It’s one of those macabre facts that is instinctually met with shock and disbelief: that prisons in this country can be run for profit.
The idea that there is an industry built around such a source of misery is just that.
Proportionally speaking, Australia has the most inmates in for-profit prisons in the world.
They are marketed as better alternatives to government-run facilities: cheaper, safer and less likely to see recidivism.
But do those claims stack up? And what effect are private prisons having on the one in three inmates who are First Nations?
Private prisons have a long history, stretching back hundreds of years, if not more. But the modern version has its roots in 1980s USA.
Reagan’s so-called war on drugs, with its mandatory minimum sentences and emboldened police force, saw an explosion in the prison population (with the burden falling disproportionately on Blak Americans). With the carceral system overrun, private companies stepped in, and a multi-billion dollar industry was born.
Australia opened its first private prison in January 1990, the Borallon Correctional Centre in Queensland. It was operated by the Australian arm of a US company, Corrections Corporation of America.
Today, there are 10 operating around the country: three in Victoria, two each in Queensland, NSW and SA, and one in WA.
More than 8,000 prisoners out of a total 43,000, roughly 20 per cent, reside in for-profit institutions.
While the US has a far higher number of “private prisoners”, Australia has the most per capita in the world.
Do the claims stack up?
Private prisons, like any commodity, put their best foot forward in marketing. They advertise themselves as costing the taxpayer less, being more accountable than government-run facilities, and having a financial incentive to reduce recidivism.
But it can be hard to put these claims to the test. As privately-run enterprises, the contracts and operating costs can be hidden by “commercial-in-confidence” secrecy. It puts a significant roadblock in the way of the public’s understanding of how well, or otherwise, such prisons are running.
Several reports in recent years have cast doubt on the claims of private prisons.
While many of these prisons tout their contractual obligation to provide support services to inmates, including programs to encourage social integration after release, investigations have found many fail to deliver, while others default on basics such as health care.
Ravenhall Correctional, a private prison in Victoria with capacity for 1300 prisoners, was found to have compromised patient care and chronic staff shortages in a scathing 2019 review.
A study from the US made a similar finding, that substandard healthcare and hygiene were prevalent in private prisons in the pursuit of cost-cutting.
“Combined, these factors can lead to volatile environments that are more prone to abuse, violence, injury, and death.”
The “safer” environments of private prisons are another selling point. Often marketed as “state of the art” facilities, there is nonetheless a disturbing correlation at work.
As prisons approach their full capacity, the instances of physical violence, self-harm, and destruction increase dramatically.
Private prison Arthur Gorrie Correctional’s rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assault in 2016 was double the rate of the next most violent prison.
An ABC investigation saw former guards testify that the running of private prisons didn’t go “by the book.”
These guards were under-paid compared to the industry standard, under-resourced and under-trained.
And then of course there is the most glaring issue at the heart of for-profit prisons: a multi-billion dollar industry with a vested interest in the continued occupation of their facilities.
“In America, they can demand 80% occupancy,” says Wiradjuri woman Carly Stanley, CEO and Founder of Deadly Connections in the upcoming documentary Incarceration Nation.
“They are locking people up for profit.”
A growing industry
Clarence Correctional Centre is one of Australia's newest private prisons. It is also the largest.
It houses 1700 prisoners, both men and women, ranging from minimum to maximum security.
The location, on the NSW north coast, is very near a large regional Aboriginal community.
Deb Kilroy is a criminal justice reform advocate who has worked First Nations women in the prison system for decades.
She has seen the promises of both private and public prisons go unfulfilled as incarceration rates, especially of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, increase year on year.
“We saw most recently here in Queensland… the argument of the prison industry, about opening a new prison at Gatton for women because of overcrowding,” she said recently on NITV’s Living Black.
“They came out heart on hand and said we’re concerned about overcrowding, that women are sharing cells, the impact on their mental health, their welfare, ”
“It’s like ‘Yeah you’re not.’ You just want to open another prison.”
Incarceration Nation premieres Sunday 29 August at 8.30pm on NITV