Privatizing prisons is not a bad thing in principle. We know government-run jails are notoriously corrupt, badly run and none too keen on treating prisoners with dignity. But the New South Wales government’s decision this week to allow the GEO Group to take over Sydney’s Parklea prison is a fraught one because GEO’s track record in Australia and overseas in recent years is not one that has much to recommend it.

The Rees government’s Prisons Minister John Robertson announced on Wednesday that the GEO Group, which already runs the Junee prison in the State’s south east, had won a tender to run Parklea which has around 850 prisoners, most of them in maximum security. In other words it is a prison that requires complex skills in managing a problematic group of people.

GEO Group’s record at Junee has been chequered and the NSW Ombudsman’s Office said, in its 2008 Annual Report, that it had received more complaints about that prison than any other in the State in recent years. But more disturbingly, from the perspective of the NSW government and prisoners at Parklea and their families, the GEO Group has not covered itself in glory when it comes to ensuring the physical safety of prisoners.

The Victorian Ombudsman reported last month that a prisoner had been forced to walk naked after soiling himself by guards at the GEO-run Melbourne Custody Centre. And in the US, the GEO Group’s track record in management of detention facilities has drawn criticism from a wide range of quarters. A few of the more striking examples will suffice.

In April this year a Texas appeals court upheld a US$42.5 million damages claim against GEO Group brought by the family of a deceased prisoner, Gregorio De La Rosa Junior.

The De La Rosa family’s lawyer described what happened to their son. “In this particular case the evidence showed and the court of appeals found the wardens were laughing and smirking for 20 minutes or more while De La Rosa was getting beaten on by other inmates with sox filled with pad locks the disturbing evidence showed the evidence of the beating and the video tape was actually destroyed by Geo group and at least 1 of the weapons was also destroyed by Geo group,” he told the media on April 4 this year.

A year earlier, the Texas Youth Commission found that a GEO Group youth detention facility practiced racial segregation and that cells “were filthy, smelled of faeces and urine, and were in need of paint.”

In Pennsylvania, the GEO Group runs the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton where eight detainees have died since 2005. And in May this year Marcia Powell, a detainee in an Arizona facility run by GEO Group died after she was kept in scorching temperatures in an outside cell for four hours.

Over in Washington State, the Seattle University Law School and an immigrant advocacy centre released a study in August last year that found that refugees and asylum seekers held at the GEO Group run Northwest Detention Facility, “are being held ‘in an atmosphere of intimidation’ which includes verbal abuse, sexual harassment, strip searches, and poor to non-existent mental and physical health care,” reported ABC News on August 5.

John Robertson and his colleagues in the New South Wales government are obviously aware of the GEO Group’s recent troubles in the US and Australia but still think they can run a maximum security prison in Sydney. What a pity they didn’t talk to Will Herrell, the Texas Youth Ombudsman who said of the GEO Group in 2007, “They didn’t cut corners, they didn’t bother building the corners to cut.”