Private prison flagship put in plain-sailing terms

Last week, the Government announced a new 960-bed prison will open in Wiri, South Auckland, in 2015. It will be a prison with a difference: the flagship for the new public-private-partnership mode of building, funding and running state institutions.

It will have all the bells and whistles. It will, says Corrections Minister Anne Tolley, be strongly focused on rehabilitation and reducing offending.

"This PPP will give us exposure to world-class innovation and expertise. It will provide a modern facility that is safe and secure and well-equipped to rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners," she sings.

So reassuring: "innovation", "expertise", "modern", "facility", "safe", "secure", "rehabilitate". Anybody would think she was selling a holiday time-share.

On the plus side, it is providing work for a local construction company: Fletcher Construction is part of the SecureFuture (now there's a name to behold) Consortium that will design, finance, build, operate and maintain it (someone would have to build it whether it was part of a PPP or not, but let's try to get past that).

The prison will be run by the international group Serco, which also operates the Mt Eden Corrections Facility. It will be maintained by, wait for it, Spotless Facility Services.

Doubtless it will be spic and span and perennially shiny.

This new whizz-bang lock-up will cost, according to various sources, $300 million-$370 million; the entire 25-year contract, including operational management and maintenance, is expected to be capped at a maximum of $900 million. This is estimated to be 10% below the cost of procuring the "facility" by conventional means.

Roll up, roll up, buy your shares in Serco now; grab a few in Spotless while you are about it. They have a bright future - as long as plenty of criminals keep being locked up.

In August last year, Finance Minister Bill English said that prisons were a "moral and fiscal failure". Last week, he said: "SecureFuture will need to achieve lower recidivism rates than the average for publicly run prisons to receive incentive payments.

"It will also face financial penalties if it fails to meet short-term rehabilitation and reintegration measures including prisoner health and employment targets, and safe, secure and humane custodial standards."

Public Service Association national secretary Richard Wagstaff, albeit somewhat predictably, does not share Mr English's optimism.

"Private prisons have been shown internationally to be a bad idea. They don't provide a good service, and they score poorly when it comes to security," he said on hearing the announcement. And he took issue with the actual need for the new prison.

"Crime rates are down, projected prison numbers are down by over 3000 and we have 1200 empty beds in prisons across the country."

Who's right?

Well, you can always debate statistics, and there is little doubt, as Mrs Tolley points out, that some prisons in this country are reaching their sell-by dates.

But there is also the "build it and they will come" argument; and, regardless of external incentives, the primary goal of any private company - to maximise profits. With respect to corrections facilities, one suspects that this equates with maximising the numbers of "units" (prisoners) serviced, and minimising the overheads pertaining to each.

Many of those who are fans of the idea of private prisons point to the experience of the United States, where private prisons are the norm rather than the exception. But it is also sobering to note, according to an article in The New Yorker ("The Caging of America", by Adam Gopnik, January 30, 2012), that "overall, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America - more than six million - than there were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height."

Further, as Mr Gopnik puts it, referring to the business prerogatives of private prisons: "It's hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit ..." And, just in case we don't believe him, he inserts a small slice of the 2005 annual report of the Corrections Corporation of America, one of the biggest operators of private "facilities" in that country, which warns its shareholders of the risks of its ventures.

"The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalisation of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws ..."

Imagine what might happen to Serco's share price if any of that, perish the thought, happened in this country.

 - Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.




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