Most people probably don't care who runs the prisons – as long as it includes flogging - yet few issues highlight the political divide so well.
The Right believes that any business can be run more efficiently by the private sector and prisons are no exception. The Left believes that some things are not like any other business, and jails are one of them. Only the State should be allowed to lock people in cages.
The problem with the second argument is that the public prison system is a shambles. The problem with the first is that corporations have proven just as good at messing things up as any Government.
Having said that, I think the best run prison the country has seen was the Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP) when it was run by Australasian Correctional Management (now Geotech) - a private prison operator. OK, it was a brand new (Government built) facility. It didn't take sentenced prisoners, so the dynamics were quite different, and its contractual obligations were different from those of public prisons.
What impressed me, though, was the needs assessments on new inmates, at a time when the infamous Integrated Offender Management System was barely functioning in the public system. What also impressed was the leadership of its outstanding General Manager Dom Karauria.
As an aside it is interesting that a number of experienced Maori managers have done well with Australian private prison operators. They don't seem to face the same institutional barriers, or maybe Australian prison companies just value a Maori perspective.
Even so, it is hard to escape the suspicion that ACRP was a kind of loss leader for Geotech. The usual experience of private prisons internationally is somewhat different. It is a huge international industry, dominated by a small number of very large players. Few of them are free from allegations of abuse and mistreatment of inmates in at least some of their facilities.
In addition there is the corrupting influence of the private prison sector on public policy. The huge money to be made from locking people up ensures a powerful lobby aimed at expanding the size of the teat. Media debate around law and order issues is already sensationalist and shallow – imagine the effect of adding big money to the mix.
There is a third, Green, option between big money and big state. In this context, it means going back to 1989, to the most comprehensive assessment ever done on the NZ prison system. The Roper Report made a number of important findings and recommendations, and it has been ignored by Governments both Right and Left ever since.
Criminals could not be rehabilitated, it said, if they had never been habilitated in the first place. It recommended small scale habilitation centres, with intensive, often confrontational, therapy to address the causes of offending. Sentenced prisoners would be assessed for suitability and people not suitable, or trying to play the system, would stay in a general prison.
The Public Prison Service is not well suited to running these kinds of operations. Neither is the multinational prison industry. They are both better at running sausage factories. Habilitation centres are suited to relatively small commercial and community operations, and they offer enormous scope for effective and innovative programs. They allow Tangata Whenua, Pasific Island or other groups to address particular cultural or religious needs. The tragedy of the public vs private prison debate is that this kind of solution gets lost in the fray.
(reprinted from my Waikato Times column)