Private jails risk to nurse safety

Union joins community opposition to privatisation.

The NSWNA has joined growing public opposition to the privatisation of two of the State’s major prisons, Cessnock in the Hunter Valley and Parklea in south–western Sydney.

Privatisation would make jails less safe for nurses working in the prison system, the NSWNA believes.

Poorer health outcomes for the prisoner population and the wider community are other likely results.

Nurses working in the prison system will remain employees of Justice Health, with no changes to their wages and working conditions, the Minister for Corrective Services and Public Sector Reform, John Robertson, told Parliament.

Mr Robertson had earlier met with NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes and organiser Michael Whaites, who presented him with arguments why Justice Health should not be privatised.

‘We congratulate the Government for making the correct decision concerning Justice Health, and we hope they will eventually see sense and abandon the entire privatisation project,’ Brett said.

Several international private prison companies, some with appalling performance records, may be lining up to tender for the two jails (see story overleaf).

Brett said private companies should not be trusted with a fundamental part of the justice and health systems.

‘Private companies have no real incentive to rehabilitate prisoners and hasten their return to society – they earn more money if there are more prisoners, staying in prison for longer, and coming back sooner. This is completely at odds with how the justice system should operate,’ he said.

He said the State Government aimed to save money through privatisation, yet significant savings could only be made by cutting salaries and training, reducing the ratio of staff to inmates or reducing the quality and/or quantity of food and other provisions to prisoners.

‘None of these measures is likely to make nurses’ jobs easier in prisons,’ he pointed out.

‘Privatisation generally leads to fewer prison officers, meaning a more dangerous working environment for nurses, along with reduced capacity to provide adequate patient care.’

He said the Union had studied research showing private prisons generally perform worse than public facilities, with chronic understaffing and cost-cutting leading to increased escapes and assaults, more complaints and a greater likelihood of prisoner recidivism.

A US Department of Justice study showed that in comparable American prisons, private facilities had a 49% higher assault rate on staff and a 65% higher assault rate on other prisoners.

Brett said private prisons were notoriously secretive and lacked transparency.

‘Nurses have enough problems in Government-run prisons where there is at least some public scrutiny and transparency,’ he said (see story page 23).

‘These problems would undoubtedly get worse in privately-run facilities, which are focused on profit and can often hide behind commercial-in-confidence provisions to prevent full public scrutiny of their activities.’

Brett said other states, such as Victoria, and other jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Canada and several American states had re-nationalised prisons after poor experiences with private operators.

Nice little earners

Privatised jails are likely to be ‘good earners’ for the private operators, says Professor Phillip O’Neill, director of the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney.

Professor O’Neill says there are now over 10,000 people in the custody of the NSW Department of Corrective Services, up by 61% from 10 years ago.

Last year, each prisoner cost the NSW Government $73,000 on average.

Parklea held 813 prisoners as at June 2008, of whom 733 were in maximum security. Most were awaiting trial.

A five-year contract to run Parklea prison is likely to be worth about $300 million, Professor O’Neill estimates.

MPs rebel against own government

Twelve NSW Labor MPs protested against their own government’s jail privatisation plan at a rally outside State Parliament.

Justice Health nurses joined prison officers at the rally, which coincided with a guards’ 24-hour strike against the privatisation of Parklea and Cessnock jails.

Bathurst Labor MP and Government Whip Gerard Martin told the rally: ‘We will take on the Executive Government to defend the party platform. It’s there in black and white.’

Cessnock Labor MP Kerry Hickey told the crowd: ‘Prisoners are locked away under our rules, they should be reformed under our rules, not by some half-baked private company who wants to do nothing but make some money by slashing jobs and slashing reform processes.’

Writing in the Illawarrra Mercury newspaper, the former Labor member for Kiama, Bob Harrison, reminded readers that his party fought the then Liberal Government when it legislated for the first privately-operated prison in 1990.

‘The Labor Opposition at that time regarded the issues of crime and punishment as going right to the heart of state legitimacy, whereby the administration of punishment and rehabilitation is rightly carried out by fully accountable and financially disinterested persons employed by society itself.

‘We saw it as being indefensible to use hapless prisoners for private or corporate purposes,’ Mr Harrison wrote.

Who will buy our prisons?

Companies in the running to buy NSW prisons include:

Corrections Corporation of America

CCA, the world’s biggest private corrections company, ran the Metropolitan Women’s Correctional Centre in Victoria until repeated escapes, severe contract breaches including inadequate staffing, a lack of proper security services, rampant illicit drugs and excessive lockdowns forced the State Government to reclaim control. The company’s ‘fundamental security and drug prevention failures presented a very clear risk to community safety’ the Government found.


The second biggest prison company in the US, GEO currently runs Junee Correctional Centre – the only privately-run prison in NSW. Junee has consistently been the subject of significantly more complaints to the Ombudsman than any other correctional facility in the state.


British-based Serco has been criticised for running prisons with appalling disciplinary and safety records. In 2004, a 14-year-old boy died in a Serco-run children’s prison several hours after being subjected to the ‘nose distraction technique’ – part of the prison’s inmate control regime –  in which pressure is applied to the nose with the deliberate intention of causing pain. The technique was later banned. At an adult jail in Scotland run by Serco, a prisoner died of meningitis, despite repeated pleas for medical assistance.

Serco subsidiaries have also drawn criticism closer to home. In late 2006, ALP Senator Kate Lundy drew attention to attempts by Serco Sodexho, which had won the Canberra Defence services contract, to use duress to force employees to sign AWAs. Serco Sodexho also sacked cleaners for refusing to sign AWAs. The company brought cleaners in from Wollongong rather than employ workers under a collective agreement.

Australian Integrated Management Services

AIMS recently lost the Acacia Prison contract in WA due to serious under performance and budget blowouts. The company was previously fined for problems relating to the detection of drugs in the prison, and the lack of meaningful work, education and training opportunities for prisoners.