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A Critical Look at Private Prisons Overseas

Brennan Center Senior Fellow Lauren-Brooke Eisen discusses how her research into private prison facilities in Australia and New Zealand could inform better practices in the United States.

Bren­nan Center Senior Fellow Lauren-Brooke Eisen visited two private prison facil­it­ies in Australia and New Zeal­and last year to see how their approach could inform better prac­tices in the United States. Research from the trip, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Report­ing, is featured in a new epilogue of Inside Private Pris­ons: An Amer­ican Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incar­cer­a­tion.  In the epilogue, Eisen repor­ted on how these coun­tries have begun to exper­i­ment with contracts that demand better perform­ance, innov­a­tion, and recidiv­ism reduc­tions yet she also high­lights how some skep­tics don’t think these pris­ons go nearly far enough to truly trans­form outcomes. The book and the epilogue were released this month in paper­back by Columbia Univer­sity Press.  Here, Eisen talks more about the trip, what inspired her work on private pris­ons, and the role that private compan­ies have in correc­tions in the United States.

What led you to write the book?

For my work at the Bren­nan Center, I study incent­ives that perpetu­ate mass incar­cer­a­tion and influ­ence condi­tions of confine­ment. That has included how states apply for differ­ent federal grants, and what they do with the money once they get it. For example, some grant programs are struc­tured in a way that inten­tion­ally or unin­ten­tion­ally encour­ages a state to arrest more people, seize more drugs, or convict people of crimes. We’ve also looked at incent­ives that drive prosec­utor beha­vior. Prosec­utors have tradi­tion­ally won reelec­tion by tout­ing high convic­tion rates and “tough-on-crime” tactics. That’s slowly start­ing to change. This work led me to think about how incent­ives could be used to spur change in the private-prison industry.

And I need to pause here and note that I think the world would be a much more humane and better place if we had far fewer pris­ons and the people who are incar­cer­ated spent signi­fic­antly less time behind bars. Our system of punish­ment is not work­ing and needs to be reima­gined. Every day, there are stor­ies of new human rights viol­a­tions in our pris­ons: both public and private.

I also do not endorse our reli­ance on private firms to oper­ate pris­ons and deten­tion centers. The book focuses on how this industry emerged and gained such a strong foothold in Amer­ican correc­tions and deten­tion. The book also asks crit­ical ques­tions about how to ensure private prison oper­at­ors provide better account­ab­il­ity, trans­par­ency, and ulti­mately outcomes for the people housed behind their bars.

Why did you decide to travel to Australia and New Zeal­and and study private pris­ons there? How are they doing things differ­ently than the U.S.?

After writ­ing the book, I was curi­ous to learn more about whether other coun­tries contrac­ted with private prison firms in the same way that we do in the United States. Last July I visited Raven­hall Correc­tional facil­ity in Australia, and Auck­land South Correc­tional Facil­ity in New Zeal­and. Both govern­ments have contrac­ted with private compan­ies to run the facil­it­ies. The contracts revolve around perform­ance metrics, as opposed to occu­pancy rates which are the center of so many private prison contracts in the United States.

The compan­ies running the pris­ons will, for example, receive bonuses from the govern­ment if indi­vidu­als who are incar­cer­ated there do not end up back in prison. And the contracts also include auto­matic finan­cial penal­ties for the compan­ies if condi­tions inside the prison deteri­or­ate, like riots, escapes, and even if the temper­at­ure rises too high inside the living quar­ters.  

Both these pris­ons have strong rela­tion­ships with part­ners that help train incar­cer­ated men and place them in jobs once they are released. Many of the men behind bars also cook for them­selves and live in resid­en­tial suites with other incar­cer­ated men.

I was not as famil­iar with the prison in New Zeal­and (Auck­land South Correc­tional Facil­ity), but I had read about Raven­hall in a GEO Group annual report and in conver­sa­tions that I’d had with others in the field. Raven­hall actu­ally opened the month that the book origin­ally came out, so there wasn’t any data or research I could really include in the first edition. But I was really intrigued to learn more and visited the facil­ity only a few short months after it opened.

Has either facil­ity that you visited been open long enough now to know if the new struc­ture of the contract is work­ing?

When I was in New Zeal­and in July 2018, the eval­u­ation of the Auck­land facil­ity was not yet complete. There was no inform­a­tion about whether this public-private part­ner­ship was more success­ful than their govern­ment pris­ons in terms of redu­cing recidiv­ism. But in the time since, the facil­ity, run by a company called Serco, has just received its first payment from the govern­ment for success­fully redu­cing recidiv­ism more than the govern­ment could.

However, it’s still not clear if these pris­ons will be able to deliver better outcomes than govern­ment pris­ons. Despite receiv­ing this incent­ive payment for redu­cing recidiv­ism, the New Zeal­and chief ombuds­man recently released a report about the prison after he inspec­ted it this past summer. He was concerned about the pris­on’s reli­ance on lock­ing pris­on­ers in cells to manage staff short­ages, and found that the facil­ity’s record keep­ing and paper­work relat­ing to use of force incid­ents needed to be improved. It turns out that an inspector had visited Auck­land South Correc­tions Facil­ity the same month I was there. To me, that report really shows how complex these issues are, that while the private consor­tium managing this facil­ity was success­ful in this goal of redu­cing recidiv­ism for the year it was eval­u­ated, these are not perfect insti­tu­tions. Recidiv­ism is only one metric.

Raven­hall has only been oper­a­tional about 18 months. When I was in Australia, I learned that the Victorian Auditor Gener­al’s Office will likely audit it within the year, perhaps shed­ding light on more of the pris­on’s oper­a­tions.

The book high­lights new research you conduc­ted in Australia and New Zeal­and, as well as your extens­ive report­ing on private pris­ons in the United States, to talk about how we can reima­gine contracts with private compan­ies at a local, state, and federal level. Have you seen that start­ing to happen here?

In the United States there are almost no models for this type of public-private part­ner­ship, and we are facing a much differ­ent real­ity than Australia and New Zeal­and when it comes to our crim­inal justice system. We have 2.2 million people behind bars in this coun­try. We have almost 50,000 people in immig­ra­tion deten­tion centers, most of which are privately-run. Our system is so massive that it is diffi­cult to reima­gine these types of contracts. While New Zeal­and is facing histor­ic­ally high numbers of people who are incar­cer­ated, it’s still just a little over 10,000 people total. So these are very differ­ent systems, and I under­stand that.

But I think the research is import­ant. We should be aware of other models and how they might be better than what we’re doing in the United States. To my know­ledge there is no private adult correc­tional facil­ity that has a contract with a state govern­ment to reduce recidiv­ism here. Pennsylvania has been exper­i­ment­ing with contracts for private firms that oper­ate community correc­tions centers, where indi­vidu­als go after incar­cer­a­tion to help prepare them for release. The state rebid all of those contracts so they’re more focused on perform­ance, and compan­ies can receive an incent­ive bonus if they reduce recidiv­ism.

You went on the road last year and spoke about the book in cities and towns across the coun­try. What was the reac­tion from audi­ences?

I wanted to make people more aware of the vast prison indus­trial complex that helps sustain high prison popu­la­tions in this coun­try. Few people knew about the history of how private prison firms emerged, and how they became entrenched so quickly – and with such little over­sight – in Amer­ican correc­tions and deten­tion. People would also come up to me and say that they didn’t know there were private pris­ons in the U.S. at all. Or they didn’t real­ize that compan­ies were profit­ing off of incar­cer­a­tion by privat­iz­ing some services within a prison, like char­ging high fees to people behind bars for things like email or video confer­en­cing.

Some people are also surprised to learn that we have outsourced most of the manage­ment of immig­ra­tion deten­tion facil­it­ies to the private sector. In fact, nearly three-quar­ters of immig­rant detain­ees are held in facil­it­ies oper­ated by private prison compan­ies.