[Marxism] Why prison privatisation should be opposed: Direct Action

Virginia Brown v_brown_au at yahoo.com.au
Wed Sep 9 07:49:31 MDT 2009

Why prison privatisation should be opposed


By Kim Bullimore


In August 2008, the NSW Labor government announced plans to
privatise both the Parklea and Cessnock prisons in the wake of a budgetary
blowout of $23 million in overtime payments to prison guards. NSW Corrective
Services commissioner Ron Woodham told the November 11 Sydney Daily Telegraph
that the partial privatisation of the prison system would save the government
more than $42 million over the next four years.


The NSW Labor government’s plan to partially privatise the
NSW prison system is a part of an increasing trend across the developed
capitalist world to privatise the management of prisons. Currently there are
more than 200 privatised prisons around the world, housing more than 150,000
prisoners, including 160 privatised prisons in the USA, 21 in France, 12 in the
UK and 12 in Australia. According to a “Survey of Prison Privatization around
the World” (on the website of the Israeli government), the 12 privatised
prisons in Australia incarcerate 20% of Australia’s prison population.


In 2004, a briefing paper to the NSW Labor government on
prison privatisation, noted that Australia has the highest proportion of
inmates in private prisons of any nation in the world. At the time, Australia
had seven privately run prisons, housing 17% of Australia’s prisoners, while in
the US, 7% of the 2 million prisoners were in privately run prisons.


The extent of privatisation of prisons varies around the
world. In some cases, privatisation refers solely to the private management of
the government-built and legally owned prisons, while in other instances it can
refer to prisons that have been designed, constructed and managed by private
contractors. In all instances, however, the government pays the private
contractor to operate the prison. The primary objective of the private
contractor is to make a profit, usually by using prisoners as a cheap labour


Racism and prisons


In Australia, as with most developed capitalist countries
around the world, the great majority of prisoners are from the poorest sections
of the general population and/or oppressed racial minorities and/or suffer from
mental illness. According to former US political prisoner and academic Angela
Davis, who is now an active campaigner for prisoner rights, prisons in the
capitalist system “perform a feat of magic” by helping to “disappear” societal
problems. In her 1998 essay “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison
Industrial Complex”, Davis noted that “imprisonment has become the response of
first resort to far too many social problems that burden people who are
ensconced in poverty”.


According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS),
between 1996 and 2006, the number of people in prison had increased by 42%.
Indigenous Australians constitute 24% of the prison population despite making
up only 2% of the general population. In 2007, the Human Rights Law Resource
Centre (HRLRC) noted that the national incarnation rates for Indigenous
Australians was 11 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. The
incarceration rate for Indigenous children aged 10-14 years and Indigenous
women was 30 and 20 times higher respectively than their non-Indigenous


The HRLRC also noted that about one-fifth of the prison
population suffered “serious mental illness”. 
According to the HRLRC, “there is substantial evidence from across
Australia that access to adequate mental health care in prisons is manifestly
inadequate, that the mentally ill in prison are often ‘managed’ by segregation,
and that such confinement — often for very long periods — can seriously
exacerbate mental illness and cause significant psychological harm”. In her
1998 essay, Davis noted that “while government-run prisons are often in gross
violation of international human rights standards, private prisons are even
less accountable”.  Private prison
operators will often seek to cut costs by reducing the health and living
conditions of prisoners. 


In response to the NSW Labor government’s announcement on
its plans to privatise  the operation of
the Parklea and Cessnock prisons, prison guards have mounted a “community
campaign” to stop the privatisation and save their jobs. As a result of the
campaign, Premier Nathan Rees has announced that the government would not
privatise the Cessnock prison but would still move to privatise Parklea. While
this is a partial victory in the anti-privatisation campaign and for prisoner
rights, some in the broader labour and socialist movement are confused about
the role of prison guards under the capitalist system, seeing them as no
different to any other workers in capitalist society.


This, however, is dangerously mistaken. As Frederick Engels
observed in his 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the
State, prisons and prison guards are part of the capitalist state machinery
aimed at keeping the class struggle within specific boundaries in order to
facilitate the continued domination of the capitalist class over the working
class. Prison guards, like the police force, are therefore not part of the
working class, but hired agents of the capitalist ruling class.


Laborite view


The idea that the police and prison guards are no different
from any other worker is a reflection of the dominance of the
class-collaborationist politics of the ALP within the broader labour movement.
This view is based on an ideology that does not recognise that there is an
irreconcilable antagonism of interests between the working class on the one
hand and the capitalists and their agents on the other. Flowing from this, the
Laborites accept the liberal-capitalist myth that the capitalist prison system
is a “public service” whose primary role is to “rehabilitate” people convicted
of breaking the (capitalist rulers’) laws. This liberal-capitalist view is
reflected in the official name for the capitalist prison system — “Corrective
Services”, even though less than 1% of what is spent by governments across
Australia on this system is devoted to prisoner “rehabilitation” programs.


The Laborites view trade unions not as organisations to
fight to liberate the working class from capitalist exploitation, but to
bargain with employers over the terms of the capitalists’ exploitation of
workers, through negotiations over industrial relations laws, wages and working
hours and conditions. Flowing from that view, the Laborite union officialdom
has welcomed prison guards into the state-based public service unions. But when
workers take strike action against their employers, the police and prison
guards are there to weaken or break such action by arresting and jailing the
strikers and their union leaders, never to act in solidarity with them against
the employers.


While it is understandable that the Laborites view the role
of prisons and prison guards under capitalism as class-neutral, one wouldn’t
expect this to be the case with those who regard themselves as revolutionary
socialists. However, the Laborite view that prison guards are part of the
working class has been propagated by both the Communist Party of Australia
(CPA) and the Socialist Alliance (SA). In the August 5 article in the CPA’s
Guardian weekly, Len Waster argued that the anti-privatisation campaign by
prison guards was part of the growing “worker’s resistance” to the Rees
government’s neoliberal agenda. According to Waster, “for the first time ever,
prison officers and prisoners are on the same side. Privatisation threatens
prison officers with loss of conditions and job security, while prisoners face
the prospect of being slave labour for the profit of multinational


In a range of material published over the last six months in
Green Left Weekly and on the Socialist Alliance website, SA members have
presented the same view. Thus, according to SA national executive member Peter
Boyle, writing in the August 9 edition of GLW, “rank-and-file prison workers,
who rallied in Sydney on August 6 against the planned privatisation of Parklea
prison by the NSW Labor government, had given up on the ALP”. Boyle, who is
also the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP),
which claims to be a “Marxist tendency” in the SA, praised the prison guards’
campaign as a sign of “workers” wanting a political alternative to the ALP.


SA leaders have also been peddling the liberal-capitalist
myth that the capitalist state’s prison system is a class-neutral public
service that can be reformed to meet the basic human rights of prisoners. Thus,
in GLW’s June 21 “Our Common Cause” column, Sanna Andrews and SA national
convener Dick Nichols, who is also a DSP national executive member, argued that
the key to stopping Indigenous deaths in custody isn’t doing away with the
racist capitalist prison system, but to “reform” this system by changing “the
underlying goals of the system and its management culture”. The “basis for
serious prison reform”, argued Andrews and Nichols, “starts with prison
officers, prisoners and concerned citizens strengthening the alliance to stop
prison privatisation”. What Andrews and Nichols ignore, however, is that most
Indigenous prisoners have died in the custody of the police or in
government-run prisons.


In a 2003 speech, Angela Davis noted that it was essential
to make a “distinction between transforming living and working conditions of
prisoners as human beings, and reforming the prison for the sake of creating a
superior and more effective apparatus of punishment”. She noted while human
rights activists should “make demands that will make life more liveable for
[prisoners] while they’re inside”, it was crucial to recognise that “those
demands don’t have to be linked to a project to create better prisons. They can
be linked to a project to abolish prisons” and the capitalist profit system
that needs them. In addition, she argued that that the role of the workers’
movement should be to defend the human rights of prisoners, both in state-run
and privatised prisons. Socialists should oppose prison privatisation because
it can worsen the conditions of prisoners, not because of its possible impact
on the employment conditions of the capitalist government’s prison guards, the
capitalist rulers’ hired agents.

[Kim Bullimore is an Aboriginal activist who has been involved for more than 12

years in anti-racism and Indigenous rights campaigning. She is a member of the

Revolutionary Socialist Party.]

From: Direct Action Issue # 15, September 2009

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