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No to privatising prisons

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ, & Director, CREDI
Visit rcsocialjusticett.org for our columns, media releases and more.

It is with great sadness that CCSJ noted the suggestion made by former National Security Minister, Gary Griffith, in Newsday on Friday, January 26. As reported, during a discussion on ISAAC 98.1 FM, entitled: ‘Looking for Solutions’, on January 24, and in light of the video on social media showing some local prison officers wearing ski masks beating restrained prisoners, he suggested that T&T should “look at the possibility of privatised prisons”.

Inter alia, he said: “…It is important to look at systems. Sometimes it involves privatisation, to make sure there are checks and balances to ensure accountability in different arms of the protective services” and measurement of performance by having a private entity within the prison system to monitor. “There is no one there to guard the guards.”

CCSJ urges our Government not to go down that road. It is true that many of our institutions are failing. However, we should accept the challenge of transforming them rather than dodging the issues.

CCSJ is aware that a number of countries have private prisons or for-profit prisons. This is a very controversial issue. Reports such as the Office of the Inspector General US Department of Justice’s Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons – Evaluation and Inspections Division, August 2016 highlight some key concerns. See: https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2016/e1606.pdf.

It was because of this 86-page, 2016 audit that the Obama administration made a policy shift to phase out work with private prisons at the federal level. The audit “found that federal ‘contract’ prisons had more safety and security incidents than comparable government-run prisons”.

In February 2017, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed this directive. As The Sentencing Project states: “The reversal took place despite significant declines in the federal prison population and a scathing report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General” (referred to above).

Let’s return to first base. What kind of society do we wish to become? What kind of values should underpin our society? According to Catholic Social Teaching, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person are the foundation of the moral vision of a society.

We must avoid viewing offenders/prisoners as commodities. Much has been written on this issue e.g. Alex Friedmann’s Prisoners as Commodities: Moral and Ethical objections to private prisons and Eric Markowitz’s Making profits on the captive prison market.

Martin Schwartz’s paper (George Washington University) on this issue is instructive. He says: “…inmates once completely devalued as social junk are being valued as commodities to be sought after”. His paper discusses a series of issues around private prisons and concentrates on construction, operating costs, accountability and broader ethical questions.

When other people’s houses are on fire, let’s wet our own. American Civil Liberties Union state in its document Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, “Leading private prison companies essentially admit that their business model depends on high rates of incarceration….As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, holding ever more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profits…While supporters of privatization tout the idea that governments can save money through private facilities, the evidence for supposed cost savings is mixed at best…The claim that prison privatization demonstrably reduces costs and trims government budgets may detract from the critical work of reducing the state’s prison population.”

The 2012 UNDP report Human Development and the shift to better citizen security, rightly states that T&T needs a better balance between legitimate law enforcement and prevention, with an emphasis on prevention; and more investment, for example, in youth development, job creation and reducing poverty and socio-economic inequality/ inequity. These strategies can contribute to a safer and more democratic/ just society in the region.

Where are our prevention strategies? And what are we doing to ensure that those in charge of our prisons are more accountable for effective training, monitoring and evaluation of the performance of Officers etc?

Pope Francis constantly urges us to reject the “throwaway” culture that exists today. As the UK Catholic Herald states: “Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has pressed for better prison conditions and the need for rehabilitation of inmates… in Jan 2017, he said that penitentiary conditions must be ‘worthy of human persons’. He renewed his appeal so that prisons would be ‘places of re-education’ and ‘not overcrowded but places for re-insertion’ in society after sentences are served… Christ comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change.”