A primary purpose of government is to protect those who are vulnerable or suffering hardship. Most of us understand that “there but for the grace of God go I” and don’t resent our tax dollars funding health services and education. We feel embarrassed for New Zealand when the UN castigates us about our child poverty rate; we know a country can be judged by how well it treats its children.
Unlike with children, the elderly, or the disabled, it is much more challenging for us to feel sympathy or kinship with convicted criminals. However, they too represent a vulnerable population because we have chosen to restrict their liberty and cut them off from society at large. It behooves us to treat prisoners with a basic standard of decency and care, if only because they will be less likely to commit more crimes upon release.
In other countries, we have seen that introducing a profit motive into the operation of prisons has led to insufficient staff training, inadequate medical care, and an increase in violent incidents. There have even been corruption scandals where judges received bribes to incentivize them to sentence offenders to detention in for-profit facilities. Against this checkered backdrop, the National government announced its intention to start privatizing Kiwi prisons, starting by offering a contract to Serco to run the Mt Eden jail in 2009.
Serco, a British company that began in 1929 to provide services to the cinema industry, is now a multinational corporation with divisions including and involved with transport, prisons, defense, air traffic control, health, and education. As part of the UK's Atomic Weapons Establishment, Serco manufactures and maintains nuclear weapons. Activists were dismayed to see Serco invited to provide services in New Zealand because of its history of controversy. As feared, in time a range of problems were exposed at Mt Eden, from weekly fight clubs to negligent guards to the smuggling in of drugs and mobile phones. The Corrections Department was obliged to end Serco’s ten-year contract after six years and require them to pay $8 million to cover the cost of Corrections taking over. Today Serco's involvement at Mt Eden ends completely, as its labour supply agreement has ended.
Unfortunately our leaders, beholden to their ideology of privatization, did not allow Serco’s abysmal performance at Mt Eden to stop them offering a 25-year contract to run the new Auckland South Corrections Facility (ASCF) in Wiri in May 2015. Within a year, reports of disturbing incidents began circulating; one of the first was that a wing of the prison had to be locked down after prisoners drunk on homebrew attacked staff.
In October, a report on prison performance, which considered factors such as violent incidents, inmate drug use, and complaints, ranked Wiri among the lowest prison facilities in New Zealand. In the same month, allegations emerged involving gang activity, beatings, and fight clubs. Most concerning, it was said that staff were covering up incidents by not filing reports and that CCTV footage was going missing.
Corrections Minister Judith Collins’ excuse for this was that the prison was still working towards “full maturity”. What has actually fully matured to the point of rot is the private prison experiment. Last year the US Justice Department announced it would phase out its use of privately owned prisons, citing safety and security problems, no meaningful cost savings, and fewer rehabilitative services provided. Although Trump has now overrode this decision--I'm sure it was strictly coincidence that private prison operators were big donors to his campaign--New Zealand should follow this lead. The ombudsman’s office is already on the case. When it substantiates incidents of prisoner abuse and neglect, and activists have no doubt this will be the case, the government will have all the justification it needs to send Serco packing.
If you agree that only the government should run our prisons, there is a petition on Action Station at https://our.actionstation.org.nz/petitions/terminate-serco-s-contract-to-run-south-auckland-prison