How the American Privatized Prison Is Spreading Overseas

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Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre central open space provides a recreation area for asylum seekers, on July 26, 2013 on Christmas Island

Crime, incarceration and prison occupancy rates are dropping in the United States, and that’s great news for everyone—except private prison operators. For the companies that manage for-profit correctional facilities, less crime means fewer contracts and a shrinking market, according to Cody Mason, author of a new report by the Sentencing Project, a U.S-based sentencing law reform non-profit group.

Now, those companies are doing what any other company in their position would do—they’re “looking past the U.S.” and successfully hunting down markets (read prisons and detention systems) around the globe, where prison populations are growing. Countries like Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand are holding ”a larger proportion of prisoners in private facilities, with a high of 19 percent in Australia,” the report found.

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Why hand prisoners to the private sector though? The U.S. — one of the first countries to privatize correctional facilities — turned to private prison operators at time when prisons were overflowing in the 1980s and cheap, quick facilities were needed to house the overflow of inmates and detainees. But critics say the system is far from satisfactory.

Private prison companies have faced “persistent criticism for providing low-quality services” and ”failing to save taxpayer money,” Mason’s report states. And while direct causality is hard to establish, the Sentencing Project suspects that private prison operators are ”negatively affecting criminal justice policy,” through their contributions to politicians who support “harsh immigration detention laws.” Conditions for inmates can also be poor, leading many to believe that the profit incentive is incompatible with maintaining decent and tolerable standards. “Not many costs can be cut from a prison to begin with,” Mason points out.

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The potential downsides of prison privatization don’t appear to deter a country like Australia. It’s total prison population of 29,383 prisoners (or 130 per 100,000) hardly compares to the Unites States’ 2,239,751 prisoners (716 per 100,000), according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. However, the onetime penal colony of the British Empire has seen a consistent increase in the number of prisoners over the last two decades and a 106% prison occupancy rate, creating an opportunity for private prison companies to thrive. The number of privately held prisoners increased by 95% between 1998 and 2011. Australia’s immigration detention system, which held 8,797 individuals as of April 2013 and came recently under much public scrutiny, is operated entirely by private companies.

Private operators are making increased profits from such emerging markets. The U.S’s second-largest private prison company, GEO Group, saw 14% of its revenue come from international contracts last year. The world’s largest security provider, UK-based G4S, also saw strong revenue growth in markets outside the U.S. in 2012.

Mason believes that this kind of expansion means that the problems of running private prisons are simply being exported. “The problems are going to exist no matter what country you’re in,” he says. “You can have a private prison in the U.S. and open one on the other side of the world and it doesn’t change the business model.”

Tough times or not, billions will continue to be spent putting millions behind bars.

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