What privatisation does to the prisoner’s soul

The rise of privatised detention centres and prisons globally is an issue that receives far too little scrutiny in the media (yesterday’s Al Jazeera’s The Stream was a notable exception). The profit motive inevitably skews priorities.

Here’s a great piece from this week’s New York Times by Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen that asks the necessary questions:

Immigration… control has traditionally been viewed as an inalienable sovereign function of the state. But today migration management has increasingly been taken over by private contractors. Proponents of privatization have been keen to argue that the use of contractors does not mean that governments lose control. Yet, privatization introduces a corporate veil that blurs both public oversight and legal accountability.

Despite efforts to introduce outside supervisors, performance reports and other monitoring mechanisms, the private nature of these companies breaks the ordinary administrative chain of command, placing both governments and the public at a disadvantage in terms of ensuring transparency.

Private companies seldom have an interest in securing public oversight, as any criticism may entail negative economic consequences. Australasian Correctional Management, which ran detention centers in Australia from 1998 to 2004, was known to require medical staff members or teachers entering its facilities to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from disclosing any information regarding detainees or the administration of the centers. Being foreigners, migrants and refugees have always had a hard time gaining access to outside complaint mechanisms and advocacy institutions. As an employee in charge of reviewing disciplinary cases at a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Houston once told a reporter from this paper, “I’m the Supreme Court.”

The corporate veil also distorts lines of legal responsibility. Human rights law is largely designed on the presumption that it is states and not private companies that exercise sovereign powers like detention or border control. Legally holding governments accountable for human rights violations by contractors requires an additional step showing that it is the state and not just the corporation or individual employee that is responsible for the misconduct.

As the world’s largest security company with more than 650,000 employees, G4S is involved in a plethora of migration functions all over the world, from operating immigration detention centers in Britain to carrying out passenger screening at airports in Europe, Canada and the Middle East. In America, G4S operates a fleet of custom-built fortified buses that serve as deportation transports for illegal migrants caught along the United States-Mexico border. Just last month, the U.K. Border Agency signed a new contract with G4S worth up to $337 million to house asylum seekers.

G4S’s success in this market shows that deportation, detention and border control have become big business. Boeing’s current contract to set up and operate a high-tech border surveillance system along the United States-Mexico border is worth $1.3 billion and involves nearly 100 subcontractors. The Florida-based… Geo Group… — one of G4S’s main competitors — manages 7,000 detention beds in the United States and, until recently, at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, where migrants intercepted in the Caribbean are transferred. N.G.O.s and international organizations profit, too. In 2010, the International Organization for Migration was paid $265 million to assist governments in returning migrants to their home countries, among other activities.

The migration control industry covers not only detention and deportations but also border control. Many airlines today employ former immigration officers or themselves contract security companies to perform the document, forgery and profiling checks required by destination states. In Israel, the West Bank checkpoints are gradually being transferred to private security companies.