In the late evening of March 15, the NSW correctional services department used management personnel to transfer 107 prisoners from the Cessnock jail in preparation for its privatisation.
When prison officers arrived at work on March 16, they were locked out.
"It reminds me of the waterfront dispute of the late 90s, where people came in unannounced, in the middle of the night, to take people's work away from them", Public Service Association NSW general secretary John Cahill said on March 17.
The NSW government is attempting to privatise both Cessnock and Parklea jails.
In the mid 1800s state legislatures in the US awarded contracts to private entrepreneurs to operate and manage Louisiana's first state prison, the Auburn prison in New York and the infamous Sing Sing prison. These institutions became the model in the US and privatised prisons became the norm later in the century.
Statistics from the US have shown the private sector can run the prison systems and do it cheaper than the state. But can private operators be trusted to run prisons for less without compromising?
What control mechanisms will assure that society's interests come before those of the managing corporations? If private prisons can do nothing more than house bodies cheaply, while complying with the minimal standards, then private prison industry operators at least appear to be efficient.
Imprisonment, however, is generally acknowledged to include, at best, deterrence and rehabilitation, or at least reduction of re-offending rates. In the US there is no definitive private-public comparative study on recidivism (re-offending). The private prisons, as opposed to the state, have a direct conflict of interest.
For privatised prisons, by reducing the number of repeat offenders, they are in effect reducing the supply of profit-producing future "customers". The most worrying aspect of prison privatisation is the inevitable emergence of a private prison lobby concerned not with social welfare, but with increasing its dividends.
The GEO group runs the state's first private prison in Junee. It is in the box seat to win the contract for the other two prisons. GEO Group Australia also donated $22,000 in fundraising to the Labor Party before the state election in 2007.
GEO's record as prison managers in the US is appalling. There have been major riots at the Reeves County Detention Centre according to the Houston Independent Media Centre on February 5, caused by GEO failing to provide adequate medical care to a gravely ill inmate. Houston IMC also reported that GEO holds more than 2800 prisoners in a facility meant to hold 2400.
In October 2007, the GEO Group's Coke County youth detention facility in Texas was closed down by authorities and the contract cancelled because of so-called mismanagement.
The Texas Youth Commission described conditions at the facility as "unsanitary", "unsafe" and "unacceptable" according to Associated Press.
Greens NSW MLC Silvia Hale said on March 5: "We have seen from overseas what happens when the profit motive is introduced into the justice system.
"Potentially lucrative new incentives for corruption are created; pressure is applied to cut costs, to reduce programs, staff numbers and safety levels for both inmates and staff.
"Money starts to flow between private companies, political parties and even judiciary, corrupting and distorting the justice system."
[Kerrie Lay is a member of the Socialist Alliance. Support the PSA's Stop the cell-off campaign. Visit <http://www.stopthecelloff.org.au/>.]