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OP-ED: Could prisons be run by the private sector?

  • Published at 11:21 pm September 1st, 2020
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Photo: BIGSTOCK

Private prisons may run profits, but the question of morality remains

Prisoners in Bangladesh live in appalling conditions. In the 68 incarceration institutions spread across the country, prisoners live in tightly cramped spaces with minimal hygiene and humanitarian standards. With the prison population gradually increasing every year, the current number of prisoners being housed in jails across Bangladesh is 88,084 (up to February 2020, as per World Prison Brief).  

Despite that staggering number of prisoners, increased by nearly 20,000 in 20 years, experts believe it will continue to increase. The official capacity, as per World Prison Brief, of the Bangladeshi prison system is only 40,944. Therefore, our incarceration capacity has been exceeded by a massive 115.1% -- leaving the occupancy level at 215.1%.

At a time when the world is sitting idle in fear of the deadly virus that has been haunting mankind for months now, the conditions inside the prisons have become more alarming than ever before. Although thousands of prisoners, juvenile delinquents among them, have been granted bail due to the pandemic, the number is insignificant when held in comparison with the number of convicts still detained. 

Keeping in consideration the desperation of the time, we must work towards providing a sustainable solution in order to address the growing concern over the alarming occupancy level at our public prison facilities. 

A model opted for by numerous countries around the world, with a focus on ascertaining better conditions for the detainees, was shifting towards a for-profit prison system, better known as private prisons. Among the countries that are using this model are Canada, France, the US, New Zealand, the UK, and Brazil.

Unlike public prisons, which are naturally non-profit and operated by an agency of the government, private prisons are operated by corporations. Due to which, it becomes imperative for these privately run institutions to be turning a profit, as otherwise the entire business model would cease to exist. So, how do private prisons profit from housing prisoners of the government and can they truly provide a better human rights standard while doing so? 

First of all, all private prisons, based on the number of occupants, size, and capacity of facility, operating costs, etc, receive a stipend from the government. Suppose the government agrees on a deal with a private prison corporation to pay Tk200 a day for every prisoner at their facility. 

Those operating the facility can then devise a method where the maintenance cost for each prisoner will be Tk150 per day, saving Tk50 per prisoner daily. Therefore, if there were 2,000 prisoners in the aforementioned facility, the corporation will earn Tk50 a day for every one of the inmates they are housing, making a profit of Tk30 lakh per month.

This might raise the question: “Would that decision not further burden the tax-payers and result in a loss for the government?” No. Although the government is paying Tk200 per inmate, the cost of having to maintain the facility as well as house them would be significantly more. As a result, from an economic perspective, it is surely a viable option.

In addition to the economic upside, there are other benefits of shifting a number of prisoners to private facilities. For example, these new private prison facilities will require large numbers of employees, creating employment opportunities for those within the locality of the facility. 

Due to the dispersion in the number of detainees housed in public facilities, they will be living in considerably better conditions, eating better food, and are most likely to experience a general improvement in their conditions as opposed to before.   

Another form of income by private prisons is through labour. This model operates by making the detainees work long hours with bare-minimum pay. Due to being imprisoned, the labour rights of the prisoners are suspended. As a result, private prison corporations can utilize this to the greatest extent and generate a hefty profit from it. 

This model, despite its certain benefits, can also be quite problematic and immoral. For example, without adequate governmental supervision, the state in which the detainees are kept is bound to be compromised. Additionally, studies suggest private prisons tend to avoid prisoners that are high-maintenance, leaving it to the government to take care of those they do not deem fit to be incarcerated in their facility. 

Also, the profitability of these institutions is highly dependent on the provisions of the contract. If not favourable, it may end up costing the government and subsequently the tax-payers more than it was meant to save. 

Making inmates work grueling hours for minimum pay is also seen as immoral, and subsequently one of the key reasons the private prison model is often condemned around the globe. 

Lastly, the question of immorality lingers when discussing the potential implementation of the private prison model. Should one person be allowed to profit from the loss of liberty of another? 

Wasif Jamal Khan is President, Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA).

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