Earlier this month, the Irish Times conducted an online poll on the question of prison privatisation. Nearly two-thirds of people responding to that poll opposed the idea of handing over the Irish prison system to corporate control. They opposed the notion that it is acceptable to incarcerate people for corporate profit.
We at the Irish Penal Reform Trust share this opposition to prison privatisation, and are here today to support the demands in the letter to Minister Michael McDowell.
Let us be clear. There is a crisis in the prison system. Too many people are sent to prison. They are too often incarcerated in antiquated prisons in deplorable conditions. While in prison, they have inadequate access to necessary social, medical, educational, and other programmes. Once released, they return to communities wracked by unemployment and social deprivation whose needs have been ignored by government after government.
This situation is one that many of the signatories to this letter have been speaking out about for years. Yet successive Irish governments have ignored our concerns and allowed this deplorable status quo to be maintained.
Now in 2003, the Government comes before the Irish people - as if waking from a dream - to tell us that there is indeed a crisis in the prison system after all. They also tell us they have the solution. Privatisation.
If this Government seriously considers prison privatisation the solution, we at the Irish Penal Reform Trust have a simple question. "Why?" Does privatisation addresses social deprivation and the root causes of crime? Will privatisation ensure that Ireland's prisons meet international human rights and best practice standards? Will private prisons make our communities safer by meeting the needs of prisoners and reducing recidivism? Does privatisation offer a long-term strategy to reduce the need for prisons?
The answer to these questions is no. In fact, given 20 years of international evidence of the failure of private prisons, the question is not "What's wrong with private prisons?" The real question is "What's right with them?"
When the Government responds that privatisation is necessary to save public money, ask them to produce conclusive independent evidence of cost-savings (rather than "research" bought and paid for by the prison industry itself.). They can't, because such conclusive independent evidence does not exist, even after 20 years of international experience. When the Government claims cost savings ask them why three in four private prisons in the U.S. rely on tax reductions, grants, and other government subsidies for their economic viability. Is this transfer of public money into private hands really what the Fianna Fail/PD coalition considers value-for-money?
When the Government says that privatisation is more innovative and efficient, ask them why private prisons in the United States experience 50% more prisoner-on-staff assaults, and 2/3 more prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, than public prisons. Ask them why the government of Victoria in Australia had to invoke emergency legislation to take control of the privately operated Metropolitan Women's Correctional Centre following four years of persistent problems. Ask them to explain the £2.7 million in fines incurred by private prisons in the UK between 1998 and 2000. Ask them why the privately run Ashfield prison is acknowledged to be the worst prison in England? Ask them why as many as 9 U.S. states have ended contracts with private prisons in recent years. Ask them whether this is the Fianna Fail/PD vision of an efficient and innovative prison service?
When the Government says that privatisation is necessary to reform the prison system, ask them why they have allowed such dire problems to develop over years - indeed decades - of neglect and inaction. Ask them whether they are truly concerned with building a better prison system, or whether they are purposefully manufacturing a crisis in order to force through a radical and unpopular measure disguised as a "solution". They wouldn't be the first government to do so. Indeed, such subterfuge is often the only recourse for governments seeking to impose policies based on ideology rather than evidence.
People in Ireland have legitimate concerns about crime and imprisonment, and about ensuring that responses to criminal behaviour are effective in reducing rather than perpetuating it. Ask the Government to explain how the public's desire to reduce crime is compatible with the corporate take-over of the prison system. Companies that profit from keeping people in prison can only maximise those profits when prisons are full to capacity. What then is the incentive for privately run prisons to rehabilitate people who break the law? There is none. Perhaps this is why after 20 years there is not one piece of evidence showing that private prisons have lower recidivism rates than public prisons. Ask Fianna Fail and the PDs why corporations for whom increased crime means increased profits should be handed a role in shaping the criminal justice policy in the state?
Finally, when the Fianna Fail/PD government says that the Irish people need not worry about the two decades of international evidence of failure because "things will be different here", ask them why we should believe them. Because the evidence from every country is clear. Prison privatisation is a failed policy. And governments in those countries now dealing with the consequence of this failed policy also promised their voters that "things would be different". Guess what? Things weren't different.
We at the Irish Penal Reform Trust are committed to real and effective prison reform. Reform that addresses the root causes of crime, the rehabilitation of people who commit crime, and the needs of individuals and communities affected by crime. We believe that the vast majority of the Irish public shares our objectives. And let's be clear, these objectives not compatible with prison privatisation, and they are antithetical with the corporate agenda of prison privatisation. This Government must state unequivocally that they will not place corporate interest ahead of public interest.
Rick Lines, Executive Director