/ 4 April 2023

Prisons, profits and privatisation’s perils

Mangaung Correctional Centre

Over the past couple of weeks, the Thabo Bester saga, brilliantly reported on by GroundUp, has captured the nation’s attention. Adding to the intrigue, the revelations not only expose Bester’s audacity — as the convicted murderer and rapist successfully took almost everyone for a ride — but the grave failures of a system that ought not be messed with.

In the simplest, and most benign view, prisons serve to protect people from those currently deemed a danger to society. They are also meant to protect the people kept inside them, though, as Michel Foucault has proposed, the view that prisons also exist to mete out punishment has tended to muddy the water.

Multiple reports suggest that G4S, the private security company that was in charge of running the Mangaung Correctional Centre from which Bester escaped, failed to fulfil both of these mandates. 

Last week, the national commissioner of correctional services, Makgothi Thobakgale, announced that a temporary manager had been appointed to take control of Mangaung prison from G4S. An investigation by the Department of Correctional Services found that Bester was assisted in his escape and that the facility’s security system had been compromised. 

“This is a necessary remedy following this embarrassing incident which has undermined the authority of the state,” Thobakgale reportedly told press during a media briefing.

But the authority of the state was undermined in the first place when it ceded some of its responsibilities to the private sector, expecting that it would act like any government should — in the interests of the public. If the state hopes to avoid future embarrassment, or far worse, it ought to do what it can to avoid privatisation.

In a 2013 right-of-reply article, published by the Mail & Guardian, Andy Baker, then the regional president of G4S Africa, boasted about the British multinational’s successes at Mangaung, the second-largest private prison in the world.

Baker wrote the article amid damning allegations about G4S and the firm’s conduct at Mangaung prison, also published by the M&G. Inmates were allegedly drugged, shocked and tortured by G4S staff when they refused to comply with their orders.

The prison, Baker said, was “an excellent example of a public-private partnership”. This was despite the fact that, weeks earlier, the Department of Correctional Services had assumed command after having established that the management had lost “effective control over the prison” following spate of stabbings, riots, strikes and hostage taking.

Not long after Baker put out his view, then minister of correctional services Sibusiso Ndebele told parliament that privately-run prisons in South Africa were failing.

The idea of having public-private partnerships for prisons, Ndebele said, had good intentions behind it, however, the experiment was obviously failing. “It’s a good intention. It’s one of those experiments that we wanted to say ‘in 20 years, this is what we experimented on,’” he said.

“It’s one of the attempts that we did and other countries are coming to the same conclusion that we are coming to — that it doesn’t work very well.” 

The department has two 25-year contracts with G4S, one for the Mangaung prison and the other for the Kutama Sinthumule Correctional Centre in Louis Trichardt, Limpopo, which commenced in July 2001 and February 2002, respectively. 

When Ndebele appeared before parliament in November 2013, with about 14 years to go before the end of the two contracts, the annual cost of the two facilities was R800 million. 

South Africa’s “experiment” with privatising parts of the country’s prison system was not without precedent. 

In the early 1990s, the UK government had the private sector step in due to overcrowding. G4S runs a handful of those private prisons. In 2018, the UK government had to take over the running of HMP Birmingham prison from G4S after discovering its squalid conditions. 

The US, which is known for having the highest prison rate in the world, has a long history with profit-making prisons, though it was only in the 1970s that private companies began assuming and expanding control of correctional service facilities.

In 2001, according to a paper by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, an agency within the US department of justice, there were 184 privately-operated correctional facilities worldwide and 158 of those were in the US. 

Between 1985 and 1997, the US prison population ballooned from nearly 750 000 to more than 1.7 million. In 1997, close to half of all inmates were black.

In a 1998 article for The Atlantic, American journalist Eric Schlosser wrote: “The prison-industrial complex is not only a set of interest groups and institutions. It is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation’s criminal justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive for higher profits.”

A lot can go wrong when a public service becomes a profit-making enterprise. The private sector’s involvement in the prison system has put inmates — people — in terrible, maddening danger, their rights infringed upon in the name of keeping the cogs of these money-making machines turning.

For some, it might be easy to dismiss the privatisation of the prison system as a necessary evil and something that only hurts those deemed deserving of punishment. 

If that is the prevailing view, God help us. But it might also be helpful for those people to consider how privatisation stands to affect them, and us all, by putting a higher price tag on services that ought to be accessed at an affordable rate or for free. 

When the government allows this to happen — to the cost of quality education and healthcare, to reliable electricity — it is effectively signing off on an even more unequal society in which the private sector gets to determine the threshold at which people are deserving. 

The ultimate price of this is something I think most would rather avoid.