Tue | Jan 31, 2023

Editorial | Dig deep into private prison idea

Published:Sunday | November 27, 2022 | 6:27 AM

That Jamaica is in need of a new and modern maximum security prison or adult correctional centre isn’t in question. The current correctional facilities are nothing to write home about – they are overcrowded, 18th-century workhouses that are beyond their limits for modernisation.

However, any proposal for private sector developed and managed prisons must be subjected to rigorous analysis and open debate to determine whether the scheme is ultimately in Jamaica’s social and economic interest. It can’t merely be asserted that building a prison would be an expensive project, beyond the country’s fiscal circumstances.

If that were the case, the Holness administration wouldn’t have pulled the plug on the British government’s 2015 offer of £25 million to help finance a prison, where the UK would pay to have Jamaicans serving time in Britain complete their sentences – an arrangement not wholly dissimilar to the business model of privately run jails.

The question of a new prison has been on Jamaica’s agenda for decades. The two major adult correctional centres, in Kingston and St Catherine, are red-brick structures, built in the 1700s. The third is an ad hoc facility, cobbled together in the 1970s in the face of a crisis. They are mostly overcrowded and, in a different context, wouldn’t meet the standard for prisons where the emphasis isn’t merely crude punishment.

While they all have agreed that the current situation shouldn’t be so, successive governments haven’t placed prison construction among their key priorities. The closest Jamaica came to advancing the issue was the outline agreement between the former People’s National Party (PNP) administration and the British government in which in exchange for the UK putting up the bulk of the money for the prison, Jamaica would allow the repatriation of certain of its nationals from UK jails, depending on how much of their sentence remained. The deal was disclosed on the eve of then British Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 visit to Jamaica and was fiercely rounded by the Opposition as a scheme by Britain to build jails, rather than schools, for Jamaica.

FINANCE OWN PRISON

The Jamaica Labour Party formally ditched the plan after it came to government in early 2016, saying that Jamaica would finance its own prison. However, last week the national security minister, Horace Chang, confirmed that the Government had received, and was considering, an unsolicited bid from unnamed private-sector interests to build a prison on 300 acres of land at a place called Hartlands, in the southern parish of St Catherine. The facility would cost J$30 billion (approximately US$200 million) and accommodate 3,500 inmates, roughly equivalent to the number now in adult correctional facilities.

Dr Chang said preliminary work done by his ministry has placed the cost of a new prison from a low of J$8 billion to a high of J$50 billion. However, in the face of the unsolicited offer, the Government’s Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) – which was previously reported to be working on a prison-financing plan – has been asked to engage in “serious consultancy” on the proposal, including the “social impact” of the idea.

This is important.

The idea for privately developed and operated prisons isn’t unique. The model exists in several countries, including the United States, Britain, Australia, France and New Zealand. Generally, they operate on two broad models: one is that private interests receive concessions to build, own and operate the facilities, along the lines with what Jamaica did with toll road projects. The other is that existing prisons are turned over to private operators, who run them for profit, similar to the arrangements that now govern Jamaica’s two international airports.

Under both arrangements, the operators believe that they can run the prisons more efficiently than the Government would, and would thereby be able to take the difference between the costs to the Government to keep a prisoner as a public-sector operation and their own cost. Theoretically, the scenario is a win-win: the Government has a cheaper service and the private entity makes a profit. And in BOOT operations, governments don’t have to find the capital to construct the facility.

FALLING OUT OF FAVOUR

Increasingly, however, private prisons are falling out of favour as old attacks about the way they operate intensify. For instance, in the United States, where around 100,000 people, or eight per cent of the incarcerated, are in privately operated facilities, President Joe Biden last year issued an executive order to phase out the practice. Existing contracts won’t be renewed.

“We must ensure that our Nation’s incarceration and correctional systems are prioritising rehabilitation and redemption,” Mr Biden said in the order. “Incarcerated individuals should be given a fair chance to fully reintegrate into their communities, including by participating in programming tailored to earning a good living, securing affordable housing, and participating in our democracy as our fellow citizens. However, privately operated criminal detention facilities consistently underperform Federal facilities with respect to correctional services, programs, and resources.”

The priority of the operator of a privately run facility, critics argue, is the maximisation of profit for shareholders, rather than doing social good. In the UK where approximately 13 per cent of the country’s more than 80,000 prisoners are locked up in 13 privately operated facilities, campaigners have called for an end to the system, for which taxpayers’ fork out around £4 billion annually. They question the quality of service they deliver, such as cutting corners to enhance profit.

In 2018, for example, the UK chief inspector of prisons branded a facility in Birmingham, which was run by a UK-based transnational security services firm, G4S, as the worst in the country. The prison, which was taken over by the government, was described as “squalid”, “vermin infested” and in “a state of crisis”.

These issues are not in themselves a case against privately built and operated prisons in Jamaica. Rather, they offer guides to the questions to be asked before we commit to the scheme.