Friday 17 December 2010

The Price of Privatising Prisons

The Biggest Company You've Never Heard Of: Serco plc sits at the centre of a vast international web of business operations, including prisons, immigration detention centres, nuclear facilities, services to the US National Security Agency, air traffic control systems, railways, hospitals and schools.

ADAM RICKWOOD was just 14 years old when he died. His "carers" at Hassockfield secure training centre in County Durham found him hanging in his cell. Adam’s suicide, in August 2004, remains the United Kingdom’s youngest-ever "death in custody" case.

But it was much more than that.

The following year a judge ruled that, shortly before his death, Adam had been subjected to "unlawful force" by his so-called "carers".

The incident that led to Adam’s suicide began when he resisted being placed in solitary confinement. Employing one of the "pain compliance techniques" secretly recommended to Britain’s privatised secure training centres by the UK Ministry of Justice, Adam’s "carers" struck him violently on the side of his nose, causing it to bleed profusely.

Having administered their state-sanctioned "nose distraction technique", Adam’s "carers" then confined their sobbing, blood-covered "client" to his cell, where he lay, without medical treatment, for several hours. Alone, in pain, fearing further assaults and convinced that he would never again be free, the traumatised teenager took his own life.

The private-sector organisation contracted by the British Government to run the Hassockfield secure training centre is called Serco plc.

Earlier this week, our own Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins, announced that this vast transnational conglomerate, memorably described by Guardian journalist Jane Martinson as "the biggest company you’ve never hear of"; the same company in whose "care" 14 year-old Adam Rickwood was driven to suicide; would soon be running the Mt Eden/Auckland Central Remand Prison.

In a press-release announcing the contract, Ms Collins explained: "Serco has a strong track record in managing prisons. I’m confident that the company will bring the high standards of professionalism, safety, rehabilitation and security expected by the Government to Mt Eden/ACRP."

One wonders exactly how Ms Collins and her Department of Corrections define "high standards of professionalism" when the fatal brutalisation of a 14 year-old boy – but one of many cases of prisoner and detainee ill-treatment uncovered at Serco-run facilities in both the UK and Australia – is part of the corporation’s "strong track record in managing prisons".

One certainly hopes that the ex-police, ex-military, security guards employed by Serco to keep order in the "Aussie Archipelago" of Immigration Detention Centres (security guards who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Blackwater Corporation’s notorious "contractors" in US-occupied Iraq) are not what Minister Collins has in mind when she talks about Serco bringing in "new ideas and international best practice".

Serco will certainly bring a wealth of experience in the business of privatisation. Three-quarters of the 50,000 people employed by Serco across the planet are former civil-servants. Not that there’s anything like a one-to-one correlation between the state-sector employees Serco replaces and the people who end up on its permanent payroll.

As Bevan Hanlon from the Correction Officers’ union noted in his response to Ms Collins’ announcement., Serco take-overs usually result in about 30 percent of the workers formerly employed by the State failing to secure re-employment in the new, privately-run entity.

This is hardly surprising, since Serco’s ability to turn a profit on the "business" of incarceration is almost wholly dependent upon its ability to provide the State with an equivalent level of "service" with fewer resources and far fewer staff.

It’s a Devil’s bargain. Ms Collins must know that Serco’s loss-leading tender can only be recouped at the expense of the prisoners in its "care". When fewer corrections staff are available to perform their highly demanding and often dangerous duties, the international literature all points to inmates spending more time in dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary cells, receiving reduced rations of inferior quality, having fewer exercise and rehabilitative opportunities, and being afforded considerably less dignity than when they were the responsibility of the State.

And, of course, these cut-backs come at a price. For individuals suffering from mental illnesses and/or drug and alcohol problems – prisoners without the intellectual or physical resources to withstand the constantly degraded living conditions – the stress will quickly become unbearable. Violence – against staff, other prisoners and, most tragically, against themselves – will increase.

In recommending Serco to her cabinet colleagues, Ms Collins has – wittingly or unwittingly – injected a deadly toxin into our correctional facilities. The outcome is horribly predictable: "deaths in custody" will rise dramatically.

Sooner than she would wish, Minister Collins will be presented with an Adam Rickwood of her own.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 December 2010.


Sanctuary said...

"...Sooner than she would wish, Minister Collins will be presented with an Adam Rickwood of her own..."

Judith Collins won't care, that psychopath is more likely to crack the champers to celebrate the death of a crim than order an order an inquiry.

Mark Wilson said...

Chris while I laud your concern for social justice when it comes to prisoners who cares?

Tiger Mountain said...

Glib comment Sanctuary, but in this case probably uncomfortably close to the likely outcome.

Private prisons are very scary. Main reason is the undermining of longstanding societal trade offs regarding the second most serious sanction that the state can apply to an individual, after capital punishment, –incarceration.

The links to the private/military swamp are unsavoury and undesirable for a country with previously good international credentials.

The logistics for inmates are just plain cruel. The dark sadistic kiwis don’t care, but those that do, including some from the safety of their keyboards might reflect on two things likely to make it way more likely for them too to come into contact with the ‘Bacon Squadron’ and experience the prison system personally.

1. Extended search and surveillance powers are soon to be formally granted to all sorts of government snoops beyond the SIS and special cop squads.
2. Organisations defined as ‘terrorist’ under Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, now number over 500. The act prohibits among other things, financial assistance to proscribed groups and individuals. So watch out when buying that pro Palestinian T shirt or signing up out of solidarity for some newsletter. Do it anyway of course! but be aware.

The point being the cops will use these powers to take people out of circulation at key times. This is not scaremongering, the NZ state snoops have been caught out abusing their powers many times. Private prisons are all part of the “clampdown” on democracy.

Victor said...

Even if Serco had a spotless reputation (which it clearly doesn't have), I would feel a sense of revulsion against the state sub-contracting the exercise of force and compulsion to private organisations.

I'm not sure that, philosophically,this practice is any different to the state employing people directly to perform these roles. But I have a strong visceral sense of it being different.

Obviously, those who oppose all private enterprise or, at least, any diminution in the current role of the state, will have their own axes to grind on this matter.

I am not of their number but still believe that the subcontracting of compulsion is deeply wrong, without quite being able to put my finger on exactly why.

Does anyone else share my visceral sense of a taboo being violated and, if so, are they able to provide some sort of philosophic justification for this view.

Just my opinion said...

What did the kid do in the first place to be put in a cell Chris?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Mark Wilson & Heine

There is a literary device known as the "self-characterising narrator" - which allows the author to give the reader a clear view of the character's moral quality through his or her own, unwitting, revelations.

By their words and deeds, and without realising that they are doing so, these self-characterising narrators construct for us a window into their souls.

Without the assistance or intervention of an author, Mr Wilson and Mr Heine have, through their comments, volunteered us a glimpse of their own souls.

Not a pretty picture.

Anonymous said...

I thought the running of Mt Eden privately was a great success judging by the comments of staff, prisoners and local iwi.
Finacially too.
If they happen to perform that good work with 30% less staff, then isnt that a good thing?
The Public Service isnt always right and you must admit there are many ways of acheiving outcomes.
I am also concerned at the repeated instances of bribery, corruption and collusion between current Prison Officers and prisoners.
You also draw a long bow citing an incident in Uk and saying it will happen here.
It seems you are just parroting the usual Private bad Public good meme without considering that either are actually still staffed by NZers.
Look at this comment you made
" must know that Serco’s loss-leading tender can only be recouped at the expense of the prisoners in its "care".
Reference to prove this please.

Also the experience in Mt Eden was that because of the savings they had extra funds for courses and rehabilitation for Prisoners.
Youve never read the review have you?
Perhaps you should, but take those blinkers off first-heh
Merry Christmas, whilst you are almost always wrong I enjoy your writing!

Anonymous said...

" that psychopath is more likely to crack the champers to celebrate the death of a crim than order an order an inquiry"

"By their words and deeds, and without realising that they are doing so, these self-characterising narrators construct for us a window into their souls"


Anonymous said...

Excellent post Chris.

Anonymous said...

What happens within prison walls reflects on what happens outside of them.

Adding a profit motive to the prison system gives lobbying incentive to irrationally extend sentencing. Prisons in the USA are full of people who should never have been there.

Understaffing creates a lord of the flies environment where inmates create gangs to depend on each other for security against violence.

Overcrowding also increases violence. "Double bunking" leads slowly but surely to a culture of prison rape which then extends outside of prison walls. Prison rape is an expected part of prison life in the USA and other some other countries.

The decline in New Zealand's prisons comes from decline in economics, rationality and empathy. We're in an economic mess because of prior governments' mismanagement, there is a loss of rationality over the connectedness of treatment of prisoners and how they behave when released, and there is a weakening of empathy.

Prisons shouldn't be "double bunked" and thinking about changing inmates' behaviour after they're released should be at the forefront.

Anonymous said...

Well it didn't take long for double-bunking to change mindsets.

An episode of "The Almighty Johnsons" on TV3 treated it as a given that if a young man went to prison that he'd be raped.

Our Corrections minister has said of looters: "I hope they go to jail for a long time - with a cellmate."