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May 14, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: The Ethics of Private Prisons

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Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: The Ethics of Private Prisons

What kind of person owns or invests in a private prison? Surely profit at the expense of the humanity of society’s most damned is wrong. In the private prison model, more suffering equals more profits. There is a profit incentive to cut back on staff, on food, on available support services that help people turn their life around. The business model works best when the hopeless remain without hope. Offenders reoffend and are fed back into the felon factory. We feel safe because they’re ‘off the street,’ but the social structures that cultivated deviance haven’t changed, and so, more felons are ‘bred’ for the factory. No wonder private prisons are such a financial boon in the US, and now here in Australia! Right here in our own backyard – Grafton is the new home of the Clarence Correctional Centre (CCC); run by Serco, a British outsourcing company which operates across Australia and Hong Kong, and is administered from head office in Sydney. They also invest in military weapons and detention centres on behalf of their customers. It’s dirty work. But someone has to do it. Clearly it’s a neat option for governments, who get to wipe their hands of all responsibility; they get to hand ball the generational abuse and trauma proliferating because of their failure to address systemic, social and economic change.

I’m not comfortable with the idea of private prisons. It’s not something that should ever turn a profit. It’s unethical to make money out of punishing the ‘unethical.’ And as we know, capitalism prefers a growth model, so where’s the incentive to reduce recidivism? According to Deloitte Consulting who have just completed an independent report on Grafton’s private prison, the centre will have a capacity of 1700. At full capacity there could be up to 140 offenders released into the local community every month. While the CCC is to provide health services and internal support, offender trends indicate that more than half of the prisoners released will be homeless, with high rates of substance abuse. They’ll be welfare dependent, and many of them will end up back in gaol.

Western Sydney has just approved a private company, MTC, to take over the running of Parklea. They’re paying MTC $1.3 billion for the next seven years. The company has a record of human rights violations; including paying $5.2 million to settle a bribery lawsuit, allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation of prisoners, and it has had its Kingman prison contract cancelled in the state of Arizona.

Private prisons are at odds with the underlying philosophy of our justice system. We still believe in a person’s ability to reform don’t we? If we don’t, we might as well introduce capital punishment. State run prisons are still a social paradigm where success is measured by how empty they are, whereas private prisons are purely an economic investment, where success depends on how full they are – and how cheaply they can be run. We feel ok about it because compassion is low for offenders, particularly violent offenders. As a society we have an uncomfortable relationship with evil. We like to make it ‘not us’. We like to punish people for their heinous crimes. And yes, much of what people do is unfathomable for a nice white middle-class person who didn’t grow up institutionalised, in the foster system, or doesn’t have a drug addiction, or who hasn’t lived through the vicious cycle of childhood trauma. We live in a society that loves to personalise evil. It’s convenient to package evil as something abhorrent about specific individuals, without locating it’s genesis in the very way we live – in the inequity and injustice of our system.

There’s a sensorial thrill in news headlines about the saddest, the sickest, the worst and most depraved. ‘Father throws child off bridge’, ‘Woman leaves kids in car’ – this is the clickbait that reconfirms that evil exists. We’re ok about the perpetrators suffering. They deserve it. Why not turn a profit? In recounting these stories we get a perverse confirmation of our moral superiority. It confirms that we are ok. That this is the work of the ‘other’ – the marginalised, the feared, the unknown. We get to be good, because they are bad, they are broken.

But do you really believe it? Can people be born bad? I can’t ever look at a newborn baby and believe he or she is innately bad. What happens to a child, to an adolescent, to an adult… that is what curates crime. And what happens to them is the society in which we live. Trauma, lack of compassionate intervention, economic disadvantage, institutionalised abuse, racism… the architecture of evil is inherent in the callous and inhumane structures of our capitalist system – and private prisons are our moral McDonalds.

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  1. You’re right, Mandy. Private prisons are ‘moral’
    McDonalds. These under-belly legit companies
    would make dollars out of smog if they could;
    instead they trade in military weapons. Laws
    allow the ‘locking up’ of the wrong people.
    Sick & sad state of affairs.

  2. Well explained Mandy. Not all prisoners deserve to be in jail. This issue is complex, the government seem to provide millions of dollars for mental health for instance and does not even scratch the surface of the vunerable people in need.
    Yes private jails will need to turn a profit at the expense of the vunerable.

  3. Another beautifully written piece. “Evil” remains an interesting concept. The world’s religions are in essence founded on it – without a concept of evil, where is the underpinning for the concept of good which we can pursue with the expectation of the reward of eternal life? Catholicism went as far as to conjure up an actual figure who represented evil and requires that we ward off the lure of the Devil. And out politicians make careers out of the concept. Those who would do evil to us (terrorists and refugees, the Communists – there is always a new threat) are deliberately exploited to create a permanent sense of fear which only our political masters can alleviate, albeit they never actually alleviate whatever it is that would do us harm, because then there is nothing from which they can save us. By promoting fear, our governments can enact all kinds of outrageous legislation that is ostensibly designed to protect us and in the case of the current government, to surreptitiously move us inexorably towards a police state. Locking up lots of people, possibly on all manner of trumped up charges (as happens with the indigenous in Australia and blacks in the US) is our constant reminder that evil lurks everywhere – and those who profit from full prisons and the exploitation of those sent to jail (a massive low-cost industry exists around cheap prison labour), have, as you acknowledge, no incentive to dismantle the industry built on “evil”.


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