In early October, Bevan Hanlon, president of the Corrections Association (left), said 12 out of 20 new recruits employed at Mt Eden prison in the past two months had left their jobs because of security fears. Then last week, he said staff at the prison sometimes leave up to 45 prisoners in a unit on their own with no supervision and as a result “ prisoners are assaulting each other and beating each other up.” Hanlon says many fights go unreported because “no guards are there to see them happen… prisoners are being left to fight among themselves”.
This reinforces comments made a year ago by former prison inmate, Martin Lyttleton (below), who said violence was rife in prison, especially in the Auckland Central Remand Prison (now MECF) where gang members seemed to be in charge.
“They were running fight clubs in the mainstream units, so a lot of people were getting bashed up… In some cases the guards were actually sanctioning assaults by inmates on other inmates”, he said. “There were few programmes or rehabilitation courses, and so the inmates were bored and looked for trouble”
“The guards were actually sanctioning assaults by inmates on other inmates. They were conscious that an assault was going to take place. [They would] leave the unit, the assault would occur, then they would come back into the unit afterwards and it was discussed amongst the inmates that it was a guard-sanction assault.”
The Mt Eden Correctional Facility (left) is operated by Serco, the British consortium with a history of dodgy management practices. In July this year, the Guardian newspaper reported that the Serco-run Thameside facility has been rated as one of the three worst prisons in Britain. A month later the Guardian reported that police had been called in to investigate fraud allegations against Serco for overcharging the Government by as much as £50million to operate a contract to transport prisoners to and from courts across London and East Anglia. In September, Guardian Australia revealed that key performance reports from Serco and G4S, the companies that run detention centres on Australia’s mainland, and the regional processing centre on Manus Island, do not exist. The missing reports are supposed to monitor the welfare, care, security, health and medical, counselling and education of detainees.
In New Zealand, the Government’s contract with Serco still leaves the Corrections Department with ultimate responsibility to ensure that custodial sentences are “administered in a safe, secure, humane and effective manner”. The Department is required by the Corrections Act to ensure that all prison facilities are “operated in accordance with rules set out in the Act… and are based on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”
It’s not just Mt Eden prison which has problems with violence. The reality is that Corrections struggles to provide a safe environment in any of its prisons. In the last five years the number of prisoners attacking other inmates in New Zealand has nearly doubled. In 2011, 862 inmates were assaulted by other prisoners, 48 of which were classified as ‘serious assaults’. In 2006/07, there were only 27 ‘serious’ incidents. In 2010/11 there were also 241 assaults on prison staff and in May 2010, Jason Palmer (right) became the first prison officer to be killed in a New Zealand prison after he was punched by inmate Latu Kepu.
In a media interview in April 2012, Corrections general manager of prison services, Jeanette Burns, claimed the number of serious assaults on prison staff had dropped dramatically since 1995 and said fewer prisoners were requesting voluntary segregation to avoid violence and gang related problems in mainstream prison units. That’s managerial spin. The reality is that Corrections revised its policy on voluntary segregation in 2011 and implemented a new screening process which allows staff to decline prisoners’ requests to be placed on segregation.
Ms Burn’s assertions were also challenged in October 2012 by new figures showing serious assaults on prison guards have, in fact, tripled in the past five years. During the year to the end of June, 18 staff were seriously assaulted – up from just six in 2007. Even the Auditor General said the number of serious assaults is “well above the expected level”. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults were 85% higher than expected and prisoner-on-staff assaults were 160% higher than expected. Much of the violence is gang related including the eight hour riot at Spring Hill prison in June this year in which buildings were set on fire (left) and three guards were left with broken bones. Repairs were expected to take six months and to cost millions of dollars.
It should come as no surprise that violent assaults in prison have impacted on officers’ perceptions of their personal safety. In 2011, only 69% of staff reported feeling safe working in prison. Nearly half believed they could not report unethical behaviour by other officers without fear of reprisal, or believed that Corrections would not hold officers accountable for such behaviour. Radio New Zealand’s revelations suggest that staff at the Serco-run prison feel even more vulnerable than officers in Corrections’ prisons.
But the Department always puts a positive spin on things. In May Corrections reported that Serco was outperforming most of the state prisons in comparative tables which measure one prison against another. The tables include the number of assaults occurring in each prison – the number being reported to be more precise – and Serco’s performance was rated as “exceptional”. What does that say about all the other prisons? The reality is that there is nothing exceptional about anything in the New Zealand prison system. Only Scandinavian countries can make such claims.
Management at Corrections are exceptionally good at just one thing – they have an extraordinary ability to spin the facts and turn a blind eye to the truth; and the truth, according to Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, is that our prisons are ‘a moral and fiscal failure’.