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Prisons: It’s not just public vs private

19 July 2017

News and media


Gary Sturgess

There has been a lot of talk in the past week about prison privatisation. This was sparked by dramatic footage out of Parklea Correctional Centre of an inmate filming contraband he claimed had been smuggled in by officers.

This was, of course, shocking to the public and prompted a quick response from Corrective Services (CSNSW), which ordered a public prison governor and team to review Parklea’s operations. This video won’t have come as a shock to any of the state’s prison officers. They are aware of the constant battle to keep contraband out of prisons. They know that, despite their best efforts, sometimes they fail.

What may surprise the public is that in NSW, we don’t have (and have never had) clear and consistent measures of how each prison is performing in controlling contraband, drug use, or a range of other factors critical to a centre’s safety and security.

This was highlighted by the Auditor-General last year: “CSNSW did not set clear KPIs or targets for public correctional centre general managers. As a result, general managers were unclear about … expectations, individual centre performance could not be assessed, and it is difficult to vary performance expectations in response to changing operating environments.”

That’s why the NSW government has introduced a program of benchmarking. Under benchmarking, for the first time, all prisons – public and private – will have clear and consistent performance standards by which they are measured.

Along with presence of contraband and illicit drug use by inmates, prisons will be measured on assaults, self-harm and time-out-of-cell and programs for inmates. For the first time, the results of individual prisons will be published.

This will create an accountability similar to that which applies to the NSW Police.

Consultation is under way with local managers and staff to ensure that each prison will be resourced according to inmate numbers, security classification and operations, to achieve the desired outcomes.

This resourcing, which includes staffing, is primarily based on examples of best operational practice that already occur within public centres across NSW, with limited reference to the management structures used in private and interstate public prisons.

Importantly, CSNSW is asking local management and staff to bring forward their ideas about how they might improve practices, based on their own knowledge and experience of their centre. Benchmarking will allow CSNSW to identify which prisons are doing well and where they need improvement.

The ultimate point of these reforms is a stronger prison system focused on better outcomes and value for money. That seems a reasonable expectation. This is not a race to the bottom in cost or quality. To the contrary, the managers of the NSW correctional system are being challenged to deliver prison services that are demonstrably safer, more secure and more humane than in the past. To support that, there is unprecedented investment by government into new prison infrastructure ($3.8 billion over four years) and a $237 million investment over four years to improve programs and interventions with offenders, to stop them reoffending.

A large chunk of that money will go into hiring more prison officers and programs staff.

This is no doubt a challenging reform for the oldest public service in Australia – the NSW prison system. It is encouraging that the improvement agenda has been adopted by the first prisons to undergo benchmarking, and also by staff at John Morony Correctional Centre which has recently undergone market testing.

Market testing is an alternative to benchmarking where a prison is exposed to competition to encourage innovation and improvement. Some expected that the right to manage John Morony would go to a private provider, but the government recently announced that the in-house team was the preferred bidder.

Final negotiations are still under way, but there has been overwhelming support from the rank-and-file, many of whom have welcomed the opportunity to prove that they can run a quality, cost-effective and accountable prison.

Author Gary Sturgess is an ANZSOG Faculty member and chairs an interdepartmental committee advising the NSW government on the reform of prisons. This article was originally published on The Daily Telegraph.