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Estimations: Department Of Corrections

Estimations with Scoop's Kevin List

Department of Corrections Hearing of Evidence 23 June 2004

The big guns of the Department of Corrections and the Minister Paul Swain turned up in Parliament House yesterday to look ahead to the next financial year.

National Law and Order Select Committee member Tony Ryall chose to focus on the expanding budget of the four regional prisons. The Minister defended himself from Mr Ryall's questions by pointing out that the policy of building regional prisons was begun by the National Government in 1997. The Minister explained that the aim of regional prisons was to reduce re-offending and recidivism rates through placing inmates being closer to whanau and family.

There was some confusion during the Estimates hearing of evidence between the Minister and senior corrections officials - which included the Chief Financial Officer - as to whether there had ever been an actual initial estimate regarding the cost of the four regional prisons. Various figures were bandied about as to the actual projected cost of the prisons now (in excess of $600 million dollars). The upsurge in the prison population due to tougher sentencing laws, and the increase in the cost of construction were proferred as reasons for the latest estimated regional prisons costings.

The number of prisoners who share their cells was also brought up by Ryall. According to the General Manager of Public Prisons Phil McCarthy, around 1000 of the 6000 inmates now residing in New Zealand prisons share cells. New Zealand First and National members seemed unperturbed at the impact on prisoner's comfort should this practise increase. Officials noted that expanding this practice could lead to greater levels of assault, and may be unsafe for Corrections staff dealing with prisoner's double bunking.

The spectre of the infamous goon squad was raised once again by Ron Mark when asking questions regarding the newly formed Regional Restraint Teams(RRT). The RRT were described by corrections official's as rather like the Armed Offender's Squad of the New Zealand Police. The RRT are supposed to be small elite teams, capable of quelling riots and disturbances in prisons. It was explained that the RRT would differ significantly from the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) a.k.a. "the goon squad".

The differences given were that member's of RRT would not be devoted solely to these teams, and that the make-up of these teams would be fluid and ever changing. When asked whether any staff from the disbanded ERU would end up in the RRT, Phil McCarthy responded, "there will be some [members of the ERU] that we will not want to put in that unit." His response would tend to confirm that there will be some members of the ERU that the department will want to put in the new unit.

When it came to United Future MP Marc Alexander's turn to ask questions, there came immediate howls of outrage from Labour members at the mention of the Correction's Department's most controversial inmate.

Alexander wanted to know about offical reports on allegations of abuse concerning detained Algerian asylum seeker, Ahmed Zaoui.

While other members had been treated fairly leniently by the chair Martin Gallagher regarding whether their questions fit within the scope of an Estimates hearing of evidence (i.e. the questions must in theory be forward looking) - little lee-way was given to Alexander.

Questions regarding the outcomes of any reports, and whether there were any new reports concerning allegations of mistreatment elicited little response from the officials. There may have been a report relating to an incident at Auckland Central remand Prison, they said. All reports regarding incidents at Mt Eden's D Block had been written.

The next question from Alexander again related to the fate of asylum seekers/refugees within the New Zealand penal system and concerned the United Nations Convention Against Torture Report concerning New Zealand [See… United Nations, Amnesty & Human Rights Foundation]. The Minister's answer referred only to the status of Mr Zaoui and the Security Risk Certificate process. The UN Report however makes no mention of any specific detainee, and criticises New Zealand corrections in a number of areas, including failing to segregate asylum seekers from other (remand) inmates.

**** ENDS ****

Estimations will be an occasional news column by Scoop Chief Reporter Kevin List in which he relates events which occur during the annual round of Estimates Hearings in the NZ Parliament's Select Committees. Estimates Hearings are hearings of evidence from departmental and ministry officials relating to the annual estimates. The estimates form the greater part of the budget documentation, and outline what the various arms of Government plan to spend in the coming year.

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