PhD, is director of undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Email feedback to and