Prison Privatisation Scandal Coming To You

Everyone living in a country where the privatisation of prisons has been endorsed by a major party should read this. Supporters of private prisons will certainly dismiss the case of a judge selling children to the prison system in return for kickbacks as an isolated example of a single bad apple. It’s not. Or at least it won’t be.

The first thing to note is that Ciavarella would probably never have been caught if he had not been so blatant. There are probably dozens of other judges on the payrolls of various prisons who are sentencing adults and particularly ones who are actually guilty of something, but using the maximum term and failing to take extenuating factors into account. They would not be easy to catch. Given how long Ciavarella got away with his reign of terror its likely a judge who was a bit more subtle about it would never be seen to be anything more than “tough on crime”.

Furthermore, this sort of things does not always require blatant kickbacks. By creating a wealthy group of people whose wealth depends on heavy sentences and will be likely to socialise with judges the climate is created for subtle lobbying and a general culture of pushing for long custodial sentences even where the evidence is that something shorter would work better.

This is really just logic, no scientific knowledge required. But there is an important reason why there is going to be a lot more of this, whether we find out about it or not. Violent crime rates all over the developed world (I’m not familiar with the situation in the majority world but I suspect it is the same) are falling. They have generally been falling for about 30 years, and the fall is in fact the continuation of a trend that goes back centuries (at least 8 in England’s case) with interrupted by periods such as the rise from the 1950s to around 1980, which may have been driven by exposure to lead in childhood. Most of the world is in denial about this, driven in party by media’s constant reference to “crime waves” and hyping of any slight uptick, but the evidence is overwhelming and reasonably well studied, even if the reasons are poorly understood.

Prisons are expensive to build. Prison building can only take place for profit if it is anticipated that the prisons will be kept largely full. This is a fair bet as long as populations and or crime rates are rising. But with the populations of the rich world approaching (or passing a plateau) and violent crime on the decline the only way to keep the prisons full is to invent new crimes, or up the sentences for old ones. This can occur through actions as blatant as the imprisonment of children for talking back to teachers, or popular moves like the abolition of suspended sentences. One way or another, however, it will happen. People brutal enough to want to run a private prison will not let themselves go bankrupt for lack of prisoners without a fight – one of the reasons the decriminalisation of soft drugs is having such a hard time in the US.

Ciavarella ruined the lives of thousands of largely innocent people, not to mention those around them, but in a sense he did us a favour, making visible what will happen inevitably in every place where right-wing parties get the chance to sell of the prison system to their mates.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Anthroplogy, Other forms of politics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Prison Privatisation Scandal Coming To You

  1. True I think though prisons are not a good example of public sector as a force for good. A somewhat different view here http://previousleigh.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/better-jails

  2. Leigh’s idea of league tables for prisons based on recidivism has merit I think. If administrator of the best prison got promoted or a pay rise, and those in charge of the worst had some hard questions to answer this could be good. However, any rewards offered to private prisons in this regard are unlikely to outweigh the financial incentives to keep the prisons full, in which case ensuring that prisoners are not in a good state to face society becomes to their benefit.

  3. Pingback: What? Again? | musingsanddeepthoughts

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