Jeff Kennett's private prison industry
By Ben Alterman
CASTLEMAINE — With a minimum of publicity or questioning about the tendering process, the Liberal Kennett government has implemented its plans for the widespread privatisation of the Victorian prison system. As a result, private prisons will soon hold around 80% of female prisoners and 45% of all prisoners in Victoria.
This has been allowed to take place in an information vacuum due to the government-initiated "commercial confidentiality" clause which makes it virtually impossible for concerned people to obtain information about the privatisation proposals or the tendering process.
The same clause has been used by other big business groups to keep people ignorant of the facts surrounding other unpopular profit-making projects such as the Crown Casino, Albert Park Grand Prix and the City Link venture.
It has also been interesting to note the frequency with which the corporations concerned have turned to the pro-big business judicial system to have writs issued against activists who have spoken out against them. This, coupled with the same corporations' habit of sending threatening letters to these activists, could lead one to believe that the corporations have reason to fear public knowledge of their background and history as well as details of their current tenders.
These companies include: Australian Correctional Management (ACM), Corrections Corporation of Australia (CCA) and Group 4 Remand Services.
ACM, which has the tender for the 600-bed men's prison at West Sale, is owned by the US Wackenhut Corporation and is currently running the Junee Correctional Centre in NSW and the Arthur Gorrie Remand and Reception Centre in Queensland. Since their opening, both these prisons have been plagued by problems.
There have been numerous disturbances at Junee, which critics say is mainly staffed by people with no experience as prison officers and minimal training, and who are employed at a lower rate of pay and in worse working conditions than their state counterparts.
There are questions also about the lack of experience of some of the management personnel at Junee. A number of low-ranking prison officers from the state-run prison system, with only one or two years' experience, were poached by ACM to take up positions as assistant/deputy governors — a job normally performed by prison officers with 10 or more years' experience.
These circumstances have badly affected inmates at Junee, where there is a higher than average rate of internal violence and drug use. There have also been complaints about a lack of educational and vocational programs.
The biggest concern, however, is the number of deaths in this supposedly medium security prison. Since April 1993, there have been four deaths in custody at Junee: one was a murder; two were suicides; the fourth is still under investigation.
The Arthur Gorrie Remand and Reception Centre has experienced many complaints of overcrowding and a lack of services. Between November 1992 and September 1995, there were eight deaths in custody — the worst death rate in any comparably sized prison in this decade.
Opponents of private prisons also cite problems at Wackenhut's prisons in the United States. In Texas, company officials are alleged to have misappropriated more than US$700,000 allocated by that state for drug rehabilitation programs. The funds were allegedly used on mobile phones and trips to Britain.
Three private manufacturing firms are housed in Wackenhut's Lochart prison. One of these, Lochart Technologies, which produces circuit board assemblies, had a completely new factory assembly facility built by prison labour. When this was completed, the owner closed down his plant in Austin, Texas, laid off his 150 employees, and moved all the manufacturing equipment to Lochart.
The prisoners who work for Lochart are paid the minimum wage for this highly profitable work. Prison authorities keep 80% of their wage for room and board.
Wackenhut attracted considerable notoriety in 1994 when a US Congressional committee found that it had run covert operations on behalf of private companies against individuals who are whistle blowers, environmentalists, anti-nuclear activists or union organisers. It is also the largest provider of security services to the US government.
CCA, which has the tender for the 125-bed women's prison at Melton, due to open in July, runS the Borallon Correctional Centre in Queensland. While Borallon is portrayed as the ideal prison under private management, the company and the Queensland government have played down the fact that this prison does not accept many categories of prisoners, including protection cases, people with suicidal tendencies and psychiatric disorders, and people on long-term medical supervision. All Borallon's inmates have minimal problems and are therefore easier to supervise. Since its opening in 1990, there has been one death in custody at Borallon prison.
This company is owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCAm) which has been operating prisons in the states of Texas, Tennessee, Florida and New Mexico since 1983.
CCA's Australian director is Don Hutto, the former director of corrections in West Virginia and Arkansas in the US. Whilst working in those systems, he was found by the US Supreme Court to have violated the eighth and fourteenth amendments of the US Constitution regarding cruel and unusual punishment. This is the person that Jeff Kennett wants to put in charge of the women currently suffering at the hands of the state-run prison service.
Group 4 Remand Services, which has the tender for the 600-bed remand and reception prison at North Laverton, is a British-based enterprise which has been involved with various projects in Australia since the late 1970s. It has recently been trying to acquire a share in the privatisation of Adelaide's public bus system. It also runs the Mt Gambier Correctional Centre in South Australia, where there was a death in custody within seven months of its opening in June 1995.
Group 4 operates the Wolds Remand Centre and Buckley Hall Prison in Britain. There the prison service has undergone a similar privatisation program with the opening of six new private prisons since 1992. There has been an increase in the number of assaults compared to the state-run prisons, and the issuing of default notices and a fine of over £40,000 for the company that runs Blakenhurst prison (part owned by CCAm) by the British prison service. One officer at Blakenhurst was jailed following the death of 33-year-old Alton Manning after he was restrained by prison officers.
The operations director of Group 4, Stephen Twinn, was quoted in the Melbourne Herald-Sun on April 13 as saying that his company wanted to break from "the negative culture among staff at Pentridge" while cutting the annual cost of housing inmates there from $65,000 to $36,000 a year at the proposed new remand centre at North Laverton.
This cost reduction can be achieved in a modern (and traditionally more expensive) prison only by reducing the staffing levels in both custodial and program roles, and by employing officers with little or no qualifications and experience and paying them lower salaries then their state counterparts. This will create a negative culture among both inmates and staff which is bound to be much worse than that in state-run prisons.
One of the most disquieting aspects of this privatisation scheme, which involves the commodification of prisoners, has been the attitude of the government. There are now more than 450 extra beds in the Victorian prison system at a time when government statistics reveal a 4% drop in the overall crime rate. This indicates a trend similar to the US system, where private prison contractors first build more prisons and then lobby the appropriate authorities to increase the incarceration rate.
This further exploits those members of the working class who turn to crime when they see no other alternative to long-term unemployment. Most people are in prison for property theft and drug-related offences, not violent crime.