The companies who put foreigners in prison and make money

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It is a big mistake for private companies to look after prisoners, says Antony Loewenstein.

Putting immigrants in prison is good for business. In the US the big prison companies often pay people to talk to the government to make laws that help them with their business.

US magazine The Nation reported that in June 2013 the very big company Geo Group used the firm Navigators Global to talk to the US government. Of course, there are billions of dollars for these companies when both political parties support prison for thousands of undocumented migrants.


A guard from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) at the T Don Hutto Residental Center in Texas. The Center holds migrant families. The CCA made $1.7 billion in 2012 - more than any other private prison company in the US (LM Otero/AP Photo)

Perhaps the worst thing about big companies working with the government is the contracts. The contracts with the government make sure migrants stay in prisons. In 2012 the biggest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), sent a letter to 48 states. In the letter they offered to buy and run public state prisons. But the contract asks the states to sign for 20 years and to guarantee the prisons will be 90 per cent full. The states refused to accept this. But in Arizona three private prisons need to be 100 per cent full or they must pay a fine. This is the worst kind of capitalism.

In the past 30 years more and more prisons have become private. And also detention centres, juvenile justice facilities, hospitals, and other important services. The big political parties of the centre-left and centre-right are very happy to work with the worst companies such as Serco, G4S, Dyncorp, Blackwater, and others. They say the private system works better. Politicians like the idea. The companies organise expensive trips to try to show politicians that the state should not look after public services. This is bad for democracy and the services are no better.

The problem is very bad in Australia. In 2011, I visited the Curtin Detention Centre, a camp for asylum-seekers, in the desert in the West. About 1,000 men were in prison there - Afghans, Iranians, Sri Lankans, and others. The British company, Serco, runs all of Australia’s detention centres. They organise the centres with no thought for the prisoners. Australia is one of the few countries in the world where private companies look after all its refugees.

I met Yugan, a Tamil asylum-seeker, in Curtin. He was in his mid-20s, he spoke good English and he knew a lot about Australia after more than 18 months in detention. He was warm, funny, and interested in everything. Australian immigration officials and Serco guards gave him little information about his application for asylum. Thousands of Tamils have arrived in Australia since the end in 2009 of the long civil war in Sri Lanka. And he did not know when he might be free to stay in Australia or if he must return to Sri Lanka where he would not be safe.

Why was Yugan in prison for so long? Luckily, his story had a happy ending. He received a visa a few weeks after we met. He now lives in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. I saw him in October 2013 and he was doing well in his new life. He often visited asylum-seekers who were still in detention. He continued to work for justice in Sri Lanka and spoke at public meetings calling for a change in Australia’s asylum-seeker system.

Not every story has a happy ending. There are many examples of asylum-seekers who self-harm, with many in detention for years and/or are returned to unsafe countries. When they leave detention, many have bad mental problems because they were in detention away from normal life for so long.

The need for profit can make poor conditions worse in detention. I spoke to Serco staff in Australia and a senior company whistleblower – who told me about the company’s secrets. They said that the management did not want to spend money to help staff or asylum-seekers. Many guards told me that they had serious mental problems after receiving little or no training before working in remote centres with refugees. The whistleblower said that no one worries about conditions in detention for example people sitting or lying in shit in tents. They only worry about filling in the right forms.

Using private companies is an important part of Australia’s asylum policy. In 2009, the Labour government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, signed a contract with Serco for AUS $370 million ($342 million). In 2013, it was more than AUS $1.86 billion ($1.7 billion). But we don’t know the exact figures. They are secret.

The new conservative government under Tony Abbott plans to keep the private prisons and it is planning more secret camps for asylum-seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

A manager who worked in the detention centre on Manus Island said conditions in offshore centres are even worse. He told TV station SBS in July 2013 that in Australia the detention centre was not good enough even for dogs.

Of course, this is the neoliberal idea that we see everywhere around the world. The results are not really surprising. Australian leaders are not worried about the problems at Serco and G4S. They are happy to believe the system works best as it is. It’s a bad situation for human rights.


Adrienne Makenda Kambana was the wife of murdered Jimmy Mubenga. A jury found the father of five children was murdered by G4S guards as he was deported from Britain in October 2010. The coroner was worried about racism among G4S guards.

In Britain the Serious Fraud Office are investigating Serco and G4S for asking for payment for tagging criminals who were still in prison or dead or who did not exist. The contracts were for millions and Serco’s chief executive left the company.

This bad news should stop the companies trying for other contracts. But David Cameron’s government is allowing G4S to try for future work, including the probation services worth around $800 million. G4S earns about 10 per cent of its income from British government contracts. Serco receives 25 per cent of its work from the British government.

Both companies have bad human rights records - for example, the death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S guards in 2010. A private company is paid to deport people and treats them very badly. This shows the terrible state of the British government.

It does not have to be this way. In the US, more and more states – including those run by Republicans – are stopping the system of paying money to private prison companies. And they are putting fewer people in prison for long periods. It’s not really a very big change, but it’s a start. Putting asylum-seekers in prison is not stopping people around the world from looking for a better life. And it only helps companies like Serco.

The New York Times wrote in November 2013 that European prisons are a model the US should follow. But we shouldn’t follow Europe. Countries in Europe are paying private detention centre companies. This is because of Europe’s change to the politics of the right.

Ireland, Spain, Italy, and France are already using this terrible system. Greece, a country with neo-Nazis in parliament, will follow soon. The Greek government said it would pay private companies to run six detention centres.

We should be practical and humane. We should treat refugees with respect, and release them into the community while they wait for news of their claims for asylum. This is how we should act towards individuals who deserve patience and investment. We can pay private companies to hide our terrible secrets or we can become a truly globalized world with positive values.

Antony Loewenstein is an Australian independent journalist and author of many books, including the 2013 Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World.

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