In June 1998, the National Government in NZ announced that three new prisons would be tendered out. Legislation allowing privately run prisons had existed since 1995 when the first tenders were called and rejected. By June 2000, New Zealand's first privately run prison - a new 251 cell Auckland Central Remand Prison, opened under contract to Australian Correctional Management (ACM), a subsidiary of US based Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now known as GEO). In 2004, the Labour Government, opposed to privatisation, amended the law to prohibit the extension of private prison contracts. A year later, the 5 year contract with ACM was not renewed. In March 2009, the new National Government again introduced law providing for private prison contract management (Howard League Newsletters 3 & 11, July 1998 & July 2000; G.Newbold, The Problem of Prisons, Dunmore,2007; Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons Amendment Bill, 12 March 2009). Set out below is some background information on private prisons.
- Private sector involvement in prisons in America began with the 19th century practice of 'prison labour leasing'. For a state fee, prisoners were housed, clothed and fed by private contractors in return for their labour. A history of injustice, neglect, brutality and high morbidity rates for the mainly black prisoners is recorded. By the early 20th century, a gradual phasing out of privately contracted work (replaced by state-run prison industries) reasserted control by the state. In the 1970s, private industry and 'chain gangs' returned, coinciding with a renewed search for efficiency and profit as prison populations began to explode (ALJames, K.Bottomley, A.Liebling, E.Clare, Privatising Prisons, Rhetoric and Reality, Sage, London, 1997, 2-4).
The sudden revival of interest and drive towards private sector involvement in prisons in the 1970s and 1980s took place in a broader context of a political, social and economic climate of declining faith in the state to manage traditionally 'public sector' services. During this period, the USA, Canada, several Australian states and the UK had governments whose political ideology gave increasing emphasis to reducing the role of the state in the delivery of public services. These countries also had the highest proportionate and fastest-growing prison populations (Ibid. James et al. p.1).
- The private sector was thought to be capable of responding quickly and flexibly to the urgent need for expansion and of delivering higher quality services in a more efficient and accountable manner. Reduced cost, improved conditions and innovation were anticipated.
- The mid-1980s saw rapid expansion of private-sector involvement in the management and operation of first juvenile and then adult American prisons. While financial, political and managerial reasons were prominent, the prison population crisis acted as the single most significant factor. By 1991, private corrections firms, led by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), operated 60 secure adult facilities in 12 out of 50 states, including four maximum-security prisons in Texas. By 2004, 6.6% of all US prisoners were held in private prisons in 34 of the 50 US states, with the greatest number in Texas. (Ibid.4 & 8; V.Stern, Creating Criminals, Prisons and People in a Market Society, Zed Books, London, 2006; R Harding, Private Prisons and Public Accountability, Transaction Publications, New Brunswick, 1997).
- Combined American and British interests began proposing private prisons in Britain in the early 1980s. By 1988, faced with a 76% rise in the remand population in 9 years and seriously overcrowded prisons, the Home Office, for the first time, publicly explored the scope for private-sector involvement in the prisons. In 1989, the Thatcher Government agreed. The private sector would build and/or manage future prisons (Ibid. James et al, Ch.3).
The first private prison in Britain, Wolds Remand Centre, opened in 1992 run by Group 4, an Anglo/Swedish consortium. Further 'privatisation of other parts of the prison service' were to be dependent upon its success. However, before evaluation occurred, three new private prison management contracts were signed. More followed. By 2008, prison privatisation had become so entrenched, particularly in England and Wales, that the UK had the most privatised criminal justice system in Europe; (Prisons Minister, February 1991, cited by Stephen Nathan in Blind Faith in Private Prisons, Independent Monitor, Issue 93, March 2008; Harding, 1997).
Two private prisons, Blakenhurst and Buckley Hall were taken back into the public sector between 2000 and 2001 after failed bids. An 'unsafe' youth prison, Ashfield, was fined 4.5 million pounds and restored to public control for 5 months in 2002. In 2003, a report on operational performance by the UK National Audit Office found that private prisons were 'neither a guarantee of success nor the cause of inevitable failure'. Performance was 'mixed'. The best private prisons were better than most public prisons but the worst were at the bottom, among the least well performing public prisons. Another six drew criticism from the Chief Inspector of Prisons (Ibid. Nathan, 2008; Is Privatising Jails Really Worth the Risk? T. Misa, NZ Herald, 16 Mar 2009; Ibid, Stern, p112, 2006).
By March 2008 an unpublished Prison Service report found that in England and Wales private prisons were functioning worse that public prisons. The leaked 'league table' placed 10 of the 11 private prisons in the bottom quarter and showed that they are consistently worse than their publicly run equivalents and scored particularly badly on security and maintaining order and control. (Ibid, Nathan, 2008).
Problems have dogged America. In 1999, Wackenhut was stripped of contracts in Texas and Louisiana after accusations it had mistreated prisoners and tried to maximise profits at the expense of drug rehabilitation, counselling and literacy programmes. A later 2001 report by the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the US National Council of Crime and Delinquency found that 'there are no data to support the contention that privately operated facilities offer cost savings over publicly managed facilities'. Furthermore, there was no evidence that services to prisons and conditions of imprisonment were 'significantly improved in privately operated facilities'. Staffing was 15% lower than in public prisons, with higher numbers of major incidents and higher rates of assaults occurred (Ibid. NZ Herald).
- Australia, the second major country to 'rediscover' privately managed prisons, began opening private prisons in 1990, initially in Queensland. New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia soon followed. By 1997, it had the highest proportion (20%) in any country of prisoners held in private prisons. Direct American involvement was substantial. Problems soon surfaced at two prisons. Following an inquiry in 2000, which found widespread drug use, deaths in custody, poor training and cover-ups, the Victorian Government took back public control of the Metro Women's Correctional Centre (Ibid. James et al; R.Harding, Private Prisons and Public Accountability, 1997; Paul Moyle, Profiting from Punishment, Pluto Press, 2000).
In 2006, the Canadian Government returned the country's one private prison to the public sector. After five years, 'there had been no appreciable benefit'. Indeed, the public system was found to have 'performed better in key areas such as security, health care and reducing re-offending rates' (Ibid, NZ Herald).