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Prisons for profit

Written By: - Date published: 5:50 pm, October 28th, 2008 - 49 comments
Categories: crime, national, privatisation - Tags: , ,

National’s announcement that it plans to privatise the prison system says a lot about the party’s underlying values. Say what you like about National’s temporary flip-flops, underneath they haven’t changed a bit.

Whether it’s ACC, privatising assets, drafting electoral law or reforming the Resource Management Act, the National Party stands for entrenching private power at the expense of the public in nearly every sphere of life.

Now, as in the 1990s, National believes that even the sharp end of state power, the prison system, should be wrenched from public control and handed over to private corporations driven by the profit motive.

As a very basic principle for anyone on the Left, the thought of putting money on bodies in a cell and paying stockholders for those bodies is an affront to human dignity. As with the police and the judiciary, coercive power should be the monopoly of democratically accountable public institutions, not private companies.

But even on a more practical level, private prisons simply don’t make sense. Does anyone seriously believe that powerful corporations with a direct profit motive in a high prison population and repeat customers will have an interest in rehabilitation?

The reality is private prisons, like any other outsourced provider, only make money by cutting corners where it really matters. The record of private prisons in the United States is overwhelmingly one of low wages, poor training and prisoner abuse.

In fact, the firm the last National government contracted to run private prisons in NZ was none other than the infamous Wackenhut, which has since changed its name to GEO Group, so damaged is its reputation. Especially for young people, Wackenhut has become a byword for inmate abuse after a series of high profile stories of rape and brutalisation.

The Corrections Corporation of America, another likely bidder for New Zealand’s prison services, has had similar problems resulting from low pay, lack of training and poor treatment of prisoners. PBS recently reported the following story about a CCA facility:

One night in 2004, a major prisoner riot blazed through Crowley. Some of the overwhelmed guards ran away and outside law enforcement had to put down the uprising. A state report later found that the facility was not fully staffed, and didn’t follow fundamental security measures. Inmates were angry over bad food and inappropriate use of force. Low pay contributed to a high staff attrition rate…and in an industry where years on the job can literally teach you how to save lives… newly-hired, inexperienced staff were left to deal with an explosive mix of inmates from three different states.

According to one expert, ‘the problems that were identified in the wake of that riot are typical of the private prison industry and happen over and over again.’

Don’t be fooled into thinking National’s plan to privatise our prison system is in any way “fresh thinking” for a “brighter future”. Like the rest of their programme, National’s corrections policy is the same old ideological formula: remove control from the public sphere so the private sector can profit. Whether it works or even violates fundamental principles of human dignity and democracy is beside the point.

49 comments on “Prisons for profit ”

  1. Sarah 1

    “the National Party stands for entrenching private power at the expense of the public in nearly every sphere of life”

    Please try and spin another one.

  2. theodoresteel 2

    I thought the Nats believed in the efficiency and ability of the private sector, allowing goals to be reached in the most efficient way. Obviously if the contracts go out from the Government they can put terms and conditions on those – dont meet the requirements, lose money. That’s how the private sector ensures standards are met and done so in the most efficient way.

    And I thought that there was generally higher standards of care at private prisons, but maybe I’ve just been reading different prodpaganda – no I cant quote where from because I dont remember.

  3. Tane 3


    Please try and spin another one.

    That’s the fundamental split between left and right Sarah, sorry if you missed it.


    The right usually ignore the international experience and point to the short history of private management at Auckland Central Remand Prison, which Wackenhut’s New Zealand subsidiary used as its sales pitch to enter the New Zealand market. It’s worth noting any perceived benefits came from the type of prisoner held there, the fact the facility was brand new, and the need of the company to look good so it could win more business. I read somewhere they also had a lower staff:prisoner ratio than other prisons, no doubt a sign of things to come.

  4. Lampie 4

    this concept and boot camps, all now failed experiments according to research. Why even bother??

  5. Lampie 5

    I know the answer, it’s the magic wand trick as we are sheep and listen to what we only want to hear.

  6. randal 6

    has new zealand finally gone mad?

  7. Ianmac 7

    Hospitals: Pick the profitable parts of the Public System, contract out to Private Hospitals, leave the tricky stuff to the Public.
    Prisons: Pick out the low risk prisoners from the Public System,contract out to Private, and leave the tough stuff to the Public System.
    Now look at the effect. Public slower more expensive, Private cheaper, more efficient. Simple. Stats to prove it. OK?

  8. Bill 8

    So lets see. 10 days till the election and the Peter’s spin keeps on spinning. So, release your unpopular policies 10 to the dozen and sit back as they slip largely unnoticed under the radar thanks to that large Peters blip on the screen. And the ones that are noticed? Give the Peter’s spinning top a wee birl to take the focus away again or, as a last resort, release another bullshit policy with attendant obtuse sound bites before the first is properly latched on to.

    Duck, dive and bluster for 10 days. Only 10 days to not get pinned. Only 10 days to survive those oh so sharp hooks of NZ’s msm! On day 11, relax and get on with floating NZ Ltd down the swannie. Or so the plans and hopes might be.

  9. the sprout 9

    “Does anyone seriously believe that powerful corporations with a direct profit motive in a high prison population and repeat customers will have an interest in rehabilitation?”

    Exactly. Just another example of National supporters in denial about one of life’s more obvious market failures.

    What’s next I wonder, privatization of the Commerce Commission?

  10. National: Now 98% fact free!

  11. Tane 11

    Sprout, my sources tell me it’s private police and judiciary. Expect to see something like this in the Herald in the next few days:

    National leader John Key is proposing a shake-up in the justice system, with a focus on slashing red tape and bureaucracy.

    In a speech to the Sensible Sentencing Trust today Key slammed Labour’s failure in the police and the judiciary and promised choice and competition for all New Zealanders.

    “As a recent high profile cases of police misconduct have shown, Labour’s police force is failing”, Mr Key told his audience to rapturous applause.

    “When you add the series of bungled and unpopular rulings from the judiciary in recent times it’s clear that people are fed up with the system and are looking for change.

    “National’s plan will provide that change. We don’t believe the government has all the answers, and unlike Labour we’re not ideologically opposed to the private sector playing a role in the provision of justice.

    “With support from our coalition partner ACT we will be introducing choice in the justice market in our first 100 days in office”, Mr Key concluded.

  12. Pascal's bookie 12

    “privatization of the Commerce Commission?”

    Not in the first term.

    I understand that Fiji gets a decent wedge for letting the UN deploy it’s military around the world, could be a starter for the SOE model. Make the Defence Forces self funding, bloody slackers, the deadweight costs are immense. It could be a growth area too. There’s no need to limit ourselves to the stupid Fijian UN based model. We may need to make a few technical adjustments. Drop the oaths and citizenship requirements which are relics of a bygone bleggidy blah, they’re are just holding us back.

  13. Now, that’s a beautiful piece of political writing – solid philosophical argument, backed by pragmatism, and conveyed with excellent rhetoric. ka pai, Tane

    You can witness the strength of such argument in the response from the Righties. Sarah, frankly, has nothing, no substantive response at all. While theodore’s argument relies on ignoring, but not refuting, facts in your piece.

  14. Pascal's bookie 14

    The Fire service is a goer as well.

    There was a Roman chappie who had the right stuff. Just have FireCorp show up at the scene with their appliances and make an offer on the property. What could be fairer than that? Sure you’ve got a highly motivated seller, but they’ve still got the choice of saying we don’t want no water let my muthafucka burn.

    Everyone like choices.

  15. Bill 15

    What about the privatisation of Civil Emergency…?…then the Nats can give themselves and their mates all of our tax money as they save us from 3 years of policy induced nation wide catastrophe.

  16. milo 16

    Tane, you are setting up a straw man. The ‘right’ believes in individual rights, personal incentive, relatively free markets and a level enough playing field to allow people to flourish. You constantly and egregiously confuse this idea liberty with a different idea of oligarchy. Now maybe the Nats are oligarchs, and maybe they aren’t, but oligarchs are not the ‘right’.

    And the foundation of our modern health and prosperity is the victory of these individual rights, personal incentives, relatively free markets, and reasonably level playing fields. The evidence is history writ large in every country of the world over the last 300 years.

    Now some of those foundations require ‘left’ thinking. You can’t have a level playing field without a safety net and education and food for the poor, for example. But much of our modern prosperity, if not most, is based on individual liberty above everything else.

    If you don’t believe me, read some history. And please stop deliberately confusing those who believe in liberty and incentive with the oligarchs who seek to create wealth through monopolies. You know better.

  17. Why bother having prisons run privately, gutless judges will just him these pieces of human trash, home detention, like they did with Michael Bensley.

  18. randal 18

    milo …I’m sorry but you confuse a narrow section of contract law with freedom. i.e. anything that stands in the way of making a profit is un free.
    NOne of us are free. when free willy was put back in the sea he died.
    YOu are like those persons on the right who want unfettered legal access to make as much money as possible with no questions asked.
    that is not freedom.

  19. milo 19

    No randal, I believe in freedom to live in accordance with your values, to the extent that is consistent with the common good. I suspect you think the same, but we disagree with what those limits are.

    Let me highlight the difference. Tane is rightly concerned that the coercive power of the state is too awful to be delegated to private contractors. But if the coercive power of the state is so awful, why are bloggers on The Standard is such a rush to extend this awful power further and further.

    Can’t have it both ways – the coercive power of the state should be restricted, or it shouldn’t. I vote for restricting it. And I think National are the best chance of achieving that, given Labour and the Greens penchant for extending the coercive power of the state.

    Vote freedom. Not coercion.

  20. idiotic ak 20

    Totally off topic, but just heard the Slipper on the wireless saying “of course we all know that Helen Clark will do whatever it takes to be the government…..”

    Reminded me of this quote from the SST a wee way back that I had the good sense to snip out;

    “One insider says Key has a pet saying of “whatever it takes” – it is his indication to a caucus member that he just wants something to be done, find a way to do it. But it’s a phrase which has a double-edge.
    In many ways it has been his modus operandi since as a small boy he dreamed of being Prime Minister.”

    Projection stage: check.

    As you were.

  21. DS 21

    >>>Can’t have it both ways – the coercive power of the state should be restricted, or it shouldn’t. I vote for restricting it. <<<

    Mate, if you think Private Enterprise can’t be coercive, you’ve got another thing coming.

  22. milo 22

    DS: Coercive power of the State. And yes, I think one of the great failures of New Zealand governments is the failure to prevent oligolopies
    from exploiting the public … power companies come to mind, and public monopolies like local councils, and the department of internal affairs. They all exert the coercive power of their monopolies/oligopolies to constantly raise prices.

    And what has the Government done about it? Just said “thanks very much” for their slice of the revenue.

  23. ak 23

    (that’d be a “think” DS)

    heck while I’m here, here’s another doozy from that Nice caring man who wants to expand the dole:

    “Key in mid-2002 also revealed to the Sunday Star-Times a tough personal view on welfare. Asked about the topic as National struggled internally with its policy line, Key said there had been “enormous growth in the number of people on the DPB, and where people have been, for want of a better term, breeding for a business”.

    Lovely bloke.

  24. milo 24

    Threadjacking ak? Do you think the coercive power of the state should be reduced or increased?

  25. the sprout 25

    I guess one thing that won’t need further privatizing is the National Party Ltd.

  26. milo 26

    That’s right sprout. Owen Glenn has already bought them.

    Oh, hang on …..

  27. Rex Widerstrom 27

    Let me start by making clear I am no fan of prisons, public or private. Those that we have ought to be a last resort, yet populist “get tough on law’n’order” policies keep (over)stuffing them and expecting inadequate buildings and staff numbers to cope. Thus many of the conditions in prison are solely the fault of politicians, not the jailers.

    So if we step back, take off the ideological blinkers and take a look at the performance of jailers, what do we find? Some are good, some are crap; some are public, some are private.

    Serco (a private prison operator in the UK, does particularly well reintegrating soon-to-be-released and newly-released prisoners back into the community; an average one in maintaining decent conditions in its prisons, in a large part due to overcrowding forced on them by politicians and the judiciary (a problem shared by public prisons).

    They run a private prison in Western Australia – it’s well known to be clean, well-managed and to offer good opportunities for prisoners to learn and be reintegrated. As a result, prisoners apply to be sent there from state run prisons in far greater numbers than the private prison can handle.

    An additional factor is that, as a private entity, Serco can be sued. The Corrections Department, as an arm of the state, cannot. That difference becomes immediately apparent if you deal with either sort of prison – the state prison’s attitude is invariably a polite variation on “Meh, what are you gonna do about it?”.

    Then there’s Wackenhut… enough said.

    Personally, I’m open to anything that might provide prisoners with reasonable conditions while also helping genuinely rehabilitate them and reduce reoffending – and which are effective in containing and ensuring the continued detention of the small percentage of people beyond rehabilitation.

    Whether they’re wearing the uniform of the state of a private company doesn’t worry me (provided prisoners’ rights are well enshrined in statute and protected by an effective watchdog) – it’s results that count.

  28. I think you hit the nail on the head there Rex. Every one wants less crime, but what courts the “laura norder” vote is not good policy. Its beyond me why so many people consider themselves experts is such complex fields.

    If it was just a matter of doing what the sensible sentacing trust says, then how come Joseph Apiro’s prison in f Maricopa County, Arizona has resulted in at best no reduction in crime, at worst and increase. If its as simple as feeding them rancid food, giving them brutal beatings from the guards and keeping them in conditions so bad it harms their health then why isn’t crime plummeting there?

    Not many people would go diving into their engine when their car breaks down, they don’t go building their house themselves, why not, because the car wouldn’t work when they put it back together and the house would probably fall down. Why is prison any different? why the hell do so many people consider them selves such experts on the matter that they see fit to go out making massive campaigns like the sensible sentencing trust.

    It really pains me that objective statistics and scientific research these days are considered just another factor in making these kind of decisions.

    Back too the original point though, I dont see how a privately run prison can be any cheaper than a public one without cutting corners.

    (On a slight side note, does the Sensible Sentancing Trust’s name contain a logical fallacy? In claiming themselves to be “sensible” isnt that like starting off a statement by saying “every body knows that…..”, Is that a logical fallacy or just bad debating?)

  29. Pascal's bookie 29

    (On a slight side note, does the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s name contain a logical fallacy? In claiming themselves to be “sensible’ isnt that like starting off a statement by saying “every body knows that ..’, Is that a logical fallacy or just bad debating?)

    It’s like when someone tells you they oppose unnecessary violence…

  30. fiona 30

    National might also consider introducing the death penalty (surely a logical extension of this ‘lock im up and throw away the key’ mentality), and ‘harvesting’ organs from the executed like they do in China. But to show their ‘compassionate conservatism’, perhaps they wouldn’t charge the family for the bullet?

  31. Lampie 31

    Here National, privatize this *flips the bird*

  32. Chris G 32

    This is a no brainer: Efficiency as is often touted by tories as the reason to privatise, aside.

    If I’m running a private prison – I dont want rehabilitation to occur nor crime to stop because, I’m making money from people ending up in prison, and staying in prison (Being chain gangs for local infrastructure while I get paid for it)
    Theres a thing called incentive, they always bang on about it in Economics (Which the nats know heaps about dont they?) My incentive to make money stems from me ensuring more people are in prison, because a body equals $. Where is the incentive to reduce crime and create better citizens?

    Conclusion: – How is society any better off?
    – That is a repugnant system.

  33. randal 33

    “the panel” today…all agreed that privatising prisons and work for parole is nothing less than the politics of hate.
    i s this what new zealanders have become
    punitive angry people looking for revenge on anybody and everybody
    what does this say about us as a people?

  34. Lew 34

    randal: That’s because they’re all bleeding-heart liberal stooges of the communist state talking on its lap-dog government-owned media.



  35. Rex Widerstrom 35

    Chris G suggests:

    If I’m running a private prison – I dont want rehabilitation to occur nor crime to stop because, I’m making money from people ending up in prison, and staying in prison

    Possibly, if the politicians and bureaucrats who offered you the contracts are shortsighted idiots (and I accept there’s every chance they are).

    But to return to my exmaple of Serco above, the contracts under which they operate specify – at their own instigation – that they’re paid partly on the basis of how many of their previous guests do not return. That’s why they’re so successful at rehabilitation – far more so than state prisons in the same area.

    Of course they receive some money to keep the prisoner locked up for the duarion, or they simply couldn’t afford to do so. But they’re rewarded when they achieve exacrtly what prison is meant to do – stop recidivism.

    If you want to look for people who have a vested interest in keeping the revolving door into prison turning, look no further than politicians, the judiciary they appoint, and the police with whom they’re so cosy.

    Like I said, if “the market” can be manipulated in such a way as to stop people returning to jail, then three cheers for the market.

  36. RedLogix 36


    Possibly, if the politicians and bureaucrats who offered you the contracts are shortsighted idiots (and I accept there’s every chance they are).

    You are definitely the most credible commentator here on this issue, so maybe you can help me on this one. Did National include contract terms rewarding reduced reoffending when they signed up Wackenhut for the ARRP?

  37. Swampy 37

    Corrections is one of the most stuffed up useless government departments there is. Heads should have rolled at the very top a long long time ago. Labour doesn’t really care, the stuff ups have continued as they have in other departments because the minister isn’t any good and the department manages to keep a pretty low profile most of the time.

    Just to give the balance to your statement about what National stands for, the Labour Party stands for clobbering every private entity in the country – they hate the p word.

  38. Swampy 38

    “this concept and boot camps, all now failed experiments according to research. Why even bother??”

    NZ had a much lower youth crime rate when the youth justice system included Borstals and the like. It’s only since the 80s when Labour brought in their pathetic system that youth crime has rocketed.

  39. Rex Widerstrom 39

    RedLogix: I’m sorry, I don’t have a definitive answer to your question. To the best of my recollection, no. But I accept I could be wrong, and they may have tried to do so.

    What I’m far more certain of, however, is that if they had, Wackenhut would not have achieved the objective. They were a bad choice, and National should have known that. Their performance as operators of Australia’s detention centres at Curtin, Port Hedland, Perth, Woomera, Villawood and Maribyrnong was appalling. Detainees don’t undertake hunger strikes, riots, escapes and self-mutilation if they’re properly managed.

    I’d urge everyone – and specially the “prison is a holiday camp” brigade to watch this ABC our Corners documentary on the guards who worked at Woomera and the debilitating effect it’s had on their lives.

    Then think about the fact that detention centres were set up to be more humane than prisons, as no one inside was supposed to be being punished; and that these are the guards – imagine the effect on the detainees / prisoners.

    For those interested, Eye on Wackenhut lists the company’s many failures and alleged corruption, but mainly in the US.

    So as I said earlier, there’s digusting private prison operators and others whose prisons prisoners queue up to transfer to (i.e. Serco). It’s a matter of the politicians and bureaucrats choosing the company offering the best outcomes, which may not be the one offering the cheapest price.

  40. Swampy 40


    “Hospitals: Pick the profitable parts of the Public System, contract out to Private Hospitals, leave the tricky stuff to the Public.
    Prisons: Pick out the low risk prisoners from the Public System,contract out to Private, and leave the tough stuff to the Public System.
    Now look at the effect. Public slower more expensive, Private cheaper, more efficient. Simple. Stats to prove it. OK?”

    Explain why people already go private in the hospital system, it is because they can get treated immediately vs waiting months or years in the public hospital waiting lists. Public hospital care has actually got worse since 1999 even after throwing billions at it which proves Labour doesn’t have a clue.

  41. Swampy 41

    Anyone who claims the police are competent should ask why so many cases involving the Labour Party have been dropped, and why the police continue to refuse to release information relating to the 2005 investigation into Don Brash’s stolen emails.

  42. Swampy 42

    “Why is prison any different? why the hell do so many people consider them selves such experts on the matter that they see fit to go out making massive campaigns like the sensible sentencing trust.”

    The sensible sentencing trust wants the same as any of us and that is less crime. The justice system is a place of last resort that is almost becoming entrenched due to the breakdown of individual responsibility in society. Now, why isn’t there any effort to address that? How about discipline in schools and the youth justice system.

  43. Swampy 43

    “The National Party stands for entrenching private power at the expense of the public in nearly every sphere of life.”

    In your world there is no private interest for the public. There should be no private businesses, private property or anything?

    ‘Cos the problem is, the “public” or “people” have in themselves substantial private interests, like the assets that they own (house, car etc). Many of them run their own private businesses. Private power exists in those entities. Democracy goes hand in hand with a society in which ordinary members of the public hold private interests.

    “Public” in the above statement really means “State” which stands for a monopoly run by the government, not necessarily for the “public” good. If the State has a wish to stamp out private ownership or business then it is definitely not for the public good. When Labour was formed nearly a hundred years ago their key policy was the nationalisation of all land. This policy was unpopular and they eventually dropped it. Maybe they want to bring it back?

  44. “Swampy
    The sensible sentencing trust wants the same as any of us and that is less crime. The justice system is a place of last resort that is almost becoming entrenched due to the breakdown of individual responsibility in society. Now, why isn’t there any effort to address that? How about discipline in schools and the youth justice system.”

    If they really want to do something to help, why do they go about it in such an ideologically tainted fashion?

    Secondly, your ideological taintings are showing now. If you knew anything about the youth justice system you would know it is internationally recognized as one of the best in the world, with much much lower re offending rates than the standard justice system.

  45. Swampy 45

    “As with the police and the judiciary, coercive power should be the monopoly of democratically accountable public institutions, not private companies.”

    Most State run institutions are not democratically accountable as the general public has no say at all in how they are run. Sure, politicians campaign on a few select policies but for the most part the activities of these government departments go on behind closed doors without any public scrutiny. No one seriously believes that such institutions will ever be used for anything other than furthering the political purposes of government ministers.

    We all know that monopolies are bad, they are inefficient and give poor service and that is why any kind of monopoly should be much more accountable and open but the reverse is true of government owned monopolies. No one seriously believes that either the police or corrections are accountable just because they are public sector institutions. You really have to wonder how the police got away with the Louise Nicholas and similar cases for so long when people go around claiming we are the least corrupt country in the Western world (LOL).

    Putting monopoly power into the hands of the state always leads to abuses – in NZ that has included IRD, the police, corrections etc, in part because for political reasons these departments are protected from normal accountability expectations. IRD is a case in point with huge powers that no other department or private entity has. The government fawns over them especially Labour as they are the goose that lays the golden eggs.

  46. “You really have to wonder how the police got away with the Louise Nicholas and similar cases for so long when people go around claiming we are the least corrupt country in the Western world (LOL).”

    Because other countries are more corrupt?

  47. Rex Widerstrom 47


    Good point re the effectiveness of the youth justice system. We’re ahead of the curve there. And in things like diversion. Which makes it all the more inexplicable why our prison system is absolutely falling apart at the seams. No votes in it for either side I guess… spend any money on prison programs and the SST and their ilk will be foaming at the mouth about “expensive computers” even though they’re vital for education (and thus rehabilitation and thus less reoffending).

    On the issue of these “corruption indices” though, I think you’re missing the point. It’s all about how corruption is measured. Sure it’s not possible to bribe most police officers in NZ, so in that sense we have very low corruption. Pity it’s not possible to measure far more subtle indicators of different sorts of corruption – like the fixation many officers get on one suspect to the exclusion of all others, forcing cases through the courts that result either in acquital (but only after emotional and financial stress to the accused and their family) or wrongful conviction. Not corrupt in the way it’s measured by these indices, but a corruption of what is supposedly the “justice” system nonetheless.

    [captcha: “horseback ballet”. It’d have to be on ice before I’d pay to see it :-D)

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