Debate needed over private prisons

malcolm-feeley-2More public debate is required over the increasing role that private contractors play in operating prisons and detention centres in the United States and Australia, according to Professor Malcolm Feeley (pictured), a distinguished American scholar who has just joined Flinders University.

Professor Feeley, who lectures and researches in the Law School at the University of California at Berkeley, is the second occupant of the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Political Science and will spend the next six months at Flinders. During his stay he expects to examine the development of private prisons in Australia.

Professor Feeley said he was not categorically opposed to privatisation but thinks that the social implications of the private sector taking over a ‘core’ role of the state requires greater scrutiny.

“One remains sceptical of this development, but I’m not categorically opposed to the idea of private contracting,” Professor Feeley told Flinders Indaily.

“However, I am categorically opposed to the idea that private contractors come in and develop new institutions of social control, and widen the net of social control, all without public scrutiny and debate.

“I suspect private prisons might be more efficient that state-operated institutions but it’s not clear to me that we want to subject more people to official social control.”

Professor Feeley drew on the eighteenth century experiences of the English legal and prison system to argue that the entrepreneurship of the private sector “increases the capacity of the state to punish”.

“The transportation of felons from England to North America was created and run by private contractors at very little cost to the state. Shippers who were taking cotton and tobacco from the mid-Atlantic states in the US to England needed ballast for the return journey,” Professor Feeley said.

“They also realised that there was a labour shortage in North America and a law and order crisis in England and Ireland. So they took, at very low cost to the state, convicted felons to North America and sold them. They made money by selling felons who were effectively slaves.

“This scenario greatly increased the English state’s capacity to punish in an era before prisons and had an upstream effect on other institutions in the criminal process – law enforcement, the police and the courts. They had to become as efficient as the punishment system.”

“Privately run punishment was a major innovation in the criminal process in England in the eighteenth century that vastly expanded the numbers subject to the criminal sanction. It held true then, and probably holds true now – which is what led me to start looking at our contemporary institutions.”

Professor Feeley said discussing the Australian experience with academics and state officials in South Australia and interstate, and possibly visiting some prisons, would be one focus of his work at Flinders.

Flinders University’s long-standing strength in the teaching and researching of US politics – including an innovative annual internship scheme where students work in the Congress building in Washington DC –  saw the University awarded the Distinguished Chair in American Political Science by the Australian-American Fulbright Commission for 2011-2015.

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