Kenya is planning to privatise prisons: Why it’s risky and needs careful planning


Kenya is looking at privatising its prisons. Gráinne Perkins asked expert Rob Allen, an independent researcher and cofounder of Justice and Prisons, about the benefits and risks of prison privatisation.

In the past, prisons were facilities were the responsibility of the authority of national governments. But over the last few decades things have changed.

Private companies are increasingly being brought in to run prisons. Governments have chosen to involve private companies in a variety of ways, for various reasons.

Some countries have governments that have contracted out the construction and running of prison establishments. Governments in countries such as; US, UK, Australia and Brazil .

The line of thinking is that it will increase prison capacity, cut costs, and introduce innovation through better management and new technology. But these aims have seldom, if ever, been achieved in full. This is partly because pressures to cut costs and boost profits can mean there are insufficient staff to run safe and successful prisons.

A much larger group of countries, like France, outsource specific functions such as the provision of food for prisoners and the maintenance and repair of buildings. Services that are specialised, such as education, health care and rehabilitation, have also been outsourced. Across Europe, the trend has been towards the outsourcing of healthcare to private contractors.

The private sector is also progressively involved in providing employment opportunities for prisoners while they are in jail. This can be in factories, farms or other productive activities. Such activities are common place in Asian prisons.

This is the type of limited privatisation being planned in Kenya. The only privatised prisons are in South Africa where it’s limited to two prisons, with a capacity of 3,000 inmates. In 2002, two private companies were each awarded 25 year concessions to design, build, finance and operate each prison.

Conditions in most prisons today are generally viewed as being better than public prisons. Specifications, like accommodation and activities, in the contracts were based on prisons in the UK.

There are also countless examples of small-scale businesses being involved in prisons in other African countries.

Ethiopia’s Mekelle prison created more than 30 active cooperatives that provided work for prisoners before and after release.

Ghana is planning a public private partnership programme that would allow prisoners to get involved in large scale production of maize and oil palm as well as livestock especially poultry and piggery using prisoners.

Steps need to be taken to ensure prisoners are not exploited. Compelling prisoners to work for the private sector is prohibited by the Forced Labour Convention and wages and conditions should be close to normal labour. While it is legitimate for prisons to retain a proportion of income generated from work conducted by prisoners, the system needs to be transparent and accountable. Measures must be taken to minimise corrupt practice.

Because prison privatisation is a risky path to take, Kenya should carefully consider all options. There may be a case for new prisons to be built. Nevertheless, a very careful cost benefit analysis should be carried out first. For instance, a better bet may be to find ways to reduce the use of pre-trial detention – almost half of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are in custody pending trial -– and make more use of community service orders, instead of short prison sentences.The Conversation


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