Public Private Partnerships: An Opportunity or Threat to Prison Reform ?

Posted by:

The role of the private sector in the management of prisons is a controversial topic. While experience has largely been limited to high and medium income countries, in recent years a number of poorer nations have shown interest in the potential benefits of public private partnerships (PPP’s) in the prison field. Inadequate prison infrastructure and limited availability of funds to improve it can make the involvement of the private sector attractive. But is it a sensible road to go down?

The World Bank has published a paper by Justice and Prisons which looks at the evidence about the impact of such partnerships and offers some conclusions about the promise and risks attached to such initiatives. There are of course a range of models in operation around the world- from prisons which are financed, built and run by private companies under contract to government, to mixed systems in which custodial functions remain the responsibility of state employees.

The paper finds the evidence is mixed about whether private prisons produce value for money and improved performance and identifies some of the negative impacts they may have on the wider prison and criminal justice system. The paper concludes that while specific evidence from low income countries is limited, there may be significant additional risks attached to private prisons where robust legislative and regulatory frameworks are less developed or their application is weak.

Justice and Prisons believes that the starting point before the consideration of private sector involvement in prisons must be a full analysis of the infrastructure and processes required by a country in its criminal justice system in order to meet international norms and standards and contribute to development goals. Within such a framework, in many countries community based alternatives to pre-trial detention and to short prison sentences are likely to prove more economical and effective than prison expansion.

When new prison places are genuinely required, and a  PPP is the preferred way forward, there needs to be a genuinely competitive procurement process that results in a contract that is sufficiently flexible to allow for changes over time. The contract should transfer an appropriate level of risk to the private sector and provide for robust measures for monitoring performance and penalizing noncompliance. The relationship between private sector institutions and those in the public sector must be clearly planned and put into place in such a way that is not detrimental to existing operations. In addition, clear plans must be included in the contract, outlining responsibilities for dealing with emergency situations—disturbances, fires, hunger strikes, and other crises—that can often arise in prison environments.

Consideration also needs to be given to whether the private partner has the sufficient capacity, skills, and capability to deliver the project more efficiently than the government. The government, for its part, should have the competence, expertise, and willingness to oversee the project, and should not use PPP’s as a strategy to allow it to abdicate its responsibility to adequately and justly house its incarcerated citizens.

Private sector involvement carries  risks  both for  the state and for people in prison. Before it is considered , rigorous analysis must be undertaken, first , of the  need for criminal justice reform, which may reveal that  increasing prison capacity is not  the only option; and second  where more prison places are  required , of  the appropriateness of PPP  as a mechanism for providing them.