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Howard's End: Trans-Tasman Private Prison Problems

Australasian Correctional Management, the company which runs the Auckland Central Remand Centre is now involved in investigating allegations of assault and intimidation against its staff. Meanwhile across the ditch the same company has been slammed by Australian Federal authorities over its procedures in running a refugee detention centre in Australia. John Howard writes.

Serious allegations of assault and intimidation by prison guards and a police officer at the private Auckland Central Remand Centre run by Australasian Corrections Management have recently prompted investigations here. Australasian Correctional Management says it is conducting an internal inquiry into an incident involving a 19-year-old remand prisoner who claims he was nearly strangled to death. Meanwhile police and Corrections Department staff are also involved in investigating the alleged incident.

A prison officer's union - Correctional Association of NZ - spokesman John Slater is today reported saying, "An internal management inquiry here has already cleared our member of any wrong doing and we expect any subsequent inquiries to also." Corrections Minister, Matt Robson, is not commenting until investigations are completed.

In Australia, Australasian Correctional Management, the subsidiary of the United States-based private prison operator Wachenhut, has come in for intense criticism from as high-up as Australia's Federal Ombudsman over its operations at Australia's refugee centre at Woomera in South Australia.

The private company in Australia operates six refugee detention centres and also has a powerful presence in operating the Australian prison system.

Official criticism of the company at Woomera includes allegations of humiliating detainees, using detainee numbers instead of names, a lack of training and short-term contracts for Woomera refugee centre staff, and the absence of monitoring arrangements between the government and the contractor.

The Federal Ombudsman's report contains disturbing allegations of indecent assaults, physical assaults and stalking of women and children, self-harm and damage to property at detention centres.

The Ombudsman spoke of, "cultural and attitudinal problems", among some ACM staff and called on the Federal Government to stop using jails to detain illegal immigrants.

Between July 1999 and June 2000, 91 refugee detainees were moved from detention centres to jails often after only receiving a vague notice declaring their, "unacceptable and threatening behaviour."

Australia's Minister for Immigration, Mr Ruddock, continually resisted investigating child abuse allegations at the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, but finally caved in last November after a nurse revealed that company management had interviewed a 12-year-old boy detainee, decided he was lying and ripped up her report despite the fact that mandatory reporting of child abuse is law in South Australia.

Mr Ruddock has since tabled reports in Federal Parliament involving cases where, "reasonable suspicion of child abuse", was not handled in accordance with relevant legislation and departmental procedures.

In Australia the public has been denied much information on how these centres are run, on the doubtful basis of commercial confidentially.

An investigation by former head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, Philip Flood, into child abuse at refugee centres was seen as a whitewash because the terms of reference for his inquiry were so limited that he was prevented from calling witnesses and was confined to administrative processes rather than the substance of the allegations. Mr Flood, however, did recommend that staff incentive performance payments be removed from staff contracts because he saw this as discouraging the reporting of child abuse.

Given these reports from Australia it stands to reason that the New Zealand inquiry now needs to be much wider, and certainly be conducted totally independently of Australasian Correctional Management Ltd.

Company operations and procedures must also receive the full glare of the media spotlight. And Corrections Minister, Matt Robson, must now get off the fence, because ultimately, responsibility and accountability for all prisons, whether they be public or private, is his.

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