Privatization of Prisons in the US, Australia and UK

Since the time of its emergence, the problem of privatizing prisons has been a rather debatable one. Some go so far as to call this process a morally wrong one. I do realize that the concept of morality is rather vague and, therefore, do not want to pin this or that label on this process at once. Instead, I suppose that one has to consider the problem from various perspectives to form his or her opinion about it.

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The phenomenon of modern prison privatization emerged in the United States in the mid-1980s and spread to Australia and the United Kingdom from there. Nowadays there are over 100 private prisons in the USA, 11 private prisons in the UK, and 7 in Australia. The latter is leading in the highest proportion of inmates in private prisons of any nation that counts around 17 percent (Roth).

There exist three main arguments for privatizing prisons:

  1. The private sector will deliver cheaper and better prisons. This will happen because private prisons are free from bureaucracy, they are more innovative, and are more likely to participate in real competitions;
  2. Private prisons will set new benchmarks for the public sector and act as a catalyst for reform of the entire prison system;
  3. Privatization will strengthen accountability through competition, the establishment of objective performance standards, and also because the state should be able to monitor a private operator better than it can monitor itself (Roth).

The debate arises because critics doubt whether real competition will exist among private prisons, whether private operations will positively influence standards, whether it is possible to innovate the prisons and whether private companies are capable of handling the highly complex task of prison administration (Roth).

As far as the problem of the process of privatizing prisons is concerned Richard W. Harding’s research titled Privatizing Prisons acquires especial importance: the author explores what pros and cons this process might have. The author’s point is that the positive and negative consequences of privatizing prisons should be taken into account. On the one hand, if privatization improves the services delivered to prisoners “not only with privatized prisons themselves but also as a spillover effect upon the public prison system” privatization is rather acceptable; on the other hand, there exist the following hazards of this process:

  • that private prison authorities might take upon themselves the allocation of punishment rather than or as well as its administration or delivery;
  • that the private operators could be insufficiently accountable;
  • that privatization could drive incarceration policies; and
  • that a dual-standard prison system could develop (Harding 34).

All these drawbacks of privatizing prisons become more obvious if considered along with the current situation in private prisons. Sharon Dolovic claims that private prisons nowadays have the same traits as public prisons do; these characteristics make public prisons dangerous places:

the considerable discretion and power conferred on guards; the fear on all sides; the simultaneous monotony and high pressure of the prison environment; inmates’ possible proclivity to violence; and the relative social and economic disempowerment of prison guards, who do a difficult job in a tense and dangerous environment and for whom power over prisoners constitutes both a rare prerequisite and an outlet for frustration. But in addition, private prison employees are likely to be less qualified (because less well remunerated) and less well trained than their public-sector counterparts (Dolovic 450).

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Moreover, Dolovic’s study provides persuasive examples of elevated violence levels in private prisons as compared with public ones. It turns out that private prisons are even more violent places than their public counterparts that contribute to the assumption that the privatizing process is morally wrong.

Considering moral dilemmas posed by private prisons John DiIulio said:

In weighing the morality of private prisons, the profit motive may be less important than is commonly supposed. The real issue may be instead whether the authority to deprive fellow citizens of their liberty, and to coerce (even kill) them in the course of this legally mandated deprivation, ought to be delegated to private, nongovernmental entities. Inescapably, corrections involve the discretionary exercise of coercive authority (Olon 16).

Still, my point is that if adequately handled, private prisons will lose their fame as being as brutal and inhuman as public ones. Going by Theodore J. Lowi, I state that prison privatization is expected to establish a new method of social control. It will be based not on the discrete discipline-and-punish approach by constituted public authorities, but on a systematic process of control in which management will not pay any attention to the reasons for being imprisoned (Lowi).

Though my point is that we cannot decide what is moral and what is not, I believe that privatizing prisons that are gaining its force now, embraces more issues that empower us to reject the statement that the process is morally wrong.

Works Cited

Dolovich, S 2005 State Punishment and Private Prisons’, Duke Law Journal, vol. 55, no. 3, p. 437+.

Harding, R 1994 ‘Privatising prisons: principle and practice’, Private Sector and Community Involvement in the Criminal Justice System: proceedings of a conference held 30 November – 2 December 1992, Wellington, New Zealand, no. 23, pp. 32-40.

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Lowi, T ‘Think Globally, Lose Locally’, Boston Review, 1998, Boston Review. A Political and Literary Forum. Web.

Olon, J n.d., ‘Fiscal pressure pushes prison privatization’, 2008, Web.

Roth, L. ‘Privatisation of prisons’ 2004, Briefing Paper No. Parliament of New South Wales, Web.

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