Debate on Privately Managed Prisons

March 10th, 2009 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Some interesting quotes in this Herald story:

Unions representing prison wardens have vowed to fight Government plans to let private companies manage some existing jails.

The Corrections Association says prison officers started on just $18,000 a year the last time prison management was privatised – at the Auckland Central Remand Prison for the first five years after it opened in 2000.

No surprise the union is against. The minimum wage is now $25,000 so I guess they’ll be on at least that. But the part that interest me is this:

But criminologist Greg Newbold, who has visited private prisons in Australia and the United States as well as the Auckland remand prison when it was privatised, said privatisation worked.

“The private prisons have an atmosphere of vibrancy and enthusiasm which I have never seen in a publicly run prison,” he said.

Strong words.

“The reason they are better is that there are powerful performance incentives built into a good contract to ensure that the private prison will perform according to the requirements of the contract.”

Incentives do matter. We ignore this at our peril.

He confirmed that floor staff at the Auckland remand prison were paid less than their counterparts in public prisons when the remand jail was run by Australasian Correctional Management, a US-owned company that is now called the GEO Group (Global Expertise in Outsourcing).

“What tends to happen is that they pay good money for top operators. They tend to pay less money for the people on the floor, the unskilled people who just open and shut doors,” he said.

“If they show commitment and intelligence and ability, they can rapidly be promoted, which isn’t the case in the public system.”

No wonder they do well. Starting salary is not as important for many, as what salary they can rise to if they perform well.

In his book The Problem of Prisons, Dr Newbold said the Australian company running the Auckland remand prison was fined $50,000 for every escape under its contract, and as a result had only one escape in the five years it ran the jail.

“In 2004, for example, filled to maximum capacity with 360 inmates, the prison had one suicide and only three serious assaults – a low level of serious incidents for an institution of this type,” he wrote. “Only 5.5 per cent of inmates returned positive drug tests, compared with over 20 per cent in the public sector.”

No wonder Labour closed it down. What would be interesting is to find out what the violence and drug testing rate now is in that prison?

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