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Friday 17 August 2018
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Commentary

No privatisation of local prisons

LEELA RAMDEEN

IT IS WITH great sadness that the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) noted the suggestion made by former national security minister Gary Griffith in the January 26 Newsday.

As reported, during a discussion on ISAAC 98.1 FM, titled Looking for Solutions, on January 24, and in light of the video on social media showing some local prison officers wearing ski masks beating restrained prisoners, he suggested that TT should “look at the possibility of privatised prisons.”

Inter alia, he said: “…it is important to look at systems. Sometimes it involves privatisation, to make sure there are checks and balances to ensure accountability in different arms of the protective services” and measurement of performance by having a private entity within the prison system to monitor. “There is no one there to guard the guards.”

Instead of going down that road, let’s accept the challenge of transforming failing institutions rather than dodging the issues. The CCSJ is aware that a number of countries have private prisons or for-profit prisons. This is a very controversial issue.

Reports such as the Office of the Inspector General, US Department of Justice’s “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons — Evaluation and Inspections Division, August 2016,” highlight some key concerns.

This 2016 audit led the Obama administration to make a policy shift to phase out work with private prisons at the federal level. The audit “found that federal ‘contract’ prisons had more safety and security incidents than comparable government-run prisons.”

In February 2017, United States AG Jeff Sessions reversed this directive. The Sentencing Project states: “The reversal took place despite significant declines in the federal prison population and a scathing report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General” (referred to above).

According to Catholic social teaching, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person are the foundation of the moral vision of a society. We must avoid viewing offenders/prisoners as commodities. Much has been written on this issue, eg see Alex Friedmann’s “Prisoners as commodities: Moral and ethical objections to private prisons,” and Eric Markowitz’s: “Making profits on the captive prison market.”

Martin Schwartz’s paper (George Washington University) on this issue is instructive. He says: “…inmates once completely devalued as social junk are being valued as commodities to be sought after.” His paper discusses a series of issues around private prisons and concentrates on construction, operating costs, accountability and broader ethical questions.

The American Civil Liberties Union states in its document “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration”: “Leading private prison companies essentially admit that their business model depends on high rates of incarceration … As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, holding ever more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profit … The claim that prison privatisation demonstrably reduces costs and trims government budgets may detract from the critical work of reducing the state’s prison population.”

The 2012 UNDP report, “Human development and the shift to better citizen security,” rightly states that Trinidad and Tobago needs a better balance between legitimate law enforcement and prevention, with an emphasis on prevention. These strategies can contribute to a safer and more democratic/just society in the region. Where are our prevention strategies?

Pope Francis constantly urges us to reject the “throwaway” culture that exists today. As the UK Catholic Herald states: “Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has pressed for better prison conditions and the need for rehabilitation of inmates … in January 2017, he said that penitentiary conditions must be ‘worthy of human persons.’

He renewed his appeal so that prisons would be ‘places of re-education’ and ‘not overcrowded but places for reinsertion’ in society after sentences are served … Christ comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change.”

Leela Ramdeen is the chair of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice.

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