When architect Kavan Applegate was designing Ravenhall, he made sure to include things like native plants, a playground, meeting rooms with nooks to display local artifacts — even an outdoor fire pit where people could gather on special occasions. The goal, he says, was to help people “feel positive” and “embrace the opportunity for change.”
But Ravenhall is not a yoga retreat. It’s a prison — Australia’s largest, in fact. And it’s run by the GEO Group, a private prison company based in the U.S.
Yes, there is a concrete wall that looks to be about 20 feet high and rings the property. And yes, there is an electric fence behind it. But otherwise, Ravenhall, which is on the outskirts of Melbourne, doesn’t feel very prison-like.
The area just beyond security, for example, is full of flowers. Nearby, the sound of drumming emanates from a building. The guard giving me a tour points out a vegetable patch where he says inmates have managed to grow very big pumpkins. Inmates, in black shorts and forest green tops, appeared to be walking around freely, using their fingerprints to pass through gates separating the residential areas from places where they might talk to a medical provider or take a class.
The windows have curtains instead of bars, and vents so people can choose to let in real air. There are even residential areas called “cottages” and “lodges,” where inmates in good standing can order their own groceries, cook their own meals and stay up late watching movies. And, in the case of Ali Tibballs, set off the fire alarm whipping up some late-night caramelized popcorn.
“I was making it at like eleven o’clock at night and I kept the heat on too much,” says Tibballs. “I mean, there's a kitchen for a reason, right?”
Tibballs had left Ravenhall just over a week before I met him, and so far he was following the plan to a tee. He’d taken advantage of the job training options, earning a license for traffic management, and a card that’s mandatory for working on a construction site, not to mention courses in safe food handling and occupational health and safety.
Tibballs also joined a program called YMCA ReBuild, where he learned skills like woodworking and plaster wall repairs. Within a week of leaving Ravenhall, he started working part time for ReBuild, turning a patch of land next to the railroad tracks into a garden with magnolias and exotic-looking vines.
“It’s just good to be working again,” he says.
Rory Billows is also working for ReBuild. He says he’d been in “heaps of trouble” since he was 12 or 13 years old.
“I had my son and I went to jail, I got out and I went straight back, and I got out and I went straight back,” says Billows, who left Ravenhall more than a year ago. “It's not happening again ever.”
These days, he’s geeking out about the super-bendy plywood he’s using to build a feature in an architect’s office (“It can bend around a bottle of Coke!”) and he’s about to get a promotion to crew leader.
“It’s given me worth, it’s given me confidence,” he says. “It’s changed my way of thinking about everything.”
Now, Tibballs and Billows seem like solid dudes — the kind who offer you coffee and think out loud about fun activities to do with their kids. And the fact that they’re nice guys, trying to live normal lives, is exactly why Col Caskie never wants to see them again.
Caskie runs Ravenhall Correctional Centre and he wants everyone to do what Tiballs and Billows did: leave, get a job, and never come back. It’s all part of a grand scheme.
“It's not just about locking men and women up anymore,” Caskie says. “It's about what we can do to change lives to ultimately reduce recidivism.”
Caskie is the prison’s general manager, what we might call a warden in the U.S. He mostly looks and acts like what you’d expect of a warden: collar stiff enough to slice butter, refuses to get his photo taken, seems to dislike the question “Why?”
But then he’ll say stuff like, “Instead of celebrating the opening of a prison wouldn't it be good to celebrate the closing of a prison?”
For context, Caskie has worked in prisons for 27 years. And he works for the GEO Group, which makes money off of people getting incarcerated. That’s a huge part of their business, whether it’s at this facility in Australia, a prison in the high desert of New Mexico, or the ICE detention center north of Denver.
After President Donald Trump promised to crack down on crime and illegal immigration, the company’s stocks doubled. So when someone like Caskie says it would be good to close prisons, that’s surprising. But Lauren-Brooke Eisen says there’s a reason for it.
“Governments are asking these private firms to do something that we in the U.S. have never asked private prisons to do, which is focus on reducing recidivism,” says Eisen, director of the Justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the book Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration.
She says a lot of why Ravenhall is different boils down to one thing: the contract, which is what she calls a performance-based contract.
“It’s considered a sort of carrots-and-sticks approach,” she says. Rather than just sticks.
For example, contracts in the U.S. might stipulate that a company will get fined for something like an escape or an unnatural death. But they don’t include things like a $2 million bonus for showing they can give people enough of a leg up to keep them from coming back within a couple years. Ravenhall’s contract does. Same goes for a prison in New Zealand.
“And there are additional dollars on the table if they beat the government at reducing recidivism for indigenous people, who, like African Americans and Latinos in the U.S., are overrepresented in their prison populations,” says Eisen.
The New Zealand prison has met its goal of reducing recidivism, and therefore cashed in on a million-dollar bonus for 2018. Ravenhall hasn’t been open long enough to tell if it’s actually meeting those goals, though Col Caskie says early indications “are very positive,” pointing to a recidivism rate of about 20% among the roughly 600 men who have accessed the Bridge Centre after release. According to Corrections Victoria, the state-level recidivism rate is about 43%.
The Bridge Centre is a key piece of Ravenhall’s setup. It’s an office on the other side of Melbourne, where former inmates can do things like attend a monthly peer support group, and visit with the same social worker or psychologist they had behind bars for up to two years after they leave. They can also come unannounced; one staff member described helping a man who came for help during a schizophrenic episode. The center also partners with a local non-profit to help people find housing, and in limited cases will also pay for rental housing for up to six months.
“Quite often a lot of investment is put into what happens pre-release … but then we just kind of wave goodbye when people have finished their sentences. And what we do know is that a significant proportion of those people will reoffend, and they will reoffend quite quickly — probably within the first month,” says Sarah Gray, the national director of rehabilitation and reintegration with GEO Australia.
“This is a great way of testing the waters and saying, ‘Does it make a difference having the same group of people continuing to work with you post-release?’ And if it does work, then how might we apply that to other jurisdictions?”
Gray acknowledges that, should the model prove effective, cost could still be a limiting factor. And, as we explore in the next part of this series, costs can be tricky to pin down.
But cost aside, Rick Raemisch, who headed up corrections departments in Colorado and Wisconsin, says incentivizing private prisons to tackle an issue like recidivism — from the ground up — is “a great idea.”
“I'm convinced that American prisons, just by the way they were built, manufacture violence,” says Raemisch, who helped rewrite international standards for the treatment of inmates, and also banned the Colorado practice of keeping inmates in solitary confinement for years on end. “If we ever want to start solving some of these problems, we need to become a much more humanized corrections system across the United States.”
“I emphatically do not endorse the use or expansion of private prisons,” says Lauren-Brooke Eisen, who also points out that recidivism is only one measure of outcomes. Indeed, at the same time the New Zealand facility was earning its bonus, local reports pointed out evidence that people were being locked in their cells for long periods due to staffing shortages. But, she adds, “I think what's happening in Australia and New Zealand is worth paying attention to and is worth investigating and is worth learning about.”
Because at the end of the day, what facilities like Ravenhall really show is that as much as the U.S. might depend — and spend — on private prison companies, maybe we could ask more of them.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.