Prison Privatisation: National Report

  • 3 August 2016

Australia now imprisons more people than at any point in its history with 36,134 people incarcerated across eight states as of June 2015.  Privately run prisons incarcerate 18.5% of Australia’s prison population and clearly play a large part in the functioning of our custodial system a new University of Sydney Report has found.  In fact, Australia has the highest rate of private incarceration per capita of any country in the world.

Private contractors operate nine facilities in five different states: two prisons in Queensland, two in New South Wales, one in South Australia, two in Victoria and two in Western Australia.  

Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory do not yet have private prisons.

The GEO Group (GEO), G4S and Serco are the three private prison contractors who are now responsible for over 6,000 Australian prisoners and absorb a considerable amount of taxpayer money nationally.

Despite this, research into private prisons in Australia is extremely limited.

Queensland showcases many of the worst aspects of Australia’s experience with prison privatisation.  As the first state to privatise the management of a custodial facility, Queensland encountered many problems associated with poor contract design, poor planning and inadequate regulatory oversight.

Many of these problems continue today, some 27 years after the first facility opened.  In terms of costs, Queensland provides such little information to the public that it is impossible to assess the cost of private prisons.

Many of the problems associated with prison privatisation in Queensland are mirrored in New South Wales.  Successive New South Wales governments have held the view that the commercial sensitivities associated with private prison contracts necessitate confidentiality and these commercial-in-confidence protections have limited the scope of public oversight.

South Australia failed to introduce state legislation that specifically addresses the use of private providers, making the state’s experience of prison privatisation unique.  As a consequence, Mount Gambier is managed using a combination of resources provided by a private contractor and the DCS and there is no evidence to suggest the hybrid model operating in South Australia is cost effective.

Victoria was the fourth state in Australia to have privately managed prisons, following Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia and is unusual in Australia in that the original privatisations in 1996 did not occur in a context of rising levels of incarceration.

The most recent data available from the Productivity Commission show that the total net expenditure and capital costs of Victorian prisons was $527million in 2015.  The Victorian budget for prisons and corrective services was $815.7 million for the same year however; neither source gives a breakdown of costs into public and private components of the custodial system.

The cost of the Victorian prison system has risen drastically in recent years, in line with the growth of the prison population.

The total budget for custodial services was $408 million in 2005–2006, compared to $815.7 million in 2013–2014.

While Victoria has the highest proportion of inmates held in private prisons in any state in Australia, it is the most difficult to assess in terms of accountability, costs and performance.

The Victorian government is currently building a new 1,000-bed private prison at Ravenhall.  GEO is responsible for design, construction, financing, maintenance and operations (including custodial services).  For the first time in Australia, the contract includes incentive payments for reductions in reoffending but given the complexity of post-release issues, and the integration of public with privately run facilities, how this will work in practice is unknown.

It appears that per prisoner costs in Victoria has risen despite the increased reliance on private contractors.

Western Australia represents the most sophisticated example of prison privatisation in Australia, using the services of two private prisons to manage a fairly dramatic rise in prison inmates over the last 20 years.

Advocates for privatisation often refer to Acacia as an example of how private providers can deliver performance improvements and innovations but overlook Acacia Prison housing only medium-security prisoners, takes part in no remand activity, and occupies modern facilities that are the largest in Australia.

In addition, most cost reductions associated with private prisons are achieved through reductions in staffing levels and experience which over time, (OICS-WA, 2015), produce performance related problems.

All states in Australia are under pressure to provide infrastructure for a greater number of prisoners whilst budget constraints remain tight and this fuels debate about future prison privatisation.

In order to establish the impact of privatisation on the custodial system, a range of cost and performance data must be made available by those states with private prisons.

A genuine comparison in terms of performance, cost and efficiency will only be possible once all private prisons are subject to similar levels of public accountability, and this will require a genuine commitment to evidence-based prison policy reform.