Bryce Edwards’ Political roundup: Reforming or wrecking prisons

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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

$100,000 a year to imprison a person is a lot of money. That’s the striking figure at the centre of the current prison scandal and debate, in a country that likes to lock up more and more criminals.

No one likes prisons. This means that when they’re not being conveniently ignored, politicians are likely to treat them as a tool for populist campaigns or a target for cost cutting. There’s a mixture of both of these elements in play at the moment. But, crucially, it is the financial drain of New Zealand locking up such a large number of people that is at the centre of understanding the current debates over prison violence and mismanagement.

For the clearest enunciation of the problem of prison costs and the drive to reduce them see Chris Trotter’s column from The Press yesterday: Human rights cost lots of money. Trotter very clearly lays out the conflict between a “duty of care” and making a profit from prisons, and suggests that in both private and publicly-run prisons the Government has shifted the focus onto the latter. 

In fact, Trotter goes a step further and writes that it involves “blatant collusion” on the part of the State. Why? Trotter says: “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”.

So much of the current debate about prison violence and mismanagement needs to be seen in the context of money. Regardless of whether it’s a private or state-run prison, the Government is keen to cut costs, while allowing the prison population to keep increasing. And it is indeed increasing, as described very well today by Brian Rudman in his must-read column, High incarceration rate is the real prison scandal

Rudman argues that “penal populism” is causing the problem. Under both Labour and National governments the prison population has surged – for example, going from 4445 in 1995 to 8831 in 2015. He argues that we are out of step with comparable countries: “At about 200 per 100,000 population, our incarceration rate is now on a level with countries we do not normally compare ourselves with – Gabon, Namibia, Moldova and Slovakia. Compare that with Sweden on 66, Germany on 83, France, 102, Australia, 130, and England, 154”.

Our imprisonment rate is going up at the same time that crime rates are going down according to Rudman, and he suggests that some imprisonment is unnecessary: “Why, for instance, are 10 per cent of prisoners inside for traffic offences?”. 

More facts, figures, and history about New Zealand’s prison system can be found in the Te Ara Encyclopedia entry on Prisons

For a further insight into unnecessary imprisonment (and the problems it causes for prison violence), it’s well worth reading a blog post by Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, one of the “Urewera Four” convicted and sentenced to prison following the Operation 8 saga. His blog post, Government is Hiding the Truth Behind the Serco Debate, is a very long but important analysis of the violence in prisons, based on his own observations while in prison. He puts forward many interesting recommendations for reform, but much of the lesson of this analysis is about the extreme underfunding and understaffing of prisons (regardless of whether they’re public or private). 

An indictment of prison privatisation

The fact that cost-cutting is at the heart of the prison scandals is reiterated by Andrea Vance in her very good article, Serco: the company no one has heard of but everyone is talking about. She argues that Serco has to find savings in order to make a profit: “Private companies cannot risk cutting corners in security. But there is room to move when it comes to the well-being of inmates”. Vance also provides details of the history of Serco and its scandals.

The Government’s response has been to argue that the Serco scandal – while unfortunate – is not actually an indictment of the system. After all, it shows that contracts with private providers carry penalties that don’t exist under the state model. The private system is therefore more accountable. 

But does the system really work? The Southland Times says that this episode demonstrates the opposite – the problems weren’t brought to light by the system, but by leaks: “None of which was triggered by anything remotely resembling internal checks and balances.  It was only once the scale of the problem came to the attention of the Opposition and news media that the official view ceased to be that things were hunky-dory” – see: When corrections need correcting

Reflecting on how the scandal came to light, today’s Herald editorial says that while there might be an element of political game-playing involved, “the Government can hardly complain about that, since the political sensitivity of private contracts was one of the checks that was supposed to ensure they would perform better than the public prison administration” – see: Serco must be made an example of. Similarly, see The Press editorial, Serco must be held to prison service standards

The story of Serco’s involvement in New Zealand prison management and the contracts negotiated is covered very well by Paul McBeth in his article, Prison ‘fight club’ furore comes as Serco NZ enters renegotiation period. It seems that the company was “appearing” to do very well in its management until the latest scandals eventuated, calling into question some of the reporting methods for prison management. 

An alternative version of prison statistics are put forward by Talia Shadwell in her article, ‘Anarchic’ Mt Eden is New Zealand’s roughest prison, figures show. University of Canterbury criminologist and former prison inmate, Greg Newbold, is quoted as saying “The monkeys are running the zoo. It’s a disgraceful situation. This is like a third-world country.”

There are certainly many experts and insiders willing to detail their problems with the Serco-run prison. According to Whangarei lawyer Kelly Ellis – also a former Labour candidate – “Serco has brought a culture of profiteering, bullying, intimidation and corruption to Mt Eden prison” – see Shabnam Dastgheib’s Serco prisoners live in fear of violence – lawyer. See also, Kelly Ellis’ own interesting blog post, Prisoners scapegoated while Serco lives high on the haul

For more on Serco’s performance targets and achievements, see David Fisher’s Investigation into Serco’s self-reporting and Lamia Imam’s What is actually going on with Serco?

Problems for National’s private provisioning agenda

The fallout from the prison scandal is likely to have larger ramifications for National than just the use of private prisons – it could jeopardise the Government’s whole private provisioning agenda. This is the main point made by Tracy Watkins in her column, Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga not the only reputation shattered in prison crisis

Watkins says that “The Government knows, meanwhile, that the public will hardly be shocked by accounts of violence inside prison and it is on safe ground politically.  But ideology cuts both ways – and the crisis throws a serious rock in the path of the Government’s planned reforms in other areas where the private prison experience has been held up as a template”. She suggests that the current debacle will be particularly problematic in leading the public to question the use of private providers – Serco included – in the care of vulnerable children. 

Similarly, Andrew Dickens – who generally supports such public-private deals – argues that this episode suggests the government just isn’t competent enough to draw up sufficiently robust contracts with providers like Serco – see: Big risks in public-private deals

For Dave Armstrong the prison debacle shows that the whole private provider agenda is flawed, especially the idea of league tables – see: Private prisons need time off for bad behaviour. Armstrong also points out that “There are calls for [Judith] Collins to be reinstated. Given she was minister when the prison was privatised, that’s like making the person who started the blaze the new fire chief”.

For other interesting critiques of National’s contracting out model and agenda, see Peter Lyons’ Market forces work against needs of society, No Right Turn’s Privatisation and political incentives and David Kennedy’s National’s Ideology a Cancer a Public Services

“Serco Sam” and National

The Minister of Corrections has been dubbed “Serco Sam”, and there’s plenty of debate about how damaging the scandal has been for him and how much of the blame should be apportioned to him personally. The latest annual Herald ratings of ministers certainly suggests that he’s not performing well and his Cabinet career might be short – he gets the lowest rating in Cabinet with four out of ten – see Audrey Young’s Ministers’ ratings: Lotu-Iiga bottom of the class. The article reports on all the other ministers too (for example, Nick Smith gets 5/10, Bill English, Simon Bridges and Steven Joyce all get only 6/10, Hekia Parata gets 8/10 and Michael Woodhouse is at the top with 9/10). 

So should Lotu-liga be sacked? For one view on this, see student political journalist Henry Napier’s Lotu-liga needs to go. But according to John Minto, this is unlikely to happen because National is now strongly targeting Pacific votes, and getting rid of him would be counter to that aim – see: National circles the wagons for the spectacularly incompetent Sam Lotu-Iiga

National voters in general are to blame, according to Martyn Bradbury. He believes that they won’t be too worried, apart from films of drinking and drug smoking suggesting prisoners aren’t suffering enough – see: Dear National Party voters of NZ – so how’s that private prison experiment working out for you?

Prison reform

The must-read prison reform item is the aforementioned Government is Hiding the Truth Behind the Serco Debate by Rangi Kemara. And in relation to this, see also The Standard’s It’s not just Serco, it’s state operated prisons

Another very interesting “inside account” – by “Prisoner Rights activist and current Prisoner” Arthur Taylor is: What’s really going on inside Serco from a Prisoner. He also argues that understaffing is causing problems – along with the ban on smoking – and that gangs get exemptions from searches by guards. 

Former MP Keith Locke puts forward his own recommendations for reform, citing interesting experience from Norway – see: How to reduce violence in our prisons

For a socialist view on prisons, from an activist who’s spent some time there – see Don Franks’ Prison violence, where’s it heading? He opposes prisons in general, and says: “Prisoners are quite right to lash out and fight. They are just fighting the wrong people”.

Sociologist Jarrod Gilbert has put forward his contribution to the debate by telling the story of an important prison riot of fifty years ago – see: The night all hell broke loose at Mt Eden Prison. He argues that prison violence always reflects management and institutional problems. 

Finally, a protest is being held in Auckland on Saturday against Serco and private prisons. To find out why, read John Palethorpe’s blog post, Protesting private prisons. And for cartoonists view on the issues, see my blog post, Cartoons about the Serco prison scandal

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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