$11 million wasted on cell phone blockers that don’t work

The first cell phone blocking technology in New Zealand prisons was installed in 2007 – primarily to prevent drug dealing. In April 2010, prisoners at Rimutaka told alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking they were still able to make cell phone calls. A Dominion Post journalist spent a night in Rimutaka Prison and reported that he had no problems using his cell phone – even from inside the prison.

Budget blowout to $11 million

A year later, another inmate told Mr Brooking that cell phones on all three networks were still being used in every unit in the prison. The Dominion Post ran a second story concluding that the technology is flawed and provides only partial coverage. It also said the system was budgeted to cost $6 million but repairs and upgrades have blown the budget to nearly $11 million. Apparently, it will cost another $2 million just ‘to fully jam Rimutaka’ prison alone. That’s $11 millions spent trying to stop drugs coming into prison, while the Department spends only $3.4 million on drug treatment in prison each year.

Dubious contracts require review

On top of this spectacular waste of the taxpayer’s money, the Dominion Post also queried the way in which the Department allocates contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to private sector consultants and contractors. Corrections apparently failed to advise Parliament’s law and order select committee that a multimillion-dollar contract had been awarded to Honeywell, an international security firm given the task of setting up the phone blocking technology.

The Dominion Post reported that at least two former Honeywell employees now work for Corrections and actually manage Corrections’ contract and approve payments to Honeywell. The Dominion Post was so concerned about the Department’s dubious contracting procedures, it ran an editorial calling for an inquiry. Judith Collins is the Minister responsible and no inquiry has taken place.

The legacy of former Chief Executive Barry Mathews

Perhaps the saddest part of this saga is that although the technology is ineffective and cost twice as much as budgeted, former chief executive Barry Mathews listed its implementation as one of his three greatest achievements. His other top achievements were better sentence compliance by the Probation Service and the establishment of the Professional Standards Unit – which investigates corruption by prison officers.

In other words, despite five years as chief executive, Mr Matthews was unable to list as an achievement anything to do with rehabilitation, reintegration or reducing re-offending – despite Ms Collins claiming that these are government priorities.

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