Private prisons

Print edition : August 24, 2012

THE TIHAR JAIL in New Delhi, a file picture.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Private sector involvement in running prisons in the U.S. and the U.K. has lessons for India, including the profit element overriding serious objectives.

THE very mention of prison evokes images of chaos, violence and depravity in many of us. We tend to assume that prisons are not only uninviting places, but they are meant to be so because the objective of incarceration is to punish an offender rather than reform him. This is the traditional skewed thinking which induces even some responsible members of society to frown upon any change to make jails more liveable and therefore humane.

Despite this, if a few of our prisons have, over the decades, become more orderly and their living conditions a little more tolerable, it is solely because of the enlightenment among a few policymakers and jail administrators across the globe. (Tihar jail in Delhi is looked upon as a symbol of progress built against great odds.) Those who have achieved substantial results in prison administration are those who subscribe to the belief that creating the right ambience inside jails would cut down recidivism and ultimately solve, at least partially, overcrowding of jails and reduce their squalor.

This is the long-term strategy of enlightenment that governments in all civilised countries should follow. Unfortunately, progress towards this noble end is slow because of a low priority to this in the minds of the majority of administrators and a genuine resources crunch. After all, how much can governments spend on building new prisons? The struggle to make prisons real centres that tend to those who have deviated from the law is nevertheless worth pursuing in order to make the earth a better place to live in.

Overcrowding of prisons is a near-universal phenomenon. The United States is one supreme example. This is because of the huge rate of incarceration. One official report puts the figure of those in that countrys federal and state prisons and county jails in 2010 at 2,266,800 adults. This excludes the nearly 500,000 out on parole as of the end of 2009. Again, this number excludes more than 70,000 juveniles held in exclusive homes for them. Administrators in the U.S. are, therefore, under great pressure to build more prisons. This is, on the face of it, a short-sighted policy that erodes government resources without tackling the fundamental problem of how to reduce inflow into prisons. This massive prison capacity-building continues at a time when there are actually signs of crime especially the violent ones such as homicide declining. This is the real irony.

The situation in England and Wales is equally depressing. Nearly 90,000 were held in about 130 prisons at the end of 2010, and in at least 80 of them occupancy was far higher than the capacity. The Indian scene is somewhat better. For about 320,000 available prison spaces there were 360,000 inmates at the end of 2010. What is galling is that more than 60 per cent of those detained were undertrials, a sad commentary on our judicial system which is notorious for delays at all levels. (For the statistically minded, in India, there are 123 central jails and 322 district jails, besides 900 other detention centres of various types.)

What does one do with prison overcrowding? There are several methods, including decriminalisation of certain offences (such as drug consumption and prostitution) and diversion of many convicts to community service. These have been tried in a few parts of the world, especially in Europe, with varying degrees of success.

Neither course has, however, found strong support in India. On the contrary, not a day passes without the clamour for newer statutes in the area of criminal law. Although the law directly or obliquely provides for devices such as community service, not many judges have for reasons unknown opted for them.

This is sad because a sentencing to community service has the greatest potential to reform even the most hardened offender. The difficult situation caused by prison overcrowding and consequent mismanagement has thrown up a third alternative in the form of outsourcing of prisons to the care of the private sector, something that will be considered a sacrilege by traditionalists in India.

Both the U.K. and the U.S. have had a long history of involving the private sector in the running of a whole prison or in managing services needed by prisons/inmates on a day-to-day basis. The first private prison in the U.K. was set up in 1992 in east Yorkshire. Since then 12 more have been created. The latest one was in Birmingham, which created a huge controversy with some prison staff threatening to go on strike.

Each of the 13 privately managed prisons is run by one of three private companies awarded the contract. In the U.S. more than 260 correctional facilities (accounting for 99,000 adult convicts) have been entrusted to private hands. One prominent company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), commands 80,000 beds in 65 facilities. All this is even as the debate on several vital issues, such as costs and benefits, prisoner safety and prisoner education goes on.

Several studies done in both countries have come out with conclusions that are confusing. Interestingly, industry-funded research strives to prove that there is cost reduction for the state in assigning prisons to the care of carefully chosen private firms. But government-aided studies say that such cost-saving is illusory.

The fact is that prisons in private hands indulge in objectionable cutting of basic prisoner needs, and the contracted companies choose low-cost convicts. There is also the charge that companies save money by tinkering with security needs. The hiring of poor quality security guards and the shockingly low wages paid to them are now well known. As a result, jail security is so lax that it has facilitated many escapes.

Sometime ago, The New York Times ran a series of articles that highlighted how some halfway houses (that take care of prisoners in custody before they finish their term and are set at liberty) in New Jersey were so lax that as many as 5,000 inmates managed to disappear from these homes since 2005. This is again cited as one reason why private prisons are able to show savings, because they have fewer numbers to take care of than what is on record.

There is also an allegation that prison management by private companies reduces the quality of prisoner education and training. This is because companies concentrate more on the profit element than on how to upgrade prisoner personality before they are released. This is perhaps the most abominable of all the facts held out against privatisation. We know how many prisons the world over have done so much to rehabilitate prisoners and make them useful to society when they return to it after a spell of incarceration.

There are real stories of inmates coming out as remarkable individuals with great self-esteem and a burning desire to prove themselves as valuable citizens. Actually, this is one strong argument in favour of a term in prison that enlightened prison administrators could use to bring about the transformation of individuals who had until then been considered criminals and liabilities. If privatisation comes at the cost of this noble objective of incarceration, there is a definite case for a strong rethinking on the whole attempt to relieve governments of the burden of running prisons.

It is good that the glaring deficiencies of private prisons have brought them to close public scrutiny and debate both in the U.K. and the U.S. There are lessons, therefore, for India to learn from the examples of these two countries. Blind privatisation of prisons is to be spurned. Selective projects are worth the effort.

In any case, the endeavour to enhance the quality of the existing prison administration deserves to go on with greater verve. Social audits, in whatever form they are designed, are the need of the hour. At present, except for a story of an escape or proved corruption among the jail staff, nothing else is known to the average citizen. A conducted tour of ordinary citizens to select jails at periodic intervals is very much the need of the hour. There will certainly be some window dressing on such occasions. But then there can never be a total cover-up that distorts the fundamental realities of a prison setting.

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