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Guest Opinion: Bill Puts Ideology Before Inmates

Corrections Bill Puts Ideology Before Inmates

By Te Warena Taua
10 September 2003

A groundswell of opposition is building to the Government's Corrections Bill which, if passed in its present form, will prevent any agency other than the Public Prison Service from managing a prison.

The bill will also prevent the renewal of the management contract for the Auckland Central Remand Prison, New Zealand's only privately managed prison, when it comes up for renewal in 2005.

The select committee hearing on the bill has been swamped with opposition to it, with dozens of submissions from a huge range of New Zealanders.

Those who feel strongly enough to speak out include two Auckland mayors, city councillors, staff who have worked in both publicly and privately managed prisons, a wide range of individuals who are involved in the prison system, and representatives of the Maori and Pacific Island communities.

The groundswell of opposition reflects an appreciation of the incredible progress and innovation at the remand prison under a new approach to management.

For the best part of 150 years our prisons have been characterised by sluggishness and complacency. Since the Auckland management contract, our prisons, and the department that manages them, have been challenged to raise their standards and come up new solutions to old problems.

In 1999 the contract for the new Auckland remand prison was put up for tender. A number of organisations, including the Public Prison Service, tendered for it. Eventually, Australasian Correctional Management was awarded the contract.

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Since then, there has been a revolution in prison management. A new approach has set standards previously thought impossible across every area of the prison.

The Auckland Central Remand Prison handles some of New Zealand's most dangerous and high-risk inmates, yet remains the safest prison in the country for staff, inmates and the community it serves.

The difference between the management of that prison and our publicly managed prisons is evident as soon as an inmate arrives, through the allocation of resources and priorities. A good example is in the area of mental health.

Twelve to 15 per cent of prison inmates are mentally unwell, yet the Public Prison Service identifies just 3 to 5 per cent. Because of the obvious lack of an appropriate assessment model in the prison system, the Auckland remand prison's management has developed its own model. It routinely identifies about 12 per cent of inmates as mentally unwell.

The prison employs a lower ratio of prison officers to inmates than the Public Prison Service. The resources are instead shifted to priorities that can better help the inmate, ensure appropriate management, and aid rehabilitation and reintegration.

If an inmate is not identified as being mentally ill, how can a prison help him? How can a prison keep the inmate, the rest of the prison and - upon release - the community safe? It cannot.

The innovation and holistic approach in the area of mental health is representative of what is happening at the remand prison across every area of the institution. It is precisely this type of innovation that the Government's bill will stifle.

Nobody in this debate is arguing for all our prisons to be privately managed. What we are saying is that if we are to encourage excellence in our prisons, we must allow the very best organisations to run them.

If the Public Prison Service can demonstrate that it can deliver the very best results in terms of prison management, and best meet the goals of the Government, then by all means it should be permitted to do so. But if another agency can do a better job, stopping it from doing so is simply putting ideology ahead of the inmates and the community.

The Auckland Central Remand Prison is universally recognised as the most innovative, progressive and successful prison in the country.

Government plans to remove any further involvement of the private sector in managing our prisons go against all the available evidence. Handing an exclusive monopoly to run prisons back to the Public Prison Service and turning our backs on any other possibilities is settling for second best.

Maori are particularly upset with the bill. Despite Maori making up 15 per cent of the population, more than half of all prison inmates are Maori. The management of our prisons and the people in them is, unfortunately, a critical issue for Maoridom.

Despite this, there has been no consultation from the Government with Maori on this issue.

With the remand prison, Maori have for the first time formed a genuine partnership with the management of a prison. Maori were involved in selecting the management through the tender process and had a role in the appointment of the first Maori general manager of any prison.

Maori are consulted over all decisions made at the prison and play a pivotal role in the creation and implementation of all processes and programmes. The Auckland contract, and Maori involvement in it, is a perfect example of Maori determining appropriate solutions to Maori problems.

We have seen the most inspiring examples of inmates turning their lives around as a result of their experience. Inmates who have previously spent time in other prisons note the difference.

Our prisons are failures. They have been failing for decades. Our imprisonment rate is among the highest in the world and, of the inmates we release from prison, more than 80 per cent are reconvicted of another offence within five years.

Our prisons are doing a serious disservice to the communities they are supposed to serve and the inmates they are supposed to care for and rehabilitate.

We must do better and, finally, we have an example that shows us we can.

The Auckland Central Remand Prison has shown us what is possible with a new approach and the best people.

We must not let ideology prevent long-overdue innovation and reform from entering our prison system.


- Te Warena Taua chairs the iwi Whanui o Tamaki Makaurau, which represents six iwi in a formal relationship with the management of the Auckland Central Remand Prison.

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