Prison Inc.? An Illusionary Response

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

black-men-jailIn the last few years, many Latin American countries face a dilemma – imported from Western countries – of conceding some if not all of its penitentiary services to large national and/or international companies.  Such a step calls into question whether or not the State should hand over legal authority, including the duty of sanctioning, guarding and rehabilitating the offenders.

The privatization of prisons has already been adopted in Chile and Colombia, and now a proposal has emerged in Peru; all are countries that have faced the end of the welfare State through the neoliberal paradigm, through which these countries have proposed outsourcing: (i) the construction of prisons, (ii) the provision of certain services like internal/external security or, (iii) the provision of meals.  Some analysts call this the “commercialization of crime.”

In the first cases, there has already been privatization of prisons, at the expense of the increase in the price of food per prisoner. In Peru, in 2008, a commission in charge of studying the issue was created, composed of some people in defense of the privatization of the State, which led to the resignation of the Director of the National Penitentiary Institute (INPE), General Gustavo Carrion. Now, the Minister of Justice is again insisting on the privatization of  certain penitentiary centers. Recently, the Justice Commission of Peru’s Congress announced the presentation of this privatization commission (in the hands of Gonzalo Priale), and Minister Rosario Fernandez announced the evaluation of the privatization of the whole penitentiary system.

Thereafter, the Minister of Justice signed an agreement with PRO INVERSION (Pro Investment), the Peruvian agency in charge of promoting investments. In April 2010, a document was approved concerning the process of the concession of the construction, management and use of a minimal security prison (11.5 hectares for 1,536 prisoners) in Aucayama, Huaral, three hours north of Lima. What’s interesting is that in addition to the construction and operation of such a center, the concession holder is authorized to construct and operate a factory, like an independent business with prisoners’ labour, but without complying with labor legislation. In December of this year, the concession will be awarded to the winner of the tender.

With this measure, the Peruvian State attempts to not only face the huge infrastructure requirements but also to somewhat reduce the historic overcrowding/overpopulation of prisons. With the pretext of efficiency by using this “escape valve”, it attempts to respond to the huge demand of society for more security based on the risk of criminal sanction, reclusion and punishment. However, are rehabilitation and profit contradictory?

There is the issue of the efficiency of penitentiary policy; in other words, the greater costs that a private business replacing the State would cause and what is the consequence of that? It is the typical tension between the punitive and the productive. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, the need to reduce costs can lead to the decrease of medical, security or feeding services of the prisoners by the concessionaire.

Then there are the moral questions. Is it valid to generate profit through the management of a punitive sanction? Replacing a criminal policy of crime prevention for the simple construction of more human storage (for poor, marginalized individuals, many without sentences) is not satisfactory. Is it not an essential duty of the State to achieve and look after the recuperation of offending citizens? Another argument against this policy is the incidents in the United States where there have been corruption cases that involve penitentiary authorities. We will be closely monitoring this complex and doubtful process of privatizing social control in Peru.