In the first of our expert blog series in our 25th anniversary year, Rob Allen, penal reform expert and co-author of a recent World Bank paper on public-private partnerships in prisons, surveys the arguments and existing evidence in favour of and against the involvement of private companies in prison services.
When PRI was founded in 1989, prisons run by private companies were a relatively new feature in the modern penal landscape. Originating in the USA, privatisation has spread, initially in the English speaking world, but subsequently to a range of countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia. A variety of models operate around the world – from prisons which are financed, built and run by private companies under contract to government (as in England and Wales), to mixed systems in which custodial functions remain the responsibility of state employees while everything else is outsourced (as happens in France and Chile).
Although experience has largely been limited to high and medium income countries, in recent years a number of poorer nations have shown interest in the potential benefits of public private partnerships in the prison field. Jamaica, Kenya and Nigeria are among the nations reported to be exploring the options. In countries such as these with inadequate prison infrastructure and limited availability of funds to improve it, is privatisation a sensible road to penal reform?
Supporters argue that private prisons can produce efficiencies and encourage innovation while opponents argue that making profits from incarceration drives an increase in its use and a reduction in the quality of regimes. A recent World Bank paper finds the evidence is mixed about whether private prisons produce value for money or improved performance and identifies the negative impacts they may make by introducing a vested interest in increasing imprisonment unnecessarily, producing variable quality in a “two tier” system and opening new possibilities for corruption in tendering, administration and sentencing.
South Africa’s experience provides a cautionary tale. Specifications for two large private prisons proved unsuitable and costly – as one official put it “we ordered a Rolls Royce when we needed a Toyota”. A series of operational problems, including the industrial action by staff and allegations of medical malpractices last year led the Correctional Services to take over the running of the facility. In the light of the experience, the Minister told parliament that his department had doubts about the effectiveness of bringing in private contractors to run prisons.
While operational difficulties and bad practices are of course not limited to privately run prisons, there are growing concerns in the UK about whether the need to make profits pushes private companies to propose unrealistic bids to win contracts and to cut corners in delivering them. The World Bank paper concludes that there may be significant additional risks attached to private prisons in countries where robust legislative and regulatory frameworks are less developed or their application is weak.
The last 25 years suggests that, despite some superficial attractions, private sector involvement in prisons requires very careful consideration. The starting point must be a full analysis of the infrastructure and processes required by a country in its criminal justice system in order to meet international norms and standards and contribute to development goals. Within such a framework, in many countries community based alternatives to pre-trial detention and short prison sentences are likely to prove more economical and effective targets for investment than prison expansion.
Even when new or replacement prison capacity is definitely needed, the risks inherent in private sector involvement will in most cases outweigh any alleged advantages. After all, at the end of the day, punishment is a regrettable duty of the state not a market opportunity.
About Rob Allen
Rob Allen works in the UK and internationally on criminal justice and prison issues. From 2005-2010 he was Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London and since early 2011 has been an Associate with Penal Reform International working in particular on developing the use of community service in East Africa. In 2013, Rob co-authored a paper with Paul English on Public-Private Partnerships in Prison Construction and Management. He is also the author of PRI’s recent paper – The use and practice of imprisonment: current trends and future challenges – which inspired this blog series.
About this blog series
As a leading organisation in this area, PRI seeks to identify trends and challenges in penal reform in order to contribute to and develop fair, effective and proportionate responses to criminal justice problems. To mark our 25th Anniversary and prepare for the Crime Congress in Qatar in April 2015 we have launched a series of monthly expert guest blogs, addressing interesting trends and pressing criminal justice challenges.
Blogs will be available here on our website and as podcasts on the 25th of each month from May 2014 to April 2015. Read more about the blog series.
Listen to the audio version of this blog