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Kevin List: An Audience With Matt Robson

Interview By Kevin List

An Audience With Matt Robson


Minister of Corrections Matt Robson (left) with Department of Corrections Chief Executive Mark Byers and Regional Adviser Maori Service Development Des Ripi, during the placing of the stones at the dawn ceremony. Photo: Northland News.

The Corrections Bill

The Corrections Bill, now in its penultimate stage before becoming law, will see the end to private prisons in New Zealand. There has been much gnashing of teeth over the impending demise of New Zealand’s first and possibly last private prison. In an interview with Kevin List former Corrections Minister in the Labour-Alliance Government and now Progressive MP Matt Robson picks up the political football of law and order and gives some of the hard issues around private prisons a sound kicking.

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Minister of Corrections Matt Robson (second from left) with, from left, Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, Doris Te Parekore Vercoe and Mita Mohi at the Kaiwhakamana Policy launch in Rotorua May 2002.

The Privatisation of Prisons in NZ

In June 2000, Australasian Correctional Management Services (ACM) began running the newly built Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP). ACM’s contract is set to end in June 2005 and will not be renewed. Opposition MPs, normally not averse to the odd call to bring back hard labour, and critical of any attempt at softening the system have been effusive in their praise of the supposedly progressive way ACRP has been run. This failure to follow a consistent argument in regard to corrections policy has annoyed Robson.

“Nandor Tanczos made a good point [during the second reading of the Corrections Bill] the very people crying out for a punitive system, a bread and water system [Stephen Franks and the National Party] are praising the remand prison for its humanitarian programmes. The very people, like Franks and Ryall, who say rehabilitation achieves nothing are the ones praising the private prison.”

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Who owns the contract for ACRP?

The Company that owns the contract to run New Zealand’s only private prison has recently had a name change. Australasian Correctional Management, a subsidiary of the giant United States private penal and mental institution operator Wackenhut Corrections Corp (See also the radio documentary Corrections Inc. - American RadioWorks (NPR)) is now known as GEO. In Australia the name ACM has become synonymous with claims of maltreatment of asylum seekers in Australia’s immigration centres. (See… Wackenhut, repackaged and "innocently disguised" )

And it hasn’t only been the inmates who have suffered at ACM/GEO’s network of detention centres. Workers at the notorious detention centre at Woomera [now closed], have sued ACM for stress and depression and claimed they worked in appalling conditions. This willingness to diversify their incarceration portfolio in the interests of making a profit is likened to another vocation sometimes frowned upon.

“They are hired mercenaries,” states Robson, with feeling, and then explains that the world of the private prison service is nothing if not flexible.

“In the select committee when asked by Franks would they run the American type of model, he [Franks] pointed to various states in America some run more liberal some extremely punitive. They [Australian Correctional Management] replied “Whatever you want we’ll give you”. They [ACM] are prostitutes on this, 'if you want a liberal humanitarian model we’ll give it to you.’…. They don’t have an ethical principle that says we will run a prison along reform lines [rehabilitative]. You want a Texas style prison - we’ll give you one. You want a refugee detention camp – we’ll give you a refugee detention camp.”

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Above and below – Corrections Minister Matt Robson leads guests into the unit as inmates from Rimutaka Prison’s Maori focus unit perform the wero (traditional challenge).

ACRP and Maori Initiatives

Although ACRP is primarily a remand prison, a small part of it is set aside for sentenced inmates. Whatever one's view regarding public or private prisons, MPs of all political persuasions seem satisfied with how ACRP operates the programmes aimed at rehabilitation, particularly those targeting Maori offenders. Those supporting the Bill consider however that it was the Department of Corrections insertion of various clauses in the contract for the prison that has led to the positive outcomes.

“Proponents of the private prison, Alexander, Franks the National Party and the prison itself just outright lie on the record of the [ACRP] itself. There has been an enormous development programme for Maori in prison [public]. The flagship of the development programme is the Maori Focus Units which have been enormously successful and due to the hard work and the initiative of Maori staff.”

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Is a Private Prison Cheaper?

In a recent opinion piece for The Dominion Post ACT MP Stephen Franks cited various costs associated with incarcerating inmates in various jails in New Zealand. According to Mr Frank's by far the most cost efficient jail in New Zealand was the ACRP. Mr Franks pointed out that the cost of keeping an inmate in prison for a year in high security was around $72,000 whilst the cost of an inmate residing at ACRP was around $43,000.

However, figures from the Department of Corrections relating only to remand prisoners in New Zealand show ACRP costs to actually be higher than the public prison service. ACRP operating costs are as Mr Franks stated $43,000 per inmate per year whilst operating costs relating to remand inmates in the public prisons are according to the department $36,000. The department also points out that as ACRP is significantly newer its facility operating costs are far higher - $26,000 per inmate per annum compared to the older and therefore lower facility operating costs in the public prison service of $8,000 per (remand) inmate per annum.

“It’s the showcase for ACM so they can grab the rest of the prison system. They have if you like, ran a loss making operation like any business does.” Robson opines and then suggests that ACM’s commercial imperatives may mirror another Australian competitor seeking to make inroads into New Zealand

“Qantas came here and for X number of years said ‘we’re going to take a loss while we get the market share.’ They [ACM] don’t want just the piddly little remand system they want the bloody lot.”

Whilst the inmate and facility costs may be dearer according to the department’s figures, ACM is able to make savings in regard to pay rates. In 2002 the remand prison faced strike action as workers sought a 16% pay increase to bring their wages into line with their counterparts in the public sector.

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Tariana Turia visits Rimutaka Prison - April 2001

The Future For ACRP

Many Maori, including ex-Labour MP, Tariana Turia are concerned about what will happen to the culture of ACRP when it returns to the fold of the Public prison service. According to the Select Committee Commentary there was also concern about the future of ACRP post ACM from a large number of submitters. What was not mentioned in the commentary was that a large number of these submitters seemed to share the same last name and have familial connections to staff who worked at the ACRP.

“The private prison has gone out and courted a lot of groups and paid them a lot of attention. There’s been a lot of time and money spent courting members of parliament who have shown their ignorance on this topic by overstating their case…People have to separate out the PR aspects of a commercial company from the facts. I don’t blame them for it. They operate under the laws of capitalism. This is an industry - they could be processing chickens or building nuclear bombs - they don’t care…they make money out of it and they have shareholders.”

Part of pleasing shareholders when one is running an organisation that globally incarcerates thousands is keeping the number of customers up according to Robson.

“They’d [ACM] also be very happy at the trajectory that says there is going to be another two and a half thousand prisoners by 2010.”

Robson considers that the public prison service will be more likely to assist keeping some sort of cap on burgeoning prison populations.

“Why the public system is so important is to make sure we don’t reach that goal. We have to work overtime at early intervention and the rehabilitation programmes.”

(For more on this point see the radio documentary on the US experience of private prisons… Corrections Inc. - American RadioWorks (NPR))

ENDS

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