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Private prisons, TiSA and the human services privatisation creep

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(Image via yklafamilia.us)

The TPP may be dead in the water, but as the Government moves to privatise even more vital public service, TiSA remains on the agenda. Melanie McCartney reports.

Australia has the highest rate of private incarceration per capita of any country in the world. We imprison more people now than in any time in history.

Private prisons operate in five of Australia’s states: Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and West Australia. There are 82 state prisons between these five states with around 20% of Australia’s prison population residing in nine private prisons. Victoria has the highest number of inmates held in private prisons than in any of the other four states. It is comprised of 13 state run prisons and two privately owned prisons. As of 2014, the two private prisons accounted for 31.8% of the total inmate population or 1,845 out of 5,800 inmates.

A report called: Prison Privatisation in Australia - The State of the Nation June 2016 was the first to collate publicly available information on private prisons in Australia. The key areas that were explored were Accountability, Costs, and Performance and Efficiency. The first private prison to open was the Borallon Correctional Centre (CC) in Queensland, near Ipswich. It was operated by Serco until it closed in 2012. Serco is one of three private prison contractors favoured by state governments; the other two are G4S and the GEO Group (GEO), formerly known as Australasian Correctional Management (ACM).

The privatisation stemmed from the 1988 Kennedy Report. It was chaired by businessman and accountant Jim Kennedy and its intention was to reform corrective services in Queensland.

A program for privatisation was set out within his Report:

‘The opportunities for introducing private sector involvement are substantial and should lead to an increase in cost-effectiveness’. The reasoning behind this was that in some areas private providers ‘can do it cheaper and better.’

Kennedy also concluded that introducing competition to the public sector would allow for the measurement of public sector performance. It was budgetary concerns with staff sickness and over-time that led to these measures not overcrowding as was the case for the other states, except South Australia. Borallon CC was back in state hands in April 2016 as an education centre, called "earn or learn" for 18 30-year-old offenders.

NSW followed Queensland’s lead with an Investigation into Private Sector involvement in the NSW Corrective System in 1989. The report cited a claim that Borallon CC had made cost savings of 7.5-10%. One parliamentarian cast doubt over the fact that no information had been provided as to how these numbers were established or calculated. Despite this questioning, Junee CC near Wagga Wagga was approved as NSW’s first private prison. It was originally managed by ACM in 1993, before ACM was restructured and became the GEO Group in 2004. GEO won the bid again in 2009 and still manages the facility today.

Independent inspection of private prisons in NSW has been sporadic, an Inspector of Custodial Services (ICS) was appointed in 1997 with a review off office scheduled for 2003. The ICS was to address issues not already covered by the Ombudsman.

The review was carried out by former Police Commissioner John Dalton and former chairman of the Corrective Services Commission, Vernon Dalton. They recommended it to be discontinued citing that many duties overlapped with that of the Ombudsman and the Government accepted their recommendations. Another ICS wasn’t appointed until another nine years later, in 2012, and within this time frame in 2009, the NSW Government privatised Parklea CC in the North West of Sydney. The contract was awarded to GEO and it revised its plans to sell Cessnock CC in the Hunter due to an economic downturn in the region.

With a record 12,000 inmates in NSW, the NSW Government announced “Better Prisons” in March 2016, with plans to “market test” the operation of the John Morony CC near Windsor, Sydney.

For contrast, as of June 2015, there were 36,134 people incarcerated across all eight states in Australia. Private companies were invited to compete against state owned, Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) for the tender, with a winner to be announced in early 2017.

A $3.8 billion expansion of the prison system was also proposed and includes a “Commissioning and Contestability Unit” costing $2.9 million. The unit is based on the work of former Serco worker Gary Sturgess, who was also an adviser to former Liberal Premier Nick Greiner.

The NSW shadow treasurer Ryan Park said:

"Contestability shouldn't be an evil word — but under this government, all it means is privatisation by stealth. This government has shown time and time again that contestability isn't about service delivery — it's about saving money."

Mr Sturgess argues that it’s not about actually privatising, but rather the threat of it to get public services and unions to improve their efficiency:

"Gladys Berejiklian understands contestability — she used that approach as transport minister when she took on the private bus monopolies in western Sydney and then initiated a reform agenda within the State Transit Authority ... using the threat of competition if they did not reform."

The “Better Prisons” reforms also include cutting the number of teachers from CSNSW from over 100 full-time positions to 20. Corrective Services Minister David Elliott is to create 60 more roles, but they don’t require a teaching degree. Prison teachers went on strike and up to 200 people rallied outside the NSW Parliament in September last year.

Labor’s Guy Zangari told the crowd:

“No-one can do the job that you do, you are highly skilled. It’s more than just reading and writing, it’s more than just gaining skills to get a job.”     

The Prison Privatisation in Australia - The State of the Nation June 2016 Report covers publicly available data as of December 2015 and concluded that many problems in QLD private prisons were mirrored in NSW. NSW governments have favoured confidentiality and commercial-in-confidence protections for private, over providing the public with any transparency about their operations and costs.

When it comes to performance level fees (PLF), key performance indicators (KPI) or bonuses for reaching “performance targets”, it gets even more opaque. One example from 2006 involved GEO still being awarded its PLF despite not meeting its performance targets for Junee CC. The justification given by ex-Commissioner Ron Woodham was that ‘performance linked fees were designed to encourage performance rather than be punitive’

The Department of Corrective Services (DCS) makes an annual report about some of the prison’s performance — but not the costs, they’re aggregated. In fact, the researchers of the above report could find no publicly available information regarding the breakdown of private prison costs on a year-by-year basis. NSW has an Ombudsman that handles prisoner complaints and reports their data prison-by-prison.

According to the data, there are more complaints in private prisons than in public ones. There are contract “monitors” that make reports about both private prisons in NSW, but these reports are also not publicly available. The monitors reports don’t marry up with the Ombudsman’s either, especially regarding complaints made. In 2011, when inmates died at Parklea and three men escaped from the prison, there was no mention of these incidents at all in the monitors reports.

It is of interest that the NSW Government, at the end of March 2016, made both the Junee CC and the Parklea CC contracts available through the CSNSW website. The contracts are heavily censored. For example, in Schedule Six of the Junee contract Operational Service Level Fee and Opioid Pharmacotherapy Program Fee, all of the financial information has been redacted. In Schedule Eight, the Key Performance Indicators and Performance Linked Fee, has had the targets for each KPI censored, meaning that we don’t know the level of service that is expected of GEO. The Parklea contract states that the operational fee in schedule six is $29,124,488, but any information relating to the breakdown of these costs has also been redacted. It also lists financial penalties for major incidents, such as deaths in custody, but it doesn’t include the KPI’s against which the PLF is calculated. Once again, we have no idea what level of performance is expected of the contractor by the NSW Government.

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison asked the Productivity Commission to investigate privatising human services. The preliminary findings of the inquiry suggested that social housing, public hospitals, dental services, aged care, services for remote Indigenous communities and social housing services could all be reformed. The commission will work on recommendations for each sector and report back to Mr Morrison in October this year.

There has been much said about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by Prime Minister Turnbull, President Donald Trump and the media. President Trump has made it clear that he believes that it’s not in America’s best interests to sign and, in one of his first acts as president, signed an executive order removing the U.S. from the agreement — but still PM Turnbull doesn’t want to let it go.

What has been missing is any talk about the Trade in Services Act (TiSA) agreement in the media or by Mr Turnbull or Mr Trump. However, there is a media release from October 21st last year by Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Steve Ciobo.

Minister Ciobo chaired a ministerial meeting on TiSA in Oslo, Norway, that weekend and the release talks of

‘... increasing Australian services exports, a key part of the Turnbull Government’s national economic plan to create jobs and drive economic growth.’                          

Australia’s services sector is a major part of our economy and accounts for 70% of economic activity. It employs four out of five Australians and accounts for 20.9% of all of Australia’s exports. Services account for around 75% of the European Union (EU) economy and 80% of the US economy. TiSA was also meant to be signed off with the TPP at the end of last year but it stalled due to disagreements about the free movement of personal data across borders. Mr Trump has already promised and already met with 13 U.S. tech giants last year and promised to make it “a lot easier” for their companies “to trade across borders”.

TiSA, according to WikiLeaks and other whistleblowing sites, is a deal that will “lock in” the privatisation of services — even in cases where private service delivery has failed. Government’s would never be able to return water, energy, health, education or other services to public hands. Perhaps this is why there is such secrecy and a five-year clause preventing public access to the TiSA agreement after it has been signed.   

We have seen the Australian Federal Government’s attitude towards human services with Centrelink and Medicare, and the absolute lack of transparency when it comes to the treatment of private prison operators in Australia. Should our tax payer dollars be used to pay private, overseas companies bonuses for fulfilling their contract’s? If companies need incentives to do a good job it sounds like human services belongs in the hands of public. When will state government’s using private, prison operators admit that a lack of staffing appears to be much of that sectors problems?

And, lastly, I implore you to help create awareness about this, if they come for our services it will be the end of Australia or the world as we know it.

You can read more from Melanie McCartney on her blog or you can follow her on Twitter@CartwheelPrint.     

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