Skip Navigation
Analysis

How to Create More Humane Private Prisons

Australia and New Zealand point the way by incentivizing companies to reduce recidivism rates.

November 14, 2018

A version of this story appeared in the The New York Times.

About 35 years ago, Amer­ica began turn­ing pris­ons over to the private sector. The idea was that private pris­ons would be better and cheaper than govern­ment-run ones. “The great incent­ive for us, and we believe the long-term great incent­ive for the private sector, will be that you will be judged on perform­ance,” Thomas Beas­ley said on “60 Minutes” in 1984. Mr. Beas­ley was pres­id­ent of the newly created Correc­tions Corpor­a­tion of Amer­ica.

Today about 9 percent of those behind bars in 28 states and in federal pris­ons — more than 128,000 people — are in pris­ons run by the private sector. More than half of all private prison beds are owned by Core­Civic, the new name for Mr. Beas­ley’s company. In addi­tion to pris­on­ers, about 70 percent of detain­ees in Immig­ra­tion and Customs Enforce­ment custody are in private facil­it­ies.

But private pris­ons have turned out to be neither better nor cheaper. They have about the same recidiv­ism rates as their govern­ment-run coun­ter­parts — nearly 40 percent. And the Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office has concluded time and again that there is simply no evid­ence that private pris­ons are more cost-effect­ive than public pris­ons.

Private pris­ons have come under tremend­ous polit­ical scru­tiny because the more people they house, the more they profit. Most correc­tions contracts with the private sector merely ask the private oper­ator to replic­ate what the govern­ment is doing.

To be clear, I do not endorse private pris­ons. Unfor­tu­nately, given how entrenched the private sector is in Amer­ican correc­tions, the private prison industry is here to stay. But there are ways to improve these insti­tu­tions. Currently they are rewar­ded accord­ing to the number of pris­on­ers they house. What if private prison contracts were struc­tured so that they made more money if they treated pris­on­ers humanely with policies that helped them stay out of trouble once released? Pris­ons exist to lower crime rates. So why not reward private pris­ons for doing that? Judge them on perform­ance, as Mr. Beas­ley said.

Amer­ica does­n’t use perform­ance-based contracts. But Australia and New Zeal­and are exper­i­ment­ing with these models. Two relat­ively new private pris­ons have contracts that give them bonuses for doing better than govern­ment pris­ons at cutting recidiv­ism. They get an even bigger bonus if they beat the govern­ment at redu­cing recidiv­ism among their indi­gen­ous popu­la­tions. And prison compan­ies are charged for what the govern­ment deems as unac­cept­able events like riots, escapes and unnat­ural deaths.

Although the contracts set specific object­ives, they do not dictate how prison oper­at­ors should achieve them. “If we want to estab­lish a prison that focuses on rehab­il­it­a­tion and rein­teg­ra­tion, we have to give the private sector the space to innov­ate,” said Rachael Cole, a former public-private part­ner­ship integ­ra­tion director for the New Zeal­and Depart­ment of Correc­tions. “If we don’t give them the oppor­tun­ity to do things differ­ently, we will just get back what we already have.”

I recently visited New Zeal­and’s Auck­land South Correc­tions Facil­ity, a low-lying yellow and white brick struc­ture in the shadow of the local airport. It houses 970 men and avoids many of the dehu­man­iz­ing elements typical of pris­ons. Pris­on­ers are called by their first names instead of by number, and correc­tions officers are called rein­teg­ra­tion officers.

Serco, a Brit­ish company that oper­ates pris­ons glob­ally, manages the facil­ity for the New Zeal­and Depart­ment of Correc­tions under the coun­try’s first public-private prison part­ner­ship. Men who follow the rules, complete educa­tional and voca­tional programs, and keep a posit­ive atti­tude can move from the more tradi­tional hous­ing units into six-room cottages designed to prepare them for life outside prison. The resid­ences, which house almost a quarter of the pris­on’s popu­la­tion, resemble dorm-room suites with desks and book­shelves in the bedrooms, carpeted living spaces, couches, windows without bars, microwaves, refri­ger­at­ors, cook­ing utensils and a flat-screen TV. The men cook their own meals and do their own laun­dry.

Even those who live in more conven­tional cells manage their own affairs through a computer system to sched­ule family visits, medical appoint­ments and their daily respons­ib­il­it­ies. Each pris­oner has a résumé and is expec­ted to apply and be inter­viewed for jobs at the facil­ity. The prison also responds to the job market. Noti­cing the growth in barista careers, Serco opened two cafes in the prison to provide on-the-job train­ing.

New Zeal­and’s prison popu­la­tion has soared in recent years, reach­ing an all-time high of more than 10,600. The coun­try also struggles with racial dispar­it­ies, with an overrep­res­ent­a­tion of Maori — the nation’s indi­gen­ous Poly­ne­sian people — in their pris­ons. Maori make up only about 15 percent of the coun­try’s popu­la­tion but half of New Zeal­and’s pris­on­ers. Aiming to reduce the Maor­i’s recidiv­ism rate, Serco and its part­ners worked with indi­gen­ous groups to build a cultural center for the Maori pris­on­ers at the Auck­land South prison. When I visited, one Maori pris­oner, a bald, bearded man dressed in the prison uniform of gray shorts and a burgundy shirt, was clean­ing the cultural center to prepare it for a meet­ing. He said that the center hosts events like the Maori New Year celeb­ra­tion and that family members frequently join.

“The prison is designed for rehab­il­it­a­tion,” said Oliver Brousse, chief exec­ut­ive of the John Laing Invest­ment Group, a member of the consor­tium that built Auck­land South. “The strength of these public-private part­ner­ships is that they bring the best prac­tices and innov­a­tion from all over the world, allow­ing local author­it­ies to bene­fit from not only private capital but also from the best people and best prac­tices from other coun­tries.”

In Australia, the Raven­hall Correc­tional Center near Melbourne is a 1,000-bed medium-secur­ity facil­ity with 51 build­ings spread across six acres. There is no razor wire. The prison is oper­ated by the GEO Group, a global prison firm (with most of its facil­it­ies in the United States), under a part­ner­ship with the Victoria state govern­ment. Men live in five communit­ies in small build­ings similar to college dorms. Social work­ers and other clini­cians meet with the men inside the communit­ies; over­all, the prison has more than 70 clin­ical programs. When I visited, a group of men whose good beha­vior had allowed them to progress to living in four-bedroom suites were making sand­wiches for lunch and contem­plat­ing stir-fry for dinner.

“What makes Raven­hall differ­ent is that I didn’t think of it much as a jail,” said a man named Cameron, who was released in April and now works as a land­scaper for Rebuild, a Y.M.C.A. program that trains pris­on­ers in construc­tion work and hires some of them when they leave the prison. “It is a place to be if you really want to change. You had to either be in a program or in educa­tion. You can’t just stay in the cottage and do noth­ing.”

Even the men who haven’t yet made it to these cottages live in more humane quar­ters than exist in most Amer­ican pris­ons. Instead of bars on windows, there is thick glass, provid­ing more natural light and a better view of the outside.

As in New Zeal­and, indi­gen­ous people in Australia are overrep­res­en­ted in the prison system. Abori­ginal and Torres Strait Islanders are only 2 percent of the adult popu­la­tion but account for more than a quarter of the incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion. Raven­hall has six staff members who work primar­ily with indi­gen­ous pris­on­ers to recon­nect them with their cultural herit­age. The programs also help the men to be better fath­ers and to recover from trauma.

The GEO Group decided that to cut recidiv­ism, it needed to continue work­ing with pris­on­ers once they were out. At the Bridge Center, famil­ies meet with social work­ers to discuss what life could be like when their loved ones leave prison and return home. And those released from Raven­hall can meet with the same clini­cians they might have bonded with while incar­cer­ated, work with staff to find hous­ing and in some cases receive vouch­ers to cover three months’ rent.

These pris­ons are so new — Raven­hall opened less than a year ago — that we don’t yet know if the system works, but correc­tions depart­ments in both coun­tries are optim­istic. Auck­land South opened in 2015, and an eval­u­ation of Auck­land South’s initial success in redu­cing recidiv­ism will likely be released later this year.

If the pris­ons in Australia and New Zeal­and prove success­ful, could a similar approach work in the United States? It would require getting beyond simplistic views of private pris­ons, recog­niz­ing that their fail­ures could be a result of the incent­ives they receive. And it would involve a leap of faith to allow the private sector some flex­ib­il­ity in how it chooses to reduce recidiv­ism.

“This part­ner­ship is about moving away from the prescribed way of doing things,” said Jeremy Lightfoot, deputy chief exec­ut­ive of the New Zeal­and Depart­ment of Correc­tions, told me in his office in Welling­ton in July. “This prison is in our network. If it is succeed­ing, then we are succeed­ing.”

In Amer­ica, the govern­ment tends to rely on the private sector only when it needs capital. In Australia and New Zeal­and, govern­ments partnered with private industry to design the contracts them­selves and fash­ion innov­at­ive prac­tices to reduce recidiv­ism.

“What you have to real­ize is that we are human beings as well,” Cameron said. “If you put the boys in the cage and treat the boys like an animal, they will think they are anim­als. But if you put them in an envir­on­ment where things are peace­ful and they are treated like humans, they can change.”

Report­ing for this article was suppor­ted by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Report­ing.

This post has been updated since public­a­tion.

(Image: Txking/iStock)