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The Nation: Mark Irwin, Jarrod Gilbert, and Stephen Bonnar

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Mark Irwin, Jarrod Gilbert, and Stephen Bonnar
Youtube clips from the show are available here.

Serco’s Asia-Pacific chief executive Mark Irwin accepts the company didn’t handle the fight clubs at Mt Eden prison as well as it could have, but denies it put lives at risk
Stephen Bonnar QC says Mt Eden prisoners have the right to compensation for breaches of human rights, but suspects only a few will be able to prove harm
Bonnar says Corrections carries “ultimate responsibility” for the treatment of prisoners
Canterbury University sociologist and gang expert Jarrod Gilbert says gangs were in control of Mt Eden prison. “Well, one of the recommendations is is to get some good gang policy within the prisons, and I think that probably is overdue a look.”

Lisa Owen: Serco’s denied that serious assaults were being underreported or wrongly reported. You denied that low staffing levels were a problem. You batted aside allegations that your own staff were bringing in contraband. So I’m wondering, now that we’ve seen this report and we now know that all of those things are true, were your denials based on ignorance, or was that an orchestrated cover-up on Serco’s part?
Mark Irwin: Under our contract, we have to report all incidents of violence in the prison, and we did that according to the terms of the contract. Violence in prisons, though, is a significant issue. We deal with that on a day-to-day basis in our facilities, as you do in public facilities.
I’m sorry to interrupt you, but the report says that there were two serious assaults which were misreported and misrecorded. And also, as I say, we now know that the primary passage for contraband into the prison was likely your staff, according to this report. And we also know that units were severely understaffed. So I’m asking you again, when you denied those things, were you covering up, or were you ignorant to the reality in your own prison?
We were aware of all of the information that was being reported from the prison to the extent that that information needed to be validated either through independent audits or through the presence of the monitors at the prison. We relied on that information. The comprehensive investigation that the inspector did found that of all of the reports that we made, there were those two incidences where there was a misclassification of the seriousness of the assault. But when you look at all of the other assault they did that was reported, that was reported accurately over the four years of the contract. So there was no attempt at all, there was no deliberate attempt through the period of our contract for us to misreport anything. The inspector found that in his investigation, and it’s a critical element of the trust that we established in seven government departments.
Some units were completely unstaffed when prisoners were unlocked, sometimes up to two hours while fights were happening. Others were understaffed. Why didn’t you have enough staff?
I indicated before that we were responding to the continued development of the operational requirements of the prison.
I don’t know what that means. In plain speak, why didn’t you have enough staff there? Were you penny-pinching?
No. What we were doing was adjusting the staffing numbers to what we were required to do in the prison. Absolutely we did not make those adjustments quickly enough. That is, we didn’t increase the number of staff quickly enough during 2015. We were in discussions with the Department of Corrections to add a movements group so it could help us with some of the movement of prisoners in the prison to medical appointments, to lawyers.
That doesn’t explain why you had zero staff in some units when prisoners were unlocked. How can you possibly explain zero staff with all prisoners unlocked in a unit?
That’s unacceptable, Lisa, and we’ve admitted that — that we should’ve had more staff and that that staff should’ve provided supervision at all times.
You put lives at risk, didn’t you?
What we did was manage the risk—
No staff, all prisoners unlocked, fighting. You put lives at risk, didn’t you?
We managed the risk of those incidents as well as we could have under those circumstances, but based on the findings of the report, clearly, there were areas where we should’ve done more and we should’ve done more more quickly.
This is important, and I’d like a straight answer. Did you put lives at risk by having zero staff in some units with all prisoners unlocked in a free-for-all fight?
We did not knowingly do that. We had no evidence of the organised fighting until the video evidence arrived.
Did you do it, Mr Irwin? Straight question. Yes or no. Did you put lives at risk?
To our knowledge, no.
Are you serious about that?
We understand that there was a significant risk, and we do understand and admit that in the areas of safety and security, Lisa, that there were areas that we should’ve responded to more effectively than we did.

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Lisa Owen: Joining me now are sociologist Jarrod Gilbert and lawyer Steven Bonnar. Good morning to you both. Jarrod, the Serco boss there was really reluctant to talk about whether lives have been put at risk during this. You’ve read the report. What do you think?
Jarrod Gilbert: Oh God, of course they were put at risk. That’s just disingenuous at best. You can’t leave prisoners unattended for such long periods of time and not expect risk to occur, not only direct risk to prisoners who didn’t want to participate in these fights, but also through indirect ways. The psychology of a prison, the stress of living in that environment is clearly creating very significant risk, and it’s pure luck that we didn’t have someone more badly hurt or killed.
Mm. Steve, prisoners were denied access to some very basic, fundamental rights, delayed contact with their lawyers. They were fed contaminated food that birds had marched over, if they were lucky to get a meal at all – some of them missed out. Were you surprised to hear that that kind of stuff was going on?
Steve Bonnar: Yes and no. Lawyers have known I think for a long time that there were staffing issues at Mt Eden, and it’s no surprise to those of us who work in the field that there is violence in prisons. I think what is disturbing and surprising and a bit shocking is the degree of complicity or wilful blindness on the part of staff and management, and that is shocking.
Some people at home won’t care. They’ll think, ‘These are prisoners. So what?’ What would you say to those people?
Bonnar: Well, we as a society decide to imprison people when they commit offences. We as a society have a responsibility to imprison them humanely and look after them while they are in custody, and we shouldn’t be exposing prisoners to inhumane or dangerous situations. It’s just not something that a civilised society should be doing.
Gilbert: Lisa, there’s a legal obligation there, of course, but the other is that during this period, Corrections had set themselves very demanding targets to reduce recidivism.
Gilbert: Well, we’re not setting up people to change their lives in environments like this, particularly, of course, in a remand facility, where these people are going to leave and go out into other prisons and affect the culture. So you can have absolutely no sympathy for prisoners at all. This is a social issue. If we want to reduce recidivism, reduce victims of crimes, we’re not going to do it in prisons being run like that.
Bonnar: Prisons are the wrong place to reduce recidivism.
In terms of compensation, then, is the door open for prisoners?
Bonnar: Look, it is open, and it is a matter of principle that any prisoner whose rights have been breached or who has been harmed as a result of actions or inactions of prison staff or management, they will have a right, I suspect with the exception of a few very clear cases— A number of prisoners are probably going to have matters— issues of proof, how they prove they’ve been harmed as a result of the conduct of the management or staff.
I found it interesting — Ray Smith has said this week that any conversational comeback will be Serco’s problem, but Corrections did fail in this as well. The report clearly states that. So is Corrections under the pump too?
Bonnar: Absolutely. Corrections can’t wipe its hands of this by saying, ‘We’ve contracted a private prison provider.’ I mean, Corrections carries ultimate responsibility. Again, as the state or community, we imprison people; the state, the Crown, is responsible for what happens to them.
Jarrod, gang leaders, they say, were organising these fights. Our prisons are supposed to be gang neutral, and here you had them organising these bouts. Do prison bosses understand how gangs operate? Were they ignorant?
Gilbert: Well, one of the recommendations is is to get some good gang policy within the prisons, and I think that probably is overdue a look. We do know how to manage the gangs in prison, and we tend to do that by balancing numbers so no one gains greater superiority over any other. But what we’ve got here is gangs controlling the prison. The oversight is so lax that the gangs get to take control. Now, this is Thomas Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ type of thing.
Do you believe that they were the ones running that jail, in essence?
Gilbert: Look, in very large part, they had a greater deal of control over the way the prison was run in so much as its culture, how to control inmates – then absolutely they should have had. The prisoners in many ways were running that jail for long periods of time, incredible periods of time.
Serco points out that this is a difficult jail, and they’re right. The remand prison is high turnover, lots of prisoner transports and exchanges. As you say, people are in there for just 23 days at a time on average. So is it the same, though, in other prisons with the gang problem?
Gilbert: Look, you will often find gang problems in all of the jails, but they tend to be managed. Now, it will be more difficult in a remand facility because the turnover is so high. You get in jails where people are sentenced, people want to get on with their lag, so you tend to get those senior gang members and senior prisoners wanting to have a calm prison, and this obviously wasn’t the case here, because that turnover is high. 8000 inmates go through there every year; a 50% turnover every three days. It’s a challenging environment, but Serco knew that when they signed up for it, so that can be no excuse, of course.
Well, the thing is that this company is still running one of our biggest jails out in South Auckland. Are you confident that everything’s going swimmingly out there?
Bonnar: Well, it’d be hard to be confident given what we’ve seen in terms of Mt Eden. Anecdotally, I don’t think lawyers have had as many concerns about Wiri as we had about Mt Eden. I think part of that is because, as Jarrod says, it’s the remand environment. They’ve certainly had some teething problems. I know— I’m personally aware of some sort of classification issues and things of that sort, but we haven’t had the same degree of negative feedback in relation to Wiri as we certainly did in relation to Mt Eden.
Jarrod, this is a private company. It has to fill out these performance reports monthly, quarterly, yearly. That prison’s been in operation more than a year. Not a single one of those reports has been made public. What do you think of that?
Gilbert: Well, it’s the one thing I found interesting that Judith Collins said, actually, and that was that she wasn’t just going to keep a particular eye on one prison. Well, there’s a bloody good reason to keep an eye on that one prison, because it’s run by a company with a history of terrible problems in prison, so it needs to be monitored. I’m very surprised she’s not taking a very careful look at those reports, and I suspect she probably will be after today.
Can we say that it is the definitive failure of privatisation in the prison service, or is it just that they chose the wrong prison to use as an experience, as such?
Gilbert: This is an ideological battle, and it always has been, so I don’t know if it’ll change too many minds. For the social scientist in me, when this occurred, I thought, ‘Great. What a wonderful experiment we’ve got here, because we’ve got private contractors within New Zealand. We’ve also got the state. Let’s see how they compare.’ Well, the evidence put before us to this point is pretty damning, but it won’t be enough to change the ideological views of people who see private prisons as having an important place.
Steve, as someone who’s working with the inmates and things, what do you think about privatisation — whether it has a place or just not at Mt Eden, maybe in other prisons?
Bonnar: Yeah, look, I agree with Jarrod. I think the answer of that very much depends on your ideological viewpoint. I mean, personally, I take the viewpoint that prisons are one of those things that the state needs to deal with, same as defence. You know, we as a community imprison these people. We as a community should take the responsibility of dealing with them and looking after them, and so I have an ideological issue with private prisons. I just don’t think the model fits— a profit-driven model necessarily fits.
Is it just that we chose the wrong company, Jarrod? That the Government chose the wrong company?
Gilbert: Well, there are some tensions here, aren’t there, because some of the issues that are identified in this report do appear to be based on a profit motive to some degree. They are trying to save money, you know, and that’s when you’re reducing staff — you’re saving money, aren’t you? So there are some natural tensions here. Whether or not it was the right company, look, I have no idea, but every indication is Serco is here to stay for a while, certainly in Wiri.
All right. Thank you both for joining me this morning. Much appreciated.
Transcript provided by Able.

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