Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Against private prisons

National announced its prisons policy [PDF] today, in which they promised a wholesale privatisation of the prison system. Rather than being run by the government, National would have our prisons (and our prisoners) managed by private companies for profit.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is objectionable. The most basic one is that it is fundamentally immoral for private companies to be profiting off human misery by running prisons. A second is that, like policing and the courts, this is a core business of the state, and not something that should be contracted out, let alone run according to "market forces". There are also problems with perverse incentives, and with private prisons overseas having a reputation for brutality, abuse and neglect. But there's another reason as well, which I think other people will miss, and that is that privatising prisons will weaken their accountability to the public.

At the moment when the Department of Corrections transports prisoners in an unsafe and inhumane manner, runs an illegal detention regime, or kills prisoners by neglect, they can be held accountable. NGOs and members of the public can use the Official Information Act to uncover mistreatment and generally keep an eye on them (and I have). But I can't OIA a private prison provider, because they're not part of the government. And I can't even OIA the terms of their contract with the government to find out how much we're overpaying them, whether they have penalty clauses for reoffending rates, or who pays when their guards inevitably abuse their state-assigned powers - because its all "commercially sensitive". What privatisation does in this area is take a core area of government business, and one we really want to keep an eye on, and move it forever out of public scrutiny. That is not just undemocratic; it is dangerous. And we should not be considering it for a moment.