Australia’s Prison Privitisation Project

The size of Australia’s privately managed prison sector has increased dramatically. In 1990, Australia’s first private prison, the Borallon Correctional Centre in Queensland was opened. Following the opening of this facility, the country’s rate of incarceration increased substantially, which has contributed to Australia becoming the nation with the largest proportion of privately managed prisoners in the world [1]. In fact, out of a possible 43,000 prisoners, over 8,000 are private prisoners spread across the country’s ten different private prison facilities [2]. This privatisation project operates under the contention that private prisons provide greater performance, stronger accountability, lower cost, and better efficiency than public facilities [3]. It has also been rationalised by the ex-NSW Corrective Services Commissioner as creating “indirect competition”, where private and public facilities are, “learning from each other” [4].

However, the ability to assess these claims is impeded by a lack of public information on private prison facilities and the outcomes they produce. This lack of public knowledge is exacerbated by commercial-in-confidence clauses that obscure the operations of the prisons and prevent public knowledge of any contractual violations [5] [6]. In response to this lack of transparency, University of Sydney Associate Professor Jane Andrew stated: “If governments are going to claim that private prisons offer better and more cost-effective services there needs to be evidence of that” [7].

Perhaps even more concerning is how the private system can circumvent government oversight. A 2018 commission report revealed Queensland Correctional Services’ limited ability to monitor private contracts and the limited influence of the Ethical Standards Unit on private prisons [8]. This in turn raises serious concerns regarding the ability of the state to oversee and ensure humane treatment of prisoners in privately-operated facilities. Moreover, the limited oversight is reinforced by extensive documentation that details human rights abuses in Australian private prisons. This includes a lack of access to health and social services, a disproportionate number of deaths for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in custody, incidents of physical and sexual abuse, low-waged prison labour, and unwarranted solitary confinement [9].

In addition, staff shortages are a prominent issue within private prison facilities. In the privately-run Clarence Correctional Centre, workers are given a “paltry pay rate” leading to staff shortages and a high turnover [10]. This problem of insufficient staff also extends to the Parklea Correctional Centre with one worker disclosing that they were “left with as little as three officers for almost one thousand inmates” [11].

Beyond the poor treatment of staff and prisoners, reports reveal the failure of private prisons to meet certain expectations. Evidence suggests that private prisons have failed to reduce recidivism and are also less cost-effective than their public counterparts [12]. In fact, recidivism rates have increased as has the annual expenditure per prisoner in Victoria [13]. Not to mention the potential costliness of private prisoners is concealed by the fact that the state takes on much of the costs that could be borne by the private facilities, effectively obscuring data related to how much these facilities actually cost to run [14].

In response to many of the aforementioned issues, Queensland decided to end its private jails experiment in 2019. Corrective Services Minister, Mark Ryan, said shutting the facilities would “strengthen corruption resistance in Queensland prisons…,” and, “lead to greater safety” [15].

Australia’s failed prison privatisation project consolidates the view that public services should not always be handed over to for-profit organisations, particularly when these services relate to individual liberty. The reason behind these suboptimal outcomes of public sector privatisation can in part be attributed to an established conflict of interest. This arises because the primary objective of private firms is to maximise profit. As such, cost cuttings may occur in areas of business that are deemed ‘unnecessary’. However, these so-called ‘unnecessary’ areas may have substantial social value when it pertains to the protection of human rights as well as adequate staffing to ensure the safety and wellbeing of inmates and workers. Additionally, College of Medicine and Public Health Associate Professor, Samantha Battams, explains that “private providers are being made responsible for recidivism outcomes despite the fact, they may also retain incentives to keep people within prisons” [16].

By permitting a system that exchanges people’s freedom for profit – a system that has repeatedly proven ineffective in achieving its original goals – we have so far seen human rights abuses, rising recidivism, falling standards and increased secrecy. Instead, the government could circumvent these outcomes by reallocating funding to primary prevention strategies and revaluate its prison privatisation project.


[1] O’Neill D, Sands V, and Hodge G (2019) Victoria’s prison system: rising costs and population, little accountability, Monash Lens, accessed 1 April 2022. https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2019/06/28/1375605/victorias-prison-system-rising-costs-and-population-little-accountability

[2] Butler D (2021) Prisons for profit: The business of incarceration, SBS, accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2021/08/27/prisons-profit-business-incarceration

[3]Andrew J, Baker M, Roberts P (2016) Prison Privatisation in Australia: The State of the Nation, The University of Sydney, accessed 1 April 2022. http://www.antoniocasella.eu/nume/Andrew_2016.pdf

[4] SBS News (n.d.) Inside Parklea: The deadly consequences of Australia’s private prison boom [online video], accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/video/inside-parklea-the-deadly-consequences-of-australias-private-prison-boom/fa98wk8hn?/?cid=thefeed:search:gg:en:NACADigital:dsa:db&gclid=Cj0KCQjw3IqSBhCoARIsAMBkTb2a-Ft0bEuzJYyLs0TMWNML5G_EFicKB5Y0LgQULGERN4k7lZYJg_IaAvxaEALw_wcB

[5] O’Neill D, Sands V, and Hodge G (2019) Victoria’s prison system: rising costs and population, little accountability, Monash Lens, accessed 1 April 2022. https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2019/06/28/1375605/victorias-prison-system-rising-costs-and-population-little-accountability

[6]University of Syndey Business School (2019) Accounting research raises doubts about prison privatisation, The University of Sydney, accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.sydney.edu.au/business/news-and-events/news/2019/04/08/holding-private-prisons-to-account.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission (2018) Taskforce Flaxton: An examination of corruption risks and corruption in Queensland prisons, accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.ccc.qld.gov.au/sites/default/files/Docs/Public-Hearings/Flaxton/Taskforce-Flaxton-An-examination-of-corruption-risks-and-corruption-in-qld-prisons-Report-2018.pdf

[9] The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (2020) Private Prisons, Immigration Detention and COVID-19, accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.accr.org.au/news/private-prisons-immigration-detention-and-covid-19/

[10] White L (2021) Union calling for better pay, conditions for prison staff at Clarence Correctional Centre, ABC News, accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-16/clarence-jail-pay-dispute-grafton/100296460

[11] SBS News (n.d.) Inside Parklea: The deadly consequences of Australia’s private prison boom [online video], accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/video/inside-parklea-the-deadly-consequences-of-australias-private-prison-boom/fa98wk8hn?/?cid=thefeed:search:gg:en:NACADigital:dsa:db&gclid=Cj0KCQjw3IqSBhCoARIsAMBkTb2a-Ft0bEuzJYyLs0TMWNML5G_EFicKB5Y0LgQULGERN4k7lZYJg_IaAvxaEALw_wcB

[12] O’Neill D, Sands V, and Hodge G (2019) Victoria’s prison system: rising costs and population, little accountability, Monash Lens, accessed 1 April 2022. https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2019/06/28/1375605/victorias-prison-system-rising-costs-and-population-little-accountability

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Australian Associated Press (2019) Queensland to end private jails experiment after scathing report, The Guardian, accessed 1 April 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/26/queensland-to-end-private-jails-experiment-after-scathing-report

[16] Newsdeck (2021) Privatisation of Australian prisons, Flinders University, accessed 1 April 2022. https://news.flinders.edu.au/blog/2021/06/28/privatisation-of-australian-prisons/