Marx & the Privatisation of Prisons in Australia

In this essay focus will be directed towards the emerging privatisation of the prison system in Australia. Utilising the works of Marx regarding economic exploitation, worker alienation, and class oppression, in addition to drawing upon relevant/recent data and information it will be shown how and it what ways cooperate profiteering from the incarceration of human beings has the potential to be profoundly problematic. More specifically, data and information will be provided as to the evolving nature and current state of prison privatisation with Australia. It will be argued and demonstrated how profit-driven privately managed prisons exploit operations in the pursuit of financial gain, and how such actions are to the detriment of staff, which inevitably impacts upon the welfare of inmates. Thus, what the following text aims to demonstrate is how the Australian private prison system functions from a Marxist perspective, and more generally how ideas/works of the past can relate to/help to better understand issues that face societies at present.

In 1990 Australia’s first private prison came into operation in Borallon Queensland. Since that time the privatisation of prisons within Australia has been steadily increasing, and are currently operational in 5 states throughout the nation. This is a direct result of the government’s desire for a reduction in public funding, what is refers to as “increased transparency”, as well as a belief that private cooperation’s, such as GEO Group, Serco and G4S, have the ability to run the facilities to a higher standard/level of efficiently than could be achieved by means available to and within the public sector (Queensland Government 2013, pp. 250-252), (NSW Legislative Council 2009, pp. 47-58), (Harding 1992), (Andrew, Baker & Roberts 2016). Moreover, at present within Australia there are 85 functioning prisons, 4 transitional centres, and 12 court cell complexes which are publicly funded, managed, and operated. However, in addition there are also 9 large facilities managed/operated by private cooperation’s, and more specifically managed by those private entities mentioned above (Productivity Commission 2016, p. 511-512: 8.4), (Andrew, Baker & Roberts 2016). Whilst this number may seem only slight, it is somewhat deceptive. Data indicates in 2016 private prisons within Australia detained approximately 18.3% of the incarcerated population, which equates to around 6400 individuals (Productivity Commission 2016, p. 512: 8.4). The end result of this progression towards a privatised correctional system in Australia could be compared to that in the US.

In America 10% of correctional institutions (steadily growing) are operated by for-profit organisations, which economically benefit from inmate labour. Data shows there has been a sharp rise of privately operated facilities upwards of 1600% since 1990 within the US. This is said to far outpace the growth of public operated facilities (Brickner & Diaz 2011) (Mcelroy 2014, p.14), (Lipton, B 2017), (Lima 2017), (CoreCivic 2017). Davis mentions ‘The global prison economy is indisputably dominated by the United States. This economy consists of the products, services, and ideas that are directly marketed to other governments, but it also exercises an enormous influence over the development of the style of punishment throughout the world’ (2003, p. 100). It is important to note however, that whilst private cooperation’s do indeed make large profits from prisons in Australia, unlike the US, legislation in Australia prevents said organizations from making additional profit from inmate labor outside of what was agreed upon under contract, as the facility is still owned by the state. Within Australia for example, a private cooperation may bid on a contract offered by government, and any profit thereafter made from inmate production/exchange for instance is directed to relevant government correctional bodies, the prison itself, and inmates (to a very limited extent) (Correctional Services Act 1982).

Specific information regarding profiteering seems to be somewhat guarded, however from the information available to the public it is clear the incarceration of human beings is undeniably a profitable business. Indeed, incarceration is a business (Andrew, Baker & Roberts 2016, p. 1-2, 4 & 6), (Andrew 2007, p. 888), (Davis 2003), (Brown 2013). One could state that attempting to profit from such institutions leads to all manner of consequences.

Within a capitalist economy, the accumulation of capital is paramount for an organisation to achieve and maintain levels of success (growth). Moreover and to put it succinctly, capitalist economies operate on production and exchange/supply and demand, organised, operated, and controlled by private entities (to a certain degree: depending on a nations regulation). In regards to the privatisation of prisons in Australia, private cooperation’s produce a service (Commodity) for government, in exchange for a profit. For Marx, a commodity must hold some degree of use-value (Utility), in order to be required/wanted/needed (Marx 2011, pp. 27-28). In addition to an inherent use-value, a commodity also have an exchange-value, which determines the ratio to which said commodity can be exchanged for another commodity (eg Cost-Commodity exchanged for money). The exchange-value of a commodity derives from the amount of labour/labour-time/skill/technology/production-effectivness/science/environment put into manufacturing/creating/formulating/undertaking practices for the commodity (labour-input) (Marx 2011, pp. 29-30). Thus, the value of the commodity (on average) is determined by firstly its use-value (Utility), and secondly by the amount of labour that has gone into it (labour-input), relevant to and within its respective society (Marx 2011), (Price 2013).

In regards to private prisons services as commodities, and as mentioned previously their use-value derives predominantly from the cooperation’s ability to reduce costs for the government (primarily through reducing labour-input). For example, and generally speaking, a government may put up a contract for facility management based on a desire to reduce public spending. Motivated by bottom line profit, the cooperation then places a competitive bid on said contract, taking into account perspective costs (Price 2013, pp. 20-22), (Marx, K 1891). One could state that in a capitalist society it is the retention and accumulation of capital that is of the upmost importance for those in positions of power, both private as well as public.

In order for such entities to maximise profits, as is the agenda of many cooperation’s such as GEO Group, Serco and G4S, they must remain and aim to be as economically frugal as possible. One approach is to limit the cost of inputs, whilst attempting to preserve/maximise outputs (Decrease spending to increase profit margins). This can and is achieved by reducing the amount spent on labour-input. From data collected it is clear that prison staff are increasingly viewed as a cost to the privately operated system (Andrew, Baker, & Roberts 2016, p. 6). Thus, approaches to limiting inputs may include restraining staff wages, curbing training costs, coercing staff to work harder/faster/more efficiently, or cutting the amount of staff to a minimum, as is the case in privately operated Australian prisons, as which evidence suggests has a detrimental effect on prison staff, in addition to the operation/conditions of the facility itself, and thus inmates within (as will be discussed in the succeeding paragraphs) (CPSU 2017), (WAPOU 2017), (Alizzi, J 2012), (Crewe, Liebling & Hulley, 2011, pp. 95, 104-107 & 112), (Taylor & Cooper 2008, pp. 24-26), (Green et al 2014). For example, Crewe, Liebling & Hulley (2011), observed that although staff in private facilities may have sincere intentions, they are undermined by deficits in staffing levels (p. 104). Andrew, Baker, & Roberts (2016) state ‘Privatisation of prisons has had negative consequences for workers. New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia have all experienced problems at private prisons that are directly attributed to cuts in staffing levels’ (p. 5). Accordingly, as a result of the cooperation’s absolute desire to maximise its bottom line, it is human beings who must suffer the consequences. Chomsky mentions ‘A private corporation is not in the business of being humanitarian. It’s in the business of increasing profit and market share’ (1996, p. 120).

In many Western societies economic exploitation of working classes (Proletariat) by capitalist classes (Bourgeoisie/Petty-Bourgeoisie) is something all too common and largely, even if unconsciously accepted by populations (False Consciousness) (Marx & Engels 1998), (Price 2007, pp. 11-12). More specifically, this means a workers labour is exploited, in the sense that what she/he produces through labour (work/commodity) out-ways/out-values that of which she/he receives in compensation. Hypothetically, for example a prison guard may receive $30 an hour for labour, yet the work undertaken according to what the cooperation received from the government agreed upon in contract amounts to $100 an hour worth of labour (average value of labour-input). The prison guard never receives the full $100, as the remaining $70 (taking into account additional unavoidable operational costs) equates to profit for the cooperation (surplus-value), its operators and stakeholders (Marx, 2010, 19-20). The prison guard finds herself/himself in a situation where they are unjustly reciprocated for their efforts, and are thus devalued as human beings, exploited as workers, and unable to exercise the self-determination/agency/care that may be available to them if justly compensated. The cooperation (operators/stakeholders) on the other hand receive a tidy sum, to either reinvest into the cooperation or contribute to their already existing accumulation of capital, thus reinforcing their power, as well as the hierarchical and domineering system which aids them in their exploits of the working classes. The little evidence made available to the public regarding private prison contracts would suggest that cooperation’s do indeed run correctional facilities like any other business; exploiting the labour of workers, and being well compensated for it (Andrew, Baker & Roberts 2016), (Crewe, Liebling & Hulley, 2011), (Andrew 2007, pp. 890-892 & 898-900).

In capitalist economies, for the most part it could be said that workers such as prison staff find themselves somewhat coerced to work at the behest of self-reinforcing authority and economic extortion. Aside from the socialisation of individuals in capitalistic/consumer orientated societies (commodity fetishism etc), or what Gordon Comstock so eloquently referred to as ‘The blind worship of the Money-God’, it could be said that the coercion to undertake work (that is unfulfilling/unrewarding) is a result of the need to obtain money, so as to exchange for other needs, goods and services, such as food, water, shelter, transport, medical care, and leisure (McLeod 2016), (Orwell 1984, p. 57). Moreover and in addition, individuals find themselves coerced to undertake work for the capitalist class, as a result of having nothing to sell but their labour (including those who work directly for the economy ‘self-employed’), in addition to the elite’s monopoly, ownership, and management of factories, facilities, infrastructure, land, and as discussed even prisons. Marx referred to this as the ownership of The Means of Production (Marx & Engels 1998), (Krieken et al 2014, p. 205). The capitalist classes hold on the means is a result of pre-established/existing power, commodification, capital, bureaucracy, and aforementioned exploitation of the working class. For example, it is clear prison staff do not/cannot own or cooperatively self-manage the prison for which they undertake labour, but merely function within it for the capitalist class, in order to maintain a standard of living for themselves and possibly those of significance to them (eg loved ones). Consequently, by not having the means by which produce/trade commodities themselves, the workers may find themselves somewhat trapped in a self-reinforcing system that cannot function without them, yet never for them (Marx & Engels 1998). This was observed by Marx during the 18th century, in which agrarian societies moved from the countryside (feudal society: public land/exchange) and found themselves forced to work (capitalist society: alienating factories) in exchange for menial wages in order to survive in the developing economy (Marx & Engle’s 1998). In relation to the topic at hand one could state that the privatisation of prisons is not only exploitative of human beings through ownership of the means of production, but also offers very little transparency.

Transparency within such facilities is of the upmost importance, for the reason that operations/management must be held to a high degree of scrutiny and accountability (Andrew, Baker & Roberts 2016). Without public knowledge/participation in such matters the standard of operations/conditions/regulation has the potential to be deteriorate exponentially. The Alienation of prison staff could be one such result of such deterioration (Justice Action 2016, pp. 2-4). An Alienated staff may have negative effects, not only in regards to the ‘daily running’ of the facility, but in regards to inmate care, as a result of profit-driven private management.

When an individual is placed in a scenario in which conditions impact negatively upon the way they undertake and feel towards work and life the lead outside of work, they may find themselves with feelings of powerlessness, isolation, estrangement, or detachment. Working within in prisons can be highly stressful and guards especially do undergo feelings of normlessness, meaninglessness, social isolation, and self-estrangement (Kunst 2011), (Poole & Regoli 1981, pp. 254-259). Furthermore, within Australian private prison facility staff and their capabilities are put under much stress, strain, and hardship for a myriad of reasons respective to the specific facility and cooperation which manages it (Andrew, Baker, & Roberts 2016, pp. 4-6), (Crewe Liebling & Hulley 2011, p. 104). Such conditions can potentially lead individuals to care little for their work, due to a lack of reward, pleasure or fulfilment obtained from its undertaking. As stated quite powerfully by one prison guard ‘We are all doing time, some of us are just doing it in eight hour shifts’ (Poole & Regoli 1981, p. 268). Moreover, bad conditions may lead to a worker feeling detached from duties which they undertake. It could make them hostile to others, or most relevant to the topic at hand, poor working conditions have the potential to make an individual detached from that which makes them who they are; friend, mother, prison guard, human being (species being) (Marx 2004, pp. 33-35), (Mészáros 1970). For Marx, Alienation was very much a product of an individual’s function within/relationship to the political economy. As stated by Marx ‘Estranged labour turns thus: Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect’ (1932, p. 32). Alienation in this context is something that can ensure disastrous consequences, for the reason that the role (work) of prison staff is to maintain the discipline, safety, security, and care of inmates.

Moreover, if a society believes the isolation and incarceration of its fellow citizens a legitimate and effective means by which to rehabilitate, it is imperative that prison staff are well compensated (not exploited), function in a high standard of operation/conditions, have adequate resources (not Alienated/Under avoidable strain), so that they may achieve some degree of fulfilment, attachment, comradery, and empathy in order to ensure the well-being of those for whom they are responsible. Furthermore, the profit-driven privatisation of prisons in Australia should be approached and understood with degrees of caution and scepticism, as it is quite literally the lives of human beings that are being risked in the name of profit for an ‘elite’ few. The sheer existence of such facilities (private prisons) speaks to the climate of a contemporary capitalist society’s priorities, in regards to prioritising profit over people. Famously Dostoevsky (1862) stated that ‘The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons’. One could argue that unfortunately the point remains as salient now as when Fyodor had written it.

This text demonstrates how ideas/works from the past can assist/benefit understandings of issues faced by society in the contemporary era. From the evidence presented throughout this piece it should become clear that the profit-driven privatisation of prisons within Australia has potentially disastrous implications for those who function within, such as staff and inmates. It was demonstrated with the use of recent and reliable data the extent to which prison privatisation is manifesting in Australia. By drawing upon and utilising Marx’s work regarding economic exploitation, worker alienation, class oppression and relating it to prison work in privatised facilities, it should become clear in what ways problematic scenarios and issues can and do occur. In summary it was demonstrated how governments operating within and for capitalist economies, allow private cooperation’s to exploit operations and facilities for bottom line profit, at the expense of staff and inmates.




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