Why prison privatisation should be opposed

By Kim Bullimore

In August 2008, the NSW Labor government announced plans to privatise both the Parklea and Cessnock prisons in the wake of a budgetary blowout of $23 million in overtime payments to prison guards. NSW Corrective Services commissioner Ron Woodham told the November 11 Sydney Daily Telegraph that the partial privatisation of the prison system would save the government more than $42 million over the next four years.

The NSW Labor government’s plan to partially privatise the NSW prison system is a part of an increasing trend across the developed capitalist world to privatise the management of prisons. Currently there are more than 200 privatised prisons around the world, housing more than 150,000 prisoners, including 160 privatised prisons in the USA, 21 in France, 12 in the UK and 12 in Australia. According to a “Survey of Prison Privatization around the World” (on the website of the Israeli government), the 12 privatised prisons in Australia incarcerate 20% of Australia’s prison population.

In 2004, a briefing paper to the NSW Labor government on prison privatisation, noted that Australia has the highest proportion of inmates in private prisons of any nation in the world. At the time, Australia had seven privately run prisons, housing 17% of Australia’s prisoners, while in the US, 7% of the 2 million prisoners were in privately run prisons.

The extent of privatisation of prisons varies around the world. In some cases, privatisation refers solely to the private management of the government-built and legally owned prisons, while in other instances it can refer to prisons that have been designed, constructed and managed by private contractors. In all instances, however, the government pays the private contractor to operate the prison. The primary objective of the private contractor is to make a profit, usually by using prisoners as a cheap labour force.

Racism and prisons

In Australia, as with most developed capitalist countries around the world, the great majority of prisoners are from the poorest sections of the general population and/or oppressed racial minorities and/or suffer from mental illness. According to former US political prisoner and academic Angela Davis, who is now an active campaigner for prisoner rights, prisons in the capitalist system “perform a feat of magic” by helping to “disappear” societal problems. In her 1998 essay “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”, Davis noted that “imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty”.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), between 1996 and 2006, the number of people in prison had increased by 42%. Indigenous Australians constitute 24% of the prison population despite making up only 2% of the general population. In 2007, the Human Rights Law Resource Centre (HRLRC) noted that the national incarnation rates for Indigenous Australians was 11 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. The incarceration rate for Indigenous children aged 10-14 years and Indigenous women was 30 and 20 times higher respectively than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The HRLRC also noted that about one-fifth of the prison population suffered “serious mental illness”.  According to the HRLRC, “there is substantial evidence from across Australia that access to adequate mental health care in prisons is manifestly inadequate, that the mentally ill in prison are often ‘managed’ by segregation, and that such confinement — often for very long periods — can seriously exacerbate mental illness and cause significant psychological harm”. In her 1998 essay, Davis noted that “while government-run prisons are often in gross violation of international human rights standards, private prisons are even less accountable”.  Private prison operators will often seek to cut costs by reducing the health and living conditions of prisoners. 

In response to the NSW Labor government’s announcement on its plans to privatise  the operation of the Parklea and Cessnock prisons, prison guards have mounted a “community campaign” to stop the privatisation and save their jobs. As a result of the campaign, Premier Nathan Rees has announced that the government would not privatise the Cessnock prison but would still move to privatise Parklea. While this is a partial victory in the anti-privatisation campaign and for prisoner rights, some in the broader labour and socialist movement are confused about the role of prison guards under the capitalist system, seeing them as no different to any other workers in capitalist society.

This, however, is dangerously mistaken. As Frederick Engels observed in his 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, prisons and prison guards are part of the capitalist state machinery aimed at keeping the class struggle within specific boundaries in order to facilitate the continued domination of the capitalist class over the working class. Prison guards, like the police force, are therefore not part of the working class, but hired agents of the capitalist ruling class.

Laborite view

The idea that the police and prison guards are no different from any other worker is a reflection of the dominance of the class-collaborationist politics of the ALP within the broader labour movement. This view is based on an ideology that does not recognise that there is an irreconcilable antagonism of interests between the working class on the one hand and the capitalists and their agents on the other. Flowing from this, the Laborites accept the liberal-capitalist myth that the capitalist prison system is a “public service” whose primary role is to “rehabilitate” people convicted of breaking the (capitalist rulers’) laws. This liberal-capitalist view is reflected in the official name for the capitalist prison system — “Corrective Services”, even though less than 1% of what is spent by governments across Australia on this system is devoted to prisoner “rehabilitation” programs.

The Laborites view trade unions not as organisations to fight to liberate the working class from capitalist exploitation, but to bargain with employers over the terms of the capitalists’ exploitation of workers, through negotiations over industrial relations laws, wages and working hours and conditions. Flowing from that view, the Laborite union officialdom has welcomed prison guards into the state-based public service unions. But when workers take strike action against their employers, the police and prison guards are there to weaken or break such action by arresting and jailing the strikers and their union leaders, never to act in solidarity with them against the employers.

While it is understandable that the Laborites view the role of prisons and prison guards under capitalism as class-neutral, one wouldn’t expect this to be the case with those who regard themselves as revolutionary socialists. However, the Laborite view that prison guards are part of the working class has been propagated by both the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the Socialist Alliance (SA). In the August 5 article in the CPA’s Guardian weekly, Len Waster argued that the anti-privatisation campaign by prison guards was part of the growing “worker’s resistance” to the Rees government’s neoliberal agenda. According to Waster, “for the first time ever, prison officers and prisoners are on the same side. Privatisation threatens prison officers with loss of conditions and job security, while prisoners face the prospect of being slave labour for the profit of multinational corporations”.

In a range of material published over the last six months in Green Left Weekly and on the Socialist Alliance website, SA members have presented the same view. Thus, according to SA national executive member Peter Boyle, writing in the August 9 edition of GLW, “rank-and-file prison workers, who rallied in Sydney on August 6 against the planned privatisation of Parklea prison by the NSW Labor government, had given up on the ALP”. Boyle, who is also the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), which claims to be a “Marxist tendency” in the SA, praised the prison guards’ campaign as a sign of “workers” wanting a political alternative to the ALP.

SA leaders have also been peddling the liberal-capitalist myth that the capitalist state’s prison system is a class-neutral public service that can be reformed to meet the basic human rights of prisoners. Thus, in GLW’s June 21 “Our Common Cause” column, Sanna Andrews and SA national convener Dick Nichols, who is also a DSP national executive member, argued that the key to stopping Indigenous deaths in custody isn’t doing away with the racist capitalist prison system, but to “reform” this system by changing “the underlying goals of the system and its management culture”. The “basis for serious prison reform”, argued Andrews and Nichols, “starts with prison officers, prisoners and concerned citizens strengthening the alliance to stop prison privatisation”. What Andrews and Nichols ignore, however, is that most Indigenous prisoners have died in the custody of the police or in government-run prisons.

In a 2003 speech, Angela Davis noted that it was essential to make a “distinction between transforming living and working conditions of prisoners as human beings, and reforming the prison for the sake of creating a superior and more effective apparatus of punishment”. She noted while human rights activists should “make demands that will make life more liveable for [prisoners] while they’re inside”, it was crucial to recognise that “those demands don’t have to be linked to a project to create better prisons. They can be linked to a project to abolish prisons” and the capitalist profit system that needs them. In addition, she argued that that the role of the workers’ movement should be to defend the human rights of prisoners, both in state-run and privatised prisons. Socialists should oppose prison privatisation because it can worsen the conditions of prisoners, not because of its possible impact on the employment conditions of the capitalist government’s prison guards, the capitalist rulers’ hired agents.

[Kim Bullimore is Aboriginal activist who has been involved for more than 12 years in anti-racism and Indigenous rights campaigning. She is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]