Speaker by Various Artists

26

Protesting private prisons

by John Palethorpe

On May 2nd the Minister of Corrections, Sam Lotu-Iiga was interviewed on TV3’s The Nation about the opening of the new Wiri prison in South Auckland and its management by Serco.

A few weeks later the UN reported on concerns about the high level of inmate on inmate violence at Mt Eden corrections facility, as well as highlighting the over-representation of Maori within NZ’s prisons.

These percolated, and I wrote a post illustrating just some of the many failings outsourcing to Serco has produced. But last week I realised that maybe writing about it, or tweeting in an increasingly frantic style was not enough. Having attended many protests and demonstrations, I suddenly found myself organising one. The Facebook page for it can be found here.

The protest is, obviously, in response to the shocking details of the mismanagement of Mt Eden, revealed through leaked footage of violent incidents and accounts. There have been further allegations, both from families of injured or deceased inmates and in Parliament from MPs.

This evidence indicates both a troubling culture of violence within the facility and either wilful negligence or deliberate concealment of the facts by Serco. That this information has only come to light through leaks is in line with similar revelations of equally catastrophic mismanagement in other Serco run services in the UK and Australia. And while we’re beginning to talk about Serco, it’s definitely time for some action.

While the Corrections Chief Executive, Ray Smith, has invoked a ‘Step In’ clause to take control of the management of the prison, this further highlights the failures of privatisation. It is public servants who are being transferred from their own place of work in order to solve the problems that Serco have created, only for Serco to retain both the contracts for Mt Eden and the recently opened Wiri facility in South Auckland.

How the disruption of New Zealand’s publicly run prisons and the necessity of an investigation into brutal violence is a ‘cost saving’ is beyond explanation. For example, only 10% of Serco’s fee is performance-related and penalties for failing to effectively manage the prison cannot exceed 10% quarterly or annually. So, for their $30,000,000 a year, are New Zealanders getting the effective service they deserve?

The past week has seen the Minister of Corrections, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, first deny a problem, then admit there might be a problem, then say there is a problem but it’s definitely not his fault and finally the Prime Minister trying to blame Labour for their role in revealing information about Serco’s failings.

The problem for the Government is that if they admit that Serco has failed in New Zealand, like they have in the UK and Australia, it raises serious questions about their competency in managing Wiri as well as excluding them from the mooted outsourcing of mental health and social care services. The issues here should obviously focus upon the appalling conditions within Mt Eden, but also raise serious questions about the alleged benefits of privatising essential public services.

In organising this action I seek to highlight the fallacy of attempting to run an essential, if relatively invisible, public service for profit. The role of corrections is to ensure that those in their care are denied their freedom, not their human rights. It is also to create an environment in which inmates are able to develop the skills and mentality to make a positive contribution to society upon their release.

The privatisation debate is framed by its advocates as the only option, with the cry of “We can’t just do nothing” in response to problems within state run public services. This creates the illusion that privatisation is progressive.

But it’s not progressive to make services more unaccountable and less effective. It’s also not progressive to pay your taxes, expect decent public services but instead fund the profit margin of a British company like Serco. The argument for quality public services where every dollar goes into effective service provision should not be seen as either regressive or radical. It’s just a reasonable expectation.

However, these are my views and mine alone. Others have been fighting for recognition of the problems of public and private prisons for far longer than I have, and it is not right for me to speak for them.

Those attending on Saturday will include family members of those within New Zealand’s prisons, established prison reform and prison abolition campaigners, MPs, activists and many others whose affiliation is simply to ensure that New Zealanders get an effective and humane prison service. There will be many views about the role and existence of prison present, all seeking to have their voices heard but all united in their belief that Serco and its like has no place in profiting from New Zealand’s prisons.

I have spent the last few days talking to different parties across the political spectrum and getting in touch with various interested groups to invite them along. This demonstration comes under no single political banner, because the issue of effective humane prisons as a public service is one which cannot and should not be claimed by one single political party. Public attention is focused both on Serco and the issues of privatisation, which need a serious and open debate. Now is the time to act.

See you Saturday.

Postscript

I would also like to thank everyone who has given me advice, constructive criticism and support so far. I’ve never organised anything like this before, and the warmth and empathy which has been expressed from so many different people and groups is humbling. And again, see you Saturday.

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