Prison for Profit (2019)

In 2001, South Africa’s first privately run correctional facility, the Mangaung Prison, was opened. G4S, the British multi-billion dollar company, committed to providing a service with the highest standards of justice and care, humane treatment and suitable facilities. However, on execution year zero they realized already that it was a task too expensive. 

There is a fundamental problem in privatizing governmental institutions, of which the Mangaung Prison is a great example. While imprisonment might seem like a logical solution to criminality that can protect the public, rehabilitate the offender, and punish the criminal, these objectives lose ground when imprisonment becomes a private business. The problem with prison privatization is that it no longer addresses the aforementioned traditional intentions. For instance, a government would be interested in lowering the crime rates of its society. But for a private company, more inmates means more profit. A steady inflow of prisoners is a steady financial inflow. 

Rooted within this argument, Prison for Profit (2019) expands on the trinity of state power, the criminal justice system and finance. The documentary illustrates this by showing the consequences of correctional facilities which are outsourced to private international companies. Namely, the psychological and physical torture of inmates, and – although to a lesser extent – guards. 

Given my lack of interest in revising all the torture methods and disturbing testimonies that are exposed in the documentary, I will provide just one example which is nonetheless quite representative; the feeding of antipsychotic drugs to perfectly stable prisoners. To keep their population docile and calm – or asleep -, the Mangaung Prison resorts to drugs such as Clopixol Depot, which are injected to imprisoned persons who rarely show signs of psychosis. ‘I feel like a zombie’ claims an inmate while another screams ‘I’m not a donkey!’ in an attempt to avoid being medicated. 

It is a mystery why the documentary dedicates an exclusive focus to specifically South African privatized prisons. The issue Prison for Profit raises is a global, international one. For instance, the correctional system situation in the US is very pressing, which even gained its own term; the ‘prison-industrial complex’. The prison-industrial complex analyses the rapid increase of prison populations in relation to the influence of private prison companies and businesses that profit from these rising numbers. The agents that participate in this relationship are cheap prison labor contractors, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, lobby groups and lawyers, to name a few. Implicit in their activities is the fact that conceptualizing prisons as a place for rehabilitation is outdated (were prisons ever genuinely concerned with rehabilitation?). Prisons are, rather, yet another instance for business-making. Had Prison for Profit adopted a broader criticism of the justice system, a much richer discussion could have arisen. For instance, it could have resonated with the Netflix documentary 13th (2016) by Ava Duvernay, which exposes the American incarceration system and how it contributes to systemic racism today. 

Prison for Profit is very clear on its intention to expose G4S, the company responsible for the human rights violations taking place every day in the Mangaung Prison. On a personal note, the intention of the directors – the van Velzen sisters – is perhaps too pervasive in the sense that their style is too ‘journalistic’, while at the same time not having much educational content. A large percentage of the film is dedicated to detailing the methods of torture towards inmates. There is not much story telling, rhetoric, or cinematographic content, which are all elements I enjoy in documentaries. Just like the popular feeling that a ‘meeting could have been an email’, this documentary could have been an article – probably published in The Guardian. This is not to discredit the research in any shape or form, as I believe that any publicity regarding the privatization of prisons is relevant and necessary. It is just a curiosity to me why the chosen format was that of documentary film. 

Written by Martine Wu


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