Inside Parklea: The deadly consequences of Australia’s private prison boom

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The percentage of Australia’s prison population held in privately-run facilities is more than twice that of the United States. Critics argue that the need to satisfy shareholders has been prioritized over conditions for inmates and staff.

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While it’s fair to say that most prisons have problems, there is something that marks Parklea Correctional Centre in Sydney’s western suburbs as different. It’s a private prison.

In 2017, a video taken on a smartphone smuggled into Parklea prison went viral on YouTube.  The shaky footage shows a sizeable bag of the drug ice and makeshift knives hidden inside a cell. The man behind the camera says: 

This jail is ruining lives, it’s killing the young people, the young generation of this place is dead-set terrorised. 

The Parklea video went viral on YouTube, and led to raids and allegations of prison guards smuggling in phones and drugs.

A NSW parliamentary inquiry is now trying to weed out fact from fiction, and it’s already revealed some alarming stats. Parklea has a higher rate of inmate-on-inmate violence. It also has a higher rate of prisoners dying from unnatural causes. There have been seven suicides since 2016.

Since 2009, Parklea Correctional Centre has been run by GEO Group Australia, a subsidiary of US prisons contractor, GEO. They’re part of a small, global industry that makes a profit out of locking people up.

In Australia, over 18% of inmates are held in privately-run facilities. That’s more than twice as many as in the United States. Critics argue that the need to satisfy shareholders has been prioritized over conditions for inmates and staff. Supporters, including the NSW Government, claim that private prisons bring innovation and improvements to the corrections system.

The NSW Government, claim that private prisons bring innovation and improvements to the corrections system.

Most of the suicides at Parklea will never make headlines. Names and details are often suppressed by the Coroner’s Court. But family member Wendy Johnson wants to go public about her experience.

Wendy’s brother was transferred to Parklea on remand, waiting for his day in court. That wait can be many, many months.

“He started to say, ‘I don't know how much longer I can keep going with this. I need to see, I need to talk to somebody,’” Wendy told The Feed.

Her brother, who had an episode where he self-harmed, was put under observation at the prison’s clinic and marked in the system as an at-risk inmate. After he was released from the clinic, a follow-up appointment with a psychiatrist was scheduled. But, for an “unknown reason”, he missed that appointment. The family says no staff came to escort him from his cell, and that he couldn’t “just mosey on up to the clinic; he [had] to be taken to the clinic”.

Phone calls to the prison by family members, trying to get a new appointment scheduled, were not passed onto the clinic, according to Wendy.

“Around about a month after that time... he took his own life.”

It’s not just inmates and family members who are critical of Parklea. Current and former correctional officers have told the parliamentary inquiry that there’s a huge problem with understaffing.

“If officers go sick or are needed to go to a hospital escort they are routinely not replaced ...which has left as little as 3 officers in the gaol for almost 1000 inmates,” said one insider.

“It’s a joke, it is so dangerous. Like, you can go into a wing with eighty inmates on your own,” claimed another.

Former GEO employees told The Feed that when staff numbers are down, appointments at the clinic are often the first to be cancelled – there just aren’t enough staff to escort prisoners from their cells.

Despite all the problems at Parklea, the NSW Government has just appointed a new private operator to take over when the current contract expires in April. It will be jointly managed by another US prisons contractor, MTC, and Spanish-owned Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield), a company that specialises in immigration detention.

MTC has a chequered history in the US. Riots led to the closure of two of their facilities in 2015, and there have been more recent reports of staff failing to intervene in violent outbreaks.

NSW Commissioner for Corrections Peter Severin is not concerned. “MTC is very much known in the United States as a provider that focuses very strongly on good offender management,” he told The Feed. “We are comfortable with the operator we have chosen.” He says the new contract will have stringent conditions – and penalties for poor performance – attached to it.

“What happens in the prisons affects the community because, eventually, guys have to get out of jail,” said former Parklea inmate, Louis Wicherts, when asked why the public should care about who runs our prisons, and what happens inside.

Louis spent nearly 15 years behind bars for drugs and drug-related crimes. He’s now clean, studying social work, and wants to speak about what he, and others, experienced at Parklea.

“The drug use, the trauma, the escalation in violence, the escalation in drug use… [guys] come out damaged.”

Louis says he’s one of those who came out worse off than when he went in, and that’s not good for anyone.

“There needs to be change... because it's obvious it's not working.”