Signal Failure: Following the change of government in 2008, the "model" Spring Hill Correctional Facility’s inmate muster went from 650 to 1,038. In 2013, Spring Hill prisoners staged one of the largest and most destructive prison riots in New Zealand history. Under-resourcing in New Zealand's prison system is not confined to Serco's privately-run facilities, it afflicts the public prisons as well.
MAKING MONEY out of locking people up. How would you do it? Presumably, by making sure that the costs of looking after prisoners never amounted to more than the income you received for imprisoning them. In a more brutal society than ours, this would be easy. Those convicted of crimes could be sent to dank, dirty prisons, fed on slops, and allowed to die as Nature ordered. Very few staff would be required, and very little money need be spent. Provided none of the prisoners escaped to harry and harm the public, only a handful of simple-minded do-gooders would ever want to know what goes on behind prison walls.
The problem with making prisons profitable in today’s world, however, is that the State has an internationally mandated duty of care towards all incarcerated persons. Regardless of whether a prison is publicly or privately run, its inmates have rights that must be acknowledged and enforced by the people in charge. Unfortunately for profit-seekers, human-rights cost lots of money.
For those seeking to make a profit out of prisons, the challenge is, therefore, to present the State with a plausible plan for upholding the inmates’ rights, while surreptitiously cutting the institutions’ running-costs to the bone. Obviously, this requires a large measure of collusion on the part of the State. There will, accordingly, be plenty of scrutiny of the plans for rehabilitating their inmates, but very little, if any, of the budgets showing how these will be paid for. Likewise, the State will give lots of publicity to the private prisons’ promises; but none at all to their actual performance.
Why would the State collude so blatantly with private sector incarcerators? The explanation, sadly, is the same as the private sector’s: to make a profit. Except, the State doesn’t call what it does “making a profit”. It’s preferred term is “achieving a surplus”. In brute, political terms: it reduces expenditure on the prison system, which the public doesn’t like, in order to free-up funds for spending on things the public does like – such as schools and hospitals, or tax-cuts.
It requires a very strong-minded government to push back against this kind of political logic. A government determined to uphold its duty of care to prison inmates – even in the face of concerted public opposition. Rather astonishingly, in the light of recent events, New Zealanders elected such a government just 16 years ago.
Matt Robson - Minister of Corrections 1999-2002
In the Labour-Alliance Government of 1999-2002, led by Helen Clark and Jim Anderton, the Minister of Corrections was a man named Matt Robson. As a lawyer, Mr Robson knew a thing or two about the shortcomings of our prison system. Indeed, he is reported to have said that the best thing that could happen to Auckland’s dank and dirty Mt Eden Prison would be for it to be bulldozed flat. Sadly, that did not happen. What Mr Robson did do, however, was order the construction of Spring Hill Prison in North Waikato.
Spring Hill was to be a model, state-owned and operated prison for a maximum of 650 inmates. Each prisoner was to have his own cell, and the institution’s commitment was to rehabilitation through education and skills acquisition. The collapse of the Labour-Alliance Government, in 2002, brought an end to Mr Robson’s short stint as Minister of Corrections. He left Parliament in 2005 – two years before the Spring Hill Corrections Facility finally opened.
A year later, in 2008, a much more conventional Minister of Corrections was appointed to oversee New Zealand’s prison system. Judith Collins, like so many of those who had come before her, was determined to reduce expenditure on, and improve the efficiency of, the business of locking people up.
It was Ms Collins who contracted the global conglomerate, Serco, to manage the Mt Eden Corrections Facility. She was also responsible for the “double-bunking” of prisoners nationwide. This decision, bitterly criticised by inmates and criminologists alike, was seen as a sure-fire means of increasing prisoner stress levels through institutionalised over-crowding. The Spring Hill facility’s inmate muster, for example, went from 650 to 1,038. In 2013, Spring Hill prisoners staged one of the largest and most destructive prison riots in New Zealand history. Mr Robson’s “model” facility lay burned and broken.
The unfolding scandal at the Serco-managed Mt Eden Corrections Facility, while shocking, is only one aspect of the under-resourcing crisis afflicting our entire prison system. Yes, the privately-run facility is chronically under-staffed. And yes, the State does appear to be covering-up some of its deficiencies. But many of our state-run prisons are equally under-resourced. The State’s duty of care is being called into question on a daily basis – in both the public and private sectors.
As citizens of a civilised nation, we have a duty to care about what is being done, in our name, behind prison walls.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 July 2015.