Are prisoners paid in South Africa?

The overview - Journal for ecumenical encounters and international cooperation

Privatization - an opportunity for prisoners?

South Africa wants to improve its prison system with the help of international companies

South Africa was the first African country to start using private companies to build and manage prisons. So far, there has been little criticism of this decision. Politicians, criminologists and human rights groups hope that the private sector can improve the catastrophic conditions in South African prisons. In addition, the privatization should strengthen black companies in the security industry.

by Julie Berg

Before Sipho Mzimela became Minister for the Penitentiary System in South Africa (1994-99), he had worked as a prison chaplain in the USA. There is therefore much to suggest that his idea of ​​having prisons built and operated by private companies in South Africa originated there and was influenced by developments in the prison industry in the United States. In June 1996, Mzimela informed Parliament that his ministry had contacted private companies in the security sector. He calculated that the construction time for a prison could be reduced to 15 months instead of the usual seven years with the help of private companies, in view of the high overcrowding in South African prisons, an important argument.

According to the Ministry's plans, the private sector should also provide workshops and factories in which prisoners will work and be trained. Although there has long been a law that obliges prisoners to work, the necessary funds are still lacking to provide large-scale employment and training opportunities in South Africa's prisons. In other areas, too, the government hopes that the conditions of detention will improve as a result of privatization. The tendering of the contracts stipulates, for example, that the service providers must offer the prisoners three instead of the previous two meals a day.

A government program that regulates the conditions for a private-public partnership in the prison system states that the areas of responsibility of private companies are: design, construction and maintenance of the buildings; Cleaning and catering services; Rehabilitation programs; Training and leisure opportunities for prisoners; and employment and training of prison staff. This does not mean that the management of the prison will be left entirely to private companies - this has been deliberately left out. For example, the Department of Justice has a say in the appointment of a director in a prison. The Extended Prison Act also provides that a proxy be appointed for each private prison to oversee the day-to-day work of the private prison administration. Further safety clauses are intended to ensure that companies remain responsible to the legislature.

For example, the private operator of the prison is not allowed to establish its own rules of conduct for the prisoners, punish prisoners for misconduct or influence their prison sentences. A spokesman for the Ministry of Prisons explains the model as follows: "The private provider will run the entire company with its own employees, but under the supervision of the Ministry."

South Africa is the first African country to have decided to privatize individual prisons. This development is remarkable in that the country has only been governed democratically for a few years and does not have the same level of political and economic development as other countries that have privatized prisons. This is why the opportunities and dangers of privatization in South Africa are in some cases different from those in the USA, for example.

The need for reform in the prison sector is out of the question here for a number of reasons. South Africa's biggest problem is overcrowding, which creates many other deficiencies in the prison system and is also the main impetus for the privatization of prisons. Ganging is another problem that leads to high rates of breakouts and violence in prisons.

This is supported by the design of the prisons, which are similar to warehouses. The group cells of older prisons are designed for up to 16 prisoners, but are mostly overcrowded. The guards often do not dare to enter these cells for fear of the gangs. At the same time, there are many corrupt guards who get prisoners smuggled goods or help them break out. Even in newer prisons, this prison culture has crept in because they, too, are either too poorly designed or too crowded to be effectively disciplined. There is also no money for large-scale reform programs. All of this has contributed to the very low motivation of the prison staff. This can be seen in the high absenteeism rate among employees and in the fact that prisons have difficulties in meeting their staffing needs.

Private prisons could improve these conditions in a number of ways. Private companies build their prisons so that the cells can only accommodate one or two inmates. This construction makes gang work more difficult and could at the same time reduce the personnel problem in the prisons, since fewer guards are required here for cell management. In addition, South Africa relies on the expertise of international private companies that have experience with a culture of reintegration and the training of prisoners and not just incarceration.

The private prisons could also influence the state prisons with their ideas and their approach to prison administration. It would be conceivable, for example, that a state prison officer could be transferred to a private prison for some time and thus be able to introduce international standards and entrepreneurial methods into the state prison system. In addition, the private prisons are subject to special scrutiny by the state. This could ultimately lead to the state prisons also being subjected to better control.

Likewise, after setting guidelines for the conditions of detention in private prisons, the government will now also be forced to present reform plans for its own prisons. The quality criteria and performance requirements that it has placed on private companies could become minimum standards against which the state prison system would also have to be measured. In other words: the state prison system needs a model on which to base its own reform process. If, for example, the private companies could make prisoner work and training more effective and cost-saving, that would be an example on which the state system could orient itself.

In April 1997 the first tendering process began for four new prisons: two high-security prisons in Louis Trichardt and Bloemfontein for 3,000 inmates each, as well as a remand prison in Boksburg and a youth reformatory in Barberton. In order to be shortlisted, the companies had to meet a number of criteria. First of all, they had to prove that they had the necessary qualifications and experience, that they had an understanding of the legal basis and that they had sufficient financial means to implement the construction of the prisons quickly.

Furthermore, like all government contracts, the tender was subject to the guidelines of the so-called Affirmative actionwhich provides for the promotion of formerly disadvantaged population groups, i.e. blacks, women and the disabled. Firstly, this means that companies that employ black people in leading positions must hold at least 40 percent of the shares in a company consortium. Second, at least a quarter of the work should be given to subcontractors run by blacks. Third, companies that employ a high percentage of blacks, women or disabled people are preferred to competitors. Fourth, firms applying for prison contracts must provide a minimum of training for black, female and disabled workers. Only five consortia were able to meet these criteria, although a number of national and international companies had submitted bids.

The composition of the two consortia commissioned with the construction and operation of the high-security prisons in Louis Trichardt and Bloemfontein gives an impression of how local and especially black companies are supported by prison privatization: the consortium SA Custodial Services consists of the American company Wackenhut Corrections Corporations and the South African company Kensani Corrections Management. Wackenhut Corrections is the world's second largest company in the security sector. Its range of services includes the construction, financing and administration of all types of penal institutions as well as health and rehabilitation programs. Kensani Corrections is an association of black women entrepreneurs and the South African Railway and Dock Workers Union. In addition to the prison industry, Kensani is also active in information technology and the financial sector. In the case of the Louis Trichardt prison, Kensani is responsible for the rehabilitation and training programs for prisoners and the maintenance of the building. Wackenhut will be responsible for the administration of the detention center. The group of companies hired three local suppliers for the design and construction in Louis Trichardt. The African Handelsbank (African Merchant Bank). Other suppliers are entrusted with services such as legal assistance, security services and food delivery.

The contract to build and operate the prison in Bloemfontein has also been awarded to an association of South African and international companies. The Ikhwezi-Consortium consists of the well-known South African construction company Murray and Roberts as Group 4 Correction Services South Africa, a subsidiary of the British security company Group 4 Securitas is. In addition to prison management, the company also provides security guards and systems, security transportation, and court escort services. In 1992, Group 4 became the first company in the UK to manage a private prison and is now operating in Australia and a number of other countries.

The government's strict requirements for the tendering process meant that local and above all black companies were able to participate in the new market. New jobs were created in all phases of the process. The Ikhwezi project alone is expected to have around 500 permanent jobs. But it is also important that the requirements did not prevent the participation of international companies and specialists. South Africa is reliant on this because there is still a lack of experience with public-private partnerships in the prison sector. It seems that the international corporations are taking over the more controversial part of the privatization measures, namely the management of the prisons including the training of the staff. In the case of the two high-security prisons, the South African owners have taken on the service areas of laundry and building cleaning, catering for inmates and staff, provision of uniforms and maintenance of the buildings, as well as rehabilitation, leisure and training programs for the inmates. The role of the local companies is primarily to complement the international experience of their partners with country-specific competence, because due to the social and cultural divisions among South African prisoners, the prisons there differ from those in which the international companies have previously operated.

The two high-security prisons in Louis Trichardt and Bloemfontein are about to be completed. The Ministry's expectations that privatization will save costs appear to be being met. The privatization program provides two variants for the prison construction: Either the private partner finances the construction of the prison on state land and then operates the prison. Or he acts as a builder himself and then also owns the prison building. In this case, the government pays the owner a daily rental fee for every occupant it places in the building for 25 years. If the contract is not extended thereafter, the owner can use the building as desired. The prison in Louis Trichardt is worth 1.8 billion rand (the equivalent of about 600 million marks). The cost to the government is R65.47 per inmate per day. In Bloemfontein Prison, worth 1.7 billion rand, each prisoner costs the government 66.04 rand a day. On the other hand, there are 85 rand that the ministry has to raise for each inmate in its own prisons, and the figure is rising.

Public criticism of the government's approach to the issue of prison privatization has remained fairly quiet. The first announcement by the penitentiary minister that he wanted to privatize prisons did not spark a broad debate. Apart from a few scientists who spoke up, the discussion took place almost exclusively in parliament. The public remained largely uninvolved. Both the National Party before the elections in early June 1999 the largest opposition party as well as the Inkatha Freedom Party, the coalition partner of the ANC, supported the decision in favor of privatization and, to a large extent, also the government's approach. South African human rights organizations also cautiously expressed their support provided that the companies adhered to the guidelines set by the government.

However, criticism was voiced at the speed with which the process was advanced. Just four years after the first planning phase began, two high-security prisons are already under construction. It is possible that the government should have started a pilot project in cooperation with the private sector, for example in the areas of youth detention and deportation detention, before building private-public high-security prisons. Instead, the Ministry of Prisons was already negotiating with individual companies before the legal basis was even laid.

The imprecise provisions of the new penal law confirm the allegation that the government laid the foundations for prison privatization too hastily without having grasped their meaning and discussed them sufficiently. It is true that the contracts that the Ministry of Prison concluded with the individual consortia stipulate that the companies must maintain training and rehabilitation programs. The Prison Act only says: "The contracting party must contribute to the maintenance and protection of a just, peaceful and safe society by ... promoting the social skills and human development of all prisoners." It is up to the parties involved what they want to understand by promoting social skills and human development. However, the government has to be credited with the fact that the selected consortia were scrutinized so extensively that some companies threatened to withdraw from the proceedings.

Another point of criticism, which has been raised above all by non-governmental organizations, concerns the inadequate involvement of interest groups in the decision-making process, from the preliminary considerations for or against privatization to the contract negotiations. There are only a few NGOs and experts who deal with the prison system and therefore have the necessary experience to critically monitor the process of prison privatization. Nevertheless, many have argued that politicians, in cooperation with NGOs, could and should have gained an even better understanding of prison privatization.

Some government officials went to the US to find out more about the issue. However, too little attention has been paid to the potential problems that the privatization of prisons brings with it. In the current phase of the privatization process, the government is relatively open with information that it makes available mainly on the Internet. This, however, is in contrast to their information policy during the crucial negotiation phase, in which many details were only made public after the decisions had already been made.

Representative of National Party especially bothered by the fact that the ANC Youth League, the youth organization of the ruling party, participated in a consortium that participated in the tender for a youth reformatory. The opposition politicians questioned the transparency of the tendering process and expressed concern that the Youth League want to enrich themselves in this way in state money. The laws do not preclude a political organization from participating in the tender for private prisons. However, there is a risk that such involvement will lead the organization to take a harder line in prison policy for the benefit of its own interests as the operator of a prison. With the South African public demanding tougher sentences and longer prison terms, political parties are tempted to go in this direction anyway. However, you have to ANC Youth League admit that it is their concern to stand up for the needs and rights of young people in the country. This also includes the promotion of youth improvement institutions and programs, in which the Youth League relies on the participation of the private sector.

The introduction of private prisons could change the South African prison system in two directions: On the one hand, private prisons could introduce effectiveness, safety and technology on an international level. This could even lead to state prisons improving their performance in order to be able to compete with private prisons. On the other hand, there is a risk that private interests will dominate the prison sector and block alternative forms of punishment. South Africa has an extremely high recidivism rate among released prisoners, around 70 to 80 percent. This problem could be sidelined as companies prioritize building new prisons and incarcerating more and more people. The prison industry is already an important part of the economy in the United States, and it is conceivable that South Africa could become a new investment field for large American corporations.

But perhaps any form of improving South Africa's dire prison system is better than maintaining the status quo. Because the worst conditions in prisons in Europe and the USA are still heavenly compared to those in South Africa.

from: the overview 01/2000, page 54


Julie Berg:

Julie Berg is working in the Law School of Cape Town University on a doctoral thesis on the privatization of prisons in South Africa.