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Why privatising Kenyan prisons is risky

Gráinne Perkins asks expert Rob Allen, an independent researcher, about the benefits and dangers of using private companies to run jailhouses

Historically, prisons were facilities that generally fall under the authority of national governments. But this has changed over the last few decades, with private companies increasingly being ropped in to run them. Governments have chosen to involve private companies in a variety of ways and for various reasons.

In high and middle-income countries some governments have contracted out – in whole or in part – the construction and running of prison establishments. Governments – like the US, UK, Australia and Brazil – have taken this route.

The rationale has been that it will increase prison capacity, cut costs, and introduce innovation through better management and new technology. But these aims have seldom, if ever, been achieved in full. This is partly because pressures to cut costs and boost profits can mean there are insufficient staff to run safe and successful prisons.

Service provision

A much larger group of countries, such as France, outsource specific functions such as the provision of food for prisoners and the maintenance and repair of buildings.

Services that are specialised, such as education, health care and rehabilitation, have also been outsourced. Across Europe, health care is outsourced to private companies.

The private sector is also increasingly involved in providing employment opportunities for prisoners while they are in jail. This can be in factories, farms or other productive activities.

Such activities are commonplace in Asian prisons. It is this limited type of privatisation that is currently planned in Kenya.

More comprehensive private sector involvement has been proposed, but despite considerable support, it has so far not been pursued. There are only two privatised prisons in South Africa, with a capacity of 3,000 inmates.

In 2002, two private companies were each awarded 25 year concessions to design, build, finance and operate each prison. The conditions in the prisons today are generally viewed as better than public prisons.

Specifications, like accommodation and activities, in the contracts were based on prisons in the UK. There are also countless examples of small-scale businesses being involved in prisons in other African countries.

Ethiopia’s Mekelle prison created more than 30 active cooperatives that provided work for prisoners before and after release.

Ghana is planning a public private partnership (PPP) programme that would see inmates involved in large-scale production of maize and oil palm as well as livestock especially poultry and piggery.

Mixed reactions

Experience of wholesale privatisation of prisons across the world has been mixed. And there is no clear-cut evidence that it provides better value for money or improves standards.

Birmingham Prison in England, run by the private security company G4S, was recently taken back into public control following a disastrous inspection report highlighting shocking levels of violence and drugs.

The same company lost control of a South African prison in 2013 following concerns over deteriorating safety and security.

But the company has also had plenty of successes. A G4S prison in Liverpool has generally received positive reports. Nevertheless, there are some general concerns over prison privatisation.

One is that turning prisons into a market opportunity means that companies will lobby for tougher penalties. Most of the evidence for this comes from the US.

There are more widespread concerns too that privatisation opens up possibilities for corruption among politicians, officials and even judges.

Private companies could also take advantage of the situation. In the UK, for example, two firms providing electronic tags on released prisoners were found to have been billing the government for tracking the movement of offenders who had moved abroad, returned to prison or even died.

The Nelson Mandela Rules – the United Nation’s standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners – express a preference that institutional industries and agriculture businesses should be operated directly by the prison administration and not by private contractors.

This is because of concerns that the prisoner’s vocational training may be subordinated to the purpose of making a financial profit from an industry in the prison.

But the UN also says that: “With the right safeguards, private companies can play a major role in providing employment opportunities inside and outside prison, as well as upon release.”

Steps need to be taken to ensure prisoners are not exploited. Compelling prisoners to work for the private sector is prohibited by the Forced Labour Convention and wages and conditions should be close to normal labour.

While it is legitimate for prisons to retain a proportion of income generated from work conducted by prisoners, the system needs to be transparent and accountable. Measures must be taken to minimise corrupt practice.

Because prison privatisation is a risky path to take, Kenya should carefully consider all options. There may be a case for new prisons to be built.

Nevertheless, a very careful cost benefit analysis should be carried out first. For instance, a better bet may be to find ways to reduce the use of pre-trial detention – almost half of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are in custody pending trial – and make more use of community service orders, instead of short prison sentences.

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