The 30-Year Global Private Prison Experiment Has Failed


This report will look at the experiences of countries where private prisons are most heavily relied upon to show why their use is so often detrimental to all involved (except big corporations). The four countries which account for the majority of their use are the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand. One thing to bear in mind when reading this report, are the words of Stephane Saussier and Sandro Cabral, writing about the comparative nature of Brazilian, French and U.S. prisons: “the issues related to prison performance remain a kind of black-box when compared to other public service utilities”. Confidentiality, vulnerable peoples’ data and corporate secrecy are all factors that can limit their release. But there is enough evidence to know something is very wrong.

The example that will spring to the mind of many is the ideological home of privatization: the U.S. The first-ever private prison was opened by CCA (now Core Civic) in 1984. The United States is a special case in that the Prison-Industrial Complex is its own complex web of corruption, mass incarceration and profiteering with the historical backdrop of slavery and Jim Crow legislation. From the 1920s to roughly 1980, the prison population kept pace with the general population, increasing from only 150,000 to 250,000. However, from 1983-2016, the prison population exploded up to 2.5 million in 2016 and from 1990-2005 the number of privately held prisoners increased by 1600% with a backdrop of the War on Drugs. In total now, roughly 8.5% of all U.S. prisoners are in private facilities.

In 1999, a seminal meta-study of 24 previous academic studies by Prat and Maahs looked at private prisons in the U.S.. They concluded that there was no correlation between privatization and saving money in the U.S. (which is the main stated point of privatization). A combination of misuse of statistics and deliberate selection of prisoners means that private prisons actually do a lot of their cost-cutting in a way that doesn’t save the taxpayer money. For instance, despite the claim of the industry that private facilities are cheaper per prisoner, the Hamilton Project in 2016 found that due to lack of transparency and an ability to cherry-pick the healthier inmates, the grounds to claim cost-efficiency are not sufficient. They stated that “in practice, the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers” as opposed to innovating. Furthermore, the Justice Policy Institute explains that “private prison employees earn an average of over $5000 less than their government-employed counterparts and receive 58 fewer hours of training. This leads to higher employee turnover and decreased security in the prisons”. On top of that, in 2016 the Justice Department found 28% more assaults on inmates and 50% more on guards in private facilities. Private prisons have a correlation with a much greater threat to everyone involved with them.

According to the Justice Department in 2016: “any money saved by corporate-run prisons only benefits the corporations themselves, and these corporations are willing to go to extreme and horrifying lengths to preserve these profits”.  Dr. Christopher Petrella, a prison rights campaigner and academic, wrote that more people from minorities end up in private facilities as they are cheaper to house and private prisons can often specify which types of prisoners they want to take. This means minorities are disproportionately subject to the worse conditions of the private sector.

The final aspect of U.S. private prison firms are the corporate practices, corruption and lobbying. According to the Justice Policy Institute “in 2013, the CCA and another major immigration reform, killing the path to legal status for over 11 million undocumented people in order to keep undocumented immigrants flowing into their facilities, as well as securing increased congressional funding to incarcerate those same people in for-profit prisons”. Core Civic alone spends an average of $1.4 million per year lobbying the U.S. government. The racialized nature of the War on Drugs and targeting of black communities is in effect a new way of continuing the legacy of slavery by selling prison labour extremely cheaply to some of the world’s largest corporations, such as Chevron, Victoria’s Secret, IBM and Microsoft. Prisoners can expect wages in the region of 15 cents per hour.  The Justice Department in 2016 announced it would end the use of private prisons, but following Donald Trump’s election, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed that decision almost immediately, sending stock prices of CCA and the Geo Group surging by over 140%.

Australia houses more than double the proportion of the U.S. in private prisons at around 18.5% of its total. Research from the University of Sydney in 2016 bemoaned the lack of accountability of private prisons due to both their unaccountable nature and the Australian state-based system, meaning data was quite hard to be consistent with. Data collection issues are exacerbated by private prisons.

The Australian Government state online that “asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia must be transferred to a third country as soon as is reasonably practicable”. The Australian immigration detention centres are privately run and they are often not on the mainland. The Nauru Regional Processing Centre is owned by Broadspectrum and run by Wilson Security.  Human Rights Watch described detained asylum seekers’ conditions on Nauru in a 2016 report as “severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect”. They continued that most people who are taken there are held for three years forcibly, “denying them appropriate medical care”. The ideology of these conditions being knowingly sustained is unequivocally the fault of the Australian Government. However, that doesn’t detract from the fact that Broadspectrum and Wilson Security are profiting from conditions that equate to human rights abuses and have absolute power to stop it by changing their practices, but are choosing not to every single day it continues.

The mainland appears no better, with the Crime and Corruption Commission report of Queensland’s prison system from early 2019 stating that the “marketized approach… creates challenges for the state in ensuring prisoners detained in privately operated facilities are treated humanely and have appropriate access to programs and services”.

The only other nation to match Australia’s 18.5% of privately held prisoners is the U.K. where again, private prisons do not have a convincing case for increasing quality. The U.K. is to persist with prison privatization; in late 2018, then Prisons Secretary Rory Stewart announced that the next two prisons will be built by the government but run by the private sector. According to the Guardian, there are 47% more assaults in private prisons than public equivalents whilst according to campaign group ‘We Own It’, “privatized prisons house 15% of our prison population, yet the government spends 23% of its prison budget on private prisons”. Like Australia, there are transparency issues, with Bloomberg reporting in 2019 that “the public prison service already reports its staffing, but the three private operators [G4S, Serco and Sodexo] have resisted, arguing that it’s a commercially sensitive matter”. The profit motive is risking prisoners’ and officers’ safety. Only 13% of prisons are privately run in the U.K., but 3 of the 10 most violent prisons are private. That’s not a coincidence.

In U.K. immigration detention centres, according to the Guardian, detained immigrants are being paid £1 per hour for their labour. The Home Office’s statistics show that for roughly 45,000 hours of work done by detained immigrants, only £45,000 was given as compensation. Due to being incarcerated, like prisoners, the minimum wage doesn’t apply. From the Guardian, “they are also barred from any other form of work, yet must pay for essential goods such as toiletries”. What is happening is essentially labour is being forcibly extracted from detained prospective immigrants through the withholding of basic human necessities. This is being enforced by profit-making companies and supported by governments who don’t outlaw it. There are four companies who run these detention centres in the U.K.: Serco, G4S, Geo Group and Mitie.

New Zealand is the final big private prison user with roughly 10% of inmates being privately held in 2018. In 2015, a video showing a ‘Fight Club’ in a private prison run by Serco was unearthed. The footage was so scandalous, the government took the prison out of Serco’s control, revoked their contract and forced them to pay $8 million in damages. However, Serco in 2015 was given a contract to run a new prison, which they built to the cost of $270 million.

This new prison is an interesting case. The approach to rehabilitative justice appears to be much more pronounced. The facility, designed to house up to 960 people, focusses on reducing reoffending rates for inmates. In fact, the contract between the government and Serco states that bonuses are to only be paid if they are able to reduce reoffending rates by more than 10% than their public counterparts, according to the New Zealand Herald. Bonuses are also linked to lowering reoffence rates for Maori people specifically, who are dramatically overrepresented within the New Zealand prison system.

However, whilst this sounds much better than previous examples given, with things like a phone and computer in each room, the attitude of the government is the most important factor at play. Jessica Gover, a Research Associate at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, commented that “when you design a facility with an outcome in mind – with addressing a social problem in mind – that’s a huge divergence from the norm… [Wiri] was designed to solve the problem. It wasn’t retrofitted”. This point is crucial when considering this apparently positive privatization story; it is a prison built for a purpose due to policy from the government, where they have to pay additional bonuses in order to guarantee a specific outcome, to limit what is historically the unhelpful tendencies of a privately-run prison. It is an argument for rehabilitative justice, not for private prisons.

Finally, there is also a political and moral argument that even if they were to be proven extremely efficient, prisons should never be privately owned or run. It is perhaps best enunciated by the Israeli Supreme Court, who deemed a brief foray into prison privatization as unconstitutional in 2009. They essentially argued that only the state can legitimately take away a citizen’s freedom due to their democratic election. If you allow a private firm to deal in incarceration and profit from that, then there is a loss of legitimacy to their actions. They argued the loss of legitimacy “goes beyond the violation entailed in the incarceration itself”. Another way to phrase the argument is that prison privatization allows an unelected individual to have the power of some of the most invasive or extreme tools that humanity currently has at its disposal, such as the power of strip searches or the use of solitary confinement. When you privatize a prison, you transform those powers into tools by which profit can be extracted for a corporation. This has to be wrong.

The policy direction that governments should move in, given the evidence presented, should be clear. The profit motive, without strict regulation and incentivization, is not helpful in any way if the object of prison is rehabilitation and ending reoffence, which is what always ought to be the case. The incentive for a private prison is to make money by lowering costs and increasing revenue, which translates into less training for corrections officers, less quality care for prisoners and an incentive to make people re-offend so that they may end up being inside their prison walls again. It is detrimental to society to have the profit motive dictate the industry of removing peoples’ freedom because not only does it lead to worse outcomes for all the individuals involved, it is in those corporations’ financial interests for that to be the case.

Matthew Gold