Why prisons should never be privatized

In my previous post, I examined Serco’s performance as a company in the business of holding prison contracts from the Government. Now, I set out why I believe private companies should stay out of Government business.

There are some things government should never have control of. And there are some things the private sector should never have control of. There is no doubt that running a prison system is complex, expensive and resource heavy. It is an investment all nations have to make in terms of a functional justice system. How that investment is made varies from one to the next, especially in terms of how the Government and the private sector provide the logistical services that go with a prison system such as catering, santitation, staffing, and so forth.

Operating a prison system can be unforgiving, with no praise given from any quarters – criticism is guaranteed if a recidivist offender gets released early; guaranteed if someone dies in their cell for no obvious reason; a prisoner escapes and no one knows how. But it is a service to the community, to society and the nation whose very well being relies on it. Proponents of the market will say a Government should be as small as possible, and that it should have no responsibility dispensing social services. Those proponents go on to say that the market will adjust to demand accordingly. A Government that is seriously trying to rein spending however it can, without always considering the consequences, might find this approach attractive, because it can say it is being responsible with taxpayer money.

In both philosophical and purely practical terms, I disagree. There is no place for the private sector in running prisons.

I completely fail to see how the *market* can possibly be the best means to provide a service whose truest value to society cannot be measured in dollars. There is no monetary way as any victim of crime will tell you to measure the violating nature of the offence, especially if it involved violence or damage to the one place a persons should be safest – at home. Although it has certainly been tried, I find it difficult to accept statistical analysis of the impact of crime on victims.

But it is not just about the victim. A prison is also a place where those who have done serious crime, which the Courts determined must be punished by a jail sentence, to be rehabilitated if they so wish to make amends. Many do. Some cannot, and some simply refuse. But as part of the contract with society to protect it from criminals there must be a rehabilitative function in prisons with a mixture of psychiatric, medical and educational services coming into play.  Again, just as with the victim, there is no monetary or other economic measure that can truly gauge the benefit to society in successfully turning around a prisoner.

There are also philosophical reasons why the private sector has no place in operating prison systems. Aside from the obvious first priority being to make a profit, a private sector firm will not likely have the same regard as a Government does for human rights laws – all prisoners have basic human rights. Yes they have done wrong things, but a prisoner that is degraded in prison who might have been successfully turned around becomes a dangerous one of the worst kind. When a prisoner has done their time, unless they have exhibited behaviour that suggests they are still a risk, they must be released. The prisoner that is beaten by guards, or attacked by inmates who then go unpunished might decide society is against them even if they have made an effort at reform and go onto commit the very crimes the attempts at reform were intended to stop.

Does that necessarily make the Government the better provider of the services? Not necessarily, but given they have a degree of accountability that the private sector does not, I am yet to be convinced the private sector could do the job better. Unless an independent watch dog with the authority to investigate breaches of contracts and repeal those from companies found to be not fit to hold them, private companies should stay out of Government business.

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