One of Colorado’s private prisons. Here: Crowley County Correctional Facility, run by the market leader, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
Photo © Philippe Brault
Prison privatisation has taken two main forms:
Privatisation may take different forms in different places, but the same forces are at work behind its rampant growth: an explosion in the prison population, outdated existing infrastructure, cuts in the state budget…
The US was the first country to take the plunge. The first fully private prison (including the guards) opened as early as 1984. The industry boomed, despite serious reservations from the US Congress among others, which warned of the possible conflict of interest between profitability and imprisonment. By 2006, the private sector had control over between 7 and 10% of all prisoners in the United States (source : Quick facts about prison privatization [PDF]). Its business model is based on the number of prisoners. Currently, the average daily cost of a prisoner is about $55. This amount is stipulated by contract and paid to private prison companies by the various American states.
There were a number of legal cases concerning these private prisons in the 1990s. One major one was a case in which judges were found to have taken bribes in return for transferring prisoners to certain private prisons, as Frank Smith tells us in the film Prison Valley.
Various people have expressed their concern from a moral point of view, as this is a particularly sensitive area in the US. Some opponents of private prisons think this privatisation harks back to the time of slavery and to the practice of ‘convict leasing’ (the state would hire out prisoners to local businesses).
Others see the private sector as an alternative solution at a time when America is having to reduce state expenditure.
Private prisons do not generally accommodate the most dangerous prisoners. They are less full than state prisons and the average number of guards is roughly the same, although this last claim is challenged by many of the union officials and activists we met in Denver and Cañon City, Colorado.
Two giant companies account for two-thirds of the market:
a world leader in the provision of correction services
Only some prisons have been privatised in France, but the number has been rising ever since the Chalandon law was passed on 22nd June 1987, which allowed the private sector to become involved in running prisons. This progression received a boost in 2002 when a law on the orientation and scheduling of judicial affairs was passed with plans to modernise prison infrastructure (13,200 beds) at a cost of 1.4 billion euros.
This law foresees that public-private partnerships may delegate to the private sector any operations that do not fall under the sovereign duties of the state, meaning overall management of the prisons, guarding the inmates and the Clerk’s responsibilities. Everything else is open to privatisation. Including the design and construction of certain prisons, with the state committing itself to pay long-term rent according to the cost of building the facilities.
Critics have pointed to design faults in various semi-privatised prisons, such as a flawed locking system at Roanne and a flawed electrical system at Mont-de-Marsan prison, which short-circuited the lighting, heating, cameras, telephones and door-opening systems in December 2008. Many people consider private companies’ need to make a profit to be incompatible with quality requirements.
Recently the plans and secret codes for a new prison went missing. They were stored on four laptops belonging to a respected construction company.
The main companies to benefit from the prison sector being opened to the private sector come from the construction and energy sectors. The main companies in this oligopoly are the following:
Gepsa was established in 1990 and is one of the French prison department’s principal partners in fifteen public-private partnership facilities,
a Facilities Management specialist
We refuse to carry out our operations in countries where some inmates are sentenced to capital punishment. That is why Sodexo has never had any operations in the United States, for example.
The leading independent French energy and environmental services group
Other leading names in the French construction industry such as Spie Batignolles and Dumez (Vinci Construction), have followed those mentioned above onto the booming prison construction market.
Another point of discord is the work and vocational training provided to inmates in these facilities. The minimum wage is 3.27 euros per hour in prison and 3.54 euros per hour in a remand centre compared with 7.61 euros in the world outside. In 2006, the Economic and Social Council highlighted some shortcomings of these private prisons. This is what led Gonzague Rambaud and Nathalie Rohmer in their book Le Travail en prison [Éditions Autrement, January 2010] to conclude the following: By handing the keys of the prisons to be built over the coming decades to private companies, the Ministry of Justice has presented the multinationals with juicy pickings (…). As far as the inmates are concerned, it is difficult to determine what the added value will be in terms of work and vocational training, aside from a potential promotional operation presenting the exceptional trajectory of a handpicked cohort of prisoners. After twenty years of privatised prisons, we have to admit that the private sector has done no better than the [public] prisons administration: the lack of qualified work and a range of high-quality vocational training is every bit as great in private prisons.
By handing the keys of the prisons to be built over the coming decades to private companies, the Ministry of Justice has presented the multinationals with juicy pickings (…). As far as the inmates are concerned, it is difficult to determine what the added value will be in terms of work and vocational training, aside from a potential promotional operation presenting the exceptional trajectory of a handpicked cohort of prisoners. After twenty years of privatised prisons, we have to admit that the private sector has done no better than the [public] prisons administration: the lack of qualified work and a range of high-quality vocational training is every bit as great in private prisons.
Le Travail en prison
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