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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Judith Collins

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Judith Collins
Youtube clips from the show are available here.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins says the Corrections Department needs to take responsibility, along with Serco, for what has gone wrong at Mount Eden Prison.
Collins says she didn’t know about emails from the Corrections Association to the Department raising concerns about monitors at Mount Eden, and says she will talk about that with the Chief Executive.
The Minister says she would like more communication from the department - “you don’t tend to get the oversight about these issues that I think a minister should be able to get. “

Lisa Owen: The chief ombudsman is putting the Department of Corrections under closer scrutiny following the release of a report into organised fighting and contraband at Mt Eden Prison. The report says that prison staff knew about the fight clubs run by gang members and were bringing in banned items for prisoners. Corrections minister Judith Collins is among many who have said they were shocked by the report. She joins me now. Good morning, Minister.
Judith Collins: Good morning, Lisa.
On a scale of one to 10, how bad was it at Mt Eden jail? 10 being the worst.
I think it’s certainly an eight or a nine. I think it’s very poor, and I think, too, it’s the sort of thing that if it happens, you need to stamp down on it straight away and stop it happening.
Okay. Well, in 2010, and I’m quoting you here when I say this, you said about Serco, ‘I’m confident that the company will bring the high standards of professionalism, safety, rehabilitation and security expected by the government.’ How did you get it so wrong?
Well, they did actually do all those things to start with, and it’s pretty clear from the Department of Corrections reports that they did do well to start with, but near the end of the term of their contract, they actually started to lose control of the situation. And we’ve certainly had this happen before when Corrections has run that same prison. I’ve got a report from 2009 where the same sort of behaviours were occurring, and it’s the same prisoners leading it.
I suppose it’s the scale of things, isn’t it?
Well, it’s not just the scale of things. It shouldn’t be happening anyway, but the fact is is that two-thirds of our prisoners in our jails are there for violent offending. So they’re not going to wake up one morning and say, ‘I’ve found God. I’m going to turn over a new leaf.’ It doesn’t work like that, only in the movies. And so you’re dealing with some of the worst violent offenders in the country and particularly in remand. And actually, you cannot ever let that situation occur. So Corrections has very clearly said in their chief inspector’s report that unfortunately, obviously, some staff were involved, some staff involved in clearly bringing in contraband. This happens in prisons. It’s always whenever we find it, we always stop it and deal with it.
I don’t think anybody is saying it’s an easy job, but the thing was this wasn’t all Serco’s fault, was it? The Corrections monitors knew there had been fights and were fights going on. They didn’t follow up on some incidents. They accepted pushback from Serco. So how much responsibility does your ministry need to take for this?
Well, I think the Department of Corrections needs to take some responsibility as well and, particularly as you say, around the prison monitors. That’s one of the most concerning parts of the report, and mostly almost all the report is very concerning. But, actually, the monitors were in there to report back to Corrections, to stop certain things happening and to come through. Now, these reports clearly never went to the minister, and another report has shown that they didn’t even go to the chief executive. That is not acceptable, and I expect that that’s going to be improved, and I’ve been told it has been improved. But it’s still not good enough.
All the while Serco was the top of the performance charts.
Yes, I know. It just makes a mockery of it, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it make a mockery of it? I think it does. And, actually, who was rating those performance charts? Corrections was, so clearly the monitoring wasn’t working. But apparently it was working to start with, and this attitude of pushback, actually, that’s the job. You know, you’ve got to deal with people who are going to push back.
I want to talk about the monitors a bit more, because they’re paid by Corrections, and there was concern expressed in the report that they were liaising with Serco a little too much rather than keeping them in check. Do you think that they might have got a bit too cosy with Serco in there at the jail?
Quite clearly there was that, and that’s not acceptable, so there has been a whole new system put in place now. But they’ve also been talking to State Services Commission, because what happens as a minister, and I’ve only been back being the minister, obviously, for a matter of months, is that you don’t tend to get the oversight about these issues that I think a minister should be able to get. Because a minister’s going to have to, as I am today, having to turn up and answer on it, so I should have the oversight of what’s going on. So a lot of these reports have never been provided to ministers, they haven’t been made public. This Serco report is the first time—
So what are you saying? You want to know exactly what’s going on there at all times?
I want to know, but also, Lisa, I actually think that these reports should be generally available. They should be available, there should be some transparency.
To the public?
Yes, why not? This is the first report that’s actually been released in full. Now, why is that? It’s always just been summaries before. Now, I understand that there are issues around security and privacy, and they can be taken care of it. But I’d actually like to have more transparency, so I’ve been talking to the State Services Commission over the last few months about how we can make this more transparent, how these reports can routinely come up to the minister. But the other thing too, Lisa, is that reports don’t even come to a minister or be made available because they’re kept in draft for so long. Actually, that’s not good enough either.
I want to talk about transparency a bit later, but I also want to talk a bit more about the monitors. So, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because in 2013, and I’ve seen the emails, the union did raise concern about the monitors not doing their jobs properly. They sent emails to Corrections saying, and I’m quoting from those emails, ‘Can we as taxpayers have confidence in these monitors actually doing their jobs? What steps have been taken to ensure these monitors are, in fact, doing their jobs?’ They raised concerns about classifications of prisoners and staffing levels and the experience of staff, and they got pushed back. I mean, what did Corrections do?
It’s interesting that you received those emails, but, of course, I was not the minister at the time, and I have no reason to believe that the previous minister had access to those, so, actually—
But there you have a union actually putting a red flag up in 2013.
Well, I’m very concerned about that, and, actually, I’d like to see those emails, and I’d also like to see what happened to those and was any action taken. I don’t know that yet, because, of course, the union hasn’t provided those to me.
Well, the union was told to back off by the Department of Corrections, so—
Sorry, what sort of union listens when they’re told to back off?
Are you going to be asking some questions of your department about that?
Yes, I certainly will be, and I’ll be asking this — what sort of union backs off? What is this, back off, push back? Honestly, these people are supposed to be paid to do the job.
Hang on, it’s Corrections’ job to look out for these monitors.
But what do you mean? The union got told to back off by the Corrections? It’s a pretty weak response.
Minister, arguably, that’s a reflection of the attitude of the Department of Corrections rather than, perhaps, taking action where it should’ve been taken.
Well, the other thing too is that the union could have done… And, look, I’ve never seen these emails.
Hang on a minute, Minister. I’m sorry, but Department of Corrections, their responsibility to handle the monitors. The union puts a red flag up. Why wasn’t anything done?
I’m agreeing with you, Lisa. I absolutely want to know that. So this is the first time that I have been told about the union emailing Corrections in 2013. Of course, I was not the minister, but, actually, since then I have been, and they’ve never raised it with me. So I’d like to know about that. I’m very interested to hear you tell me, and I will be taking that matter up with Corrections.
Are those monitors still in their jobs or in Corrections jobs?
Well, they’re certainly in jobs, and—
Corrections jobs, you mean?
Well, you’d need to ask Ray Smith, the chief executive, because I cannot have influence over the individual staff members by law.
Would you be happy if, say, some of the monitors or one of the monitors from Mt Eden jail was now working as a monitor at Wiri?
Well, I cannot— See, Lisa, you or I might say that—
But would that concern you as a minister?
What I would be concerned about, and I’m not going to take an individual staff member of Corrections and bag them in the media, and you can understand why, but also I cannot have, by law, any power or any statement I can make about individual staff members of Corrections like that, because that would be breaching the Corrections Act. But also it’s deeply unfair. Corrections has to deal with that. The person who has responsibility to me is the chief executive.
Okay, let me put it another way. Half a dozen Serco managers lost their jobs as a direct result — more than — as a direct result of what was going on at Mt Eden Prison. Did any heads roll in Corrections?
Well, you’d have to talk to Ray Smith about that, but I will tell you this—
But as minister, you must be privy to that information. Did anyone lose their job at Corrections?
No, I’m not privy to it, and I cannot be privy to it.
Should they have?
It’s not for me to say. You need to have Ray Smith on to answer that. And I’ll say this as well about the Serco staff members, the managers. They lost their job because they lost the contract. There was no need for them when they didn’t have the contract.
Well, the thing is this was as $300 million contract. It went belly up because of, arguably, in part inadequate oversight. Surely, someone needed to be held responsible from the Department of Corrections.
Well, I would’ve thought that that is being dealt with by the chief executive, and, you know, it’s easy for me to say that staff member should go, that staff member’s this. We obviously have employment law that Corrections has to comply with. It is also deeply unfair for me to personally criticise a particular staff member when they’ve got no opportunity to answer back. But also, I’m not their employer. The Department of Corrections is. The person who’s responsible to me is Ray Smith.
Prisoners were denied their basic human rights — meals, access to lawyers. The chief ombudsman said his office is to going to put Corrections under ‘closer scrutiny’. How disappointing is it that that is required of your department?
No, I think it should be, and I think it’s… The ombudsman is now saying they’re going to do this. This should’ve been happening anyway, because the ombudsman has an obligation by law to have a monitoring of the department and prisoners and prisons. And the ombudsman staff, obviously they do go into prisons, and they monitor things, they put out reports, they send me reports. What I want to know is I want to be able to have access to these prison inspectors’ reports so that I can see them and see what’s going on.
The Department of Corrections is going to be negotiating soon, taking over Serco workers contracts at Mt Eden.
Some of them. Not all staff.
Okay, so that’s the point. Given that some staff have been singled out as being the people bringing in the contraband, are you sure that you’re not inheriting a bunch of bad apples?
Well, Corrections has told me that not all of the Serco staff have been offered contracts. And so I presume that they will be… I have to rely on the fact that Corrections is undertaking its due diligence of these staff members.
You mean weeding out the bad ones?
Yes, absolutely, and the weak ones. You cannot have weak behaviour when you’re working in a remand prison, you can’t have weak behaviour giving into demands from prisoners, and you can’t have managers who don’t back their staff and provide them with a safe environment. So quite clearly, you’re going to end up with instances of individual corruption and very bad behaviour if you don’t have strong management that backs its staff and provides a safe environment.
Okay, well, Serco is still managing a prison in South Auckland. Now, you’ve said that they’re doing a good job. You’ve also talked about transparency. Not a single one of that prison’s performance reports have been made public in more than a year.
But they’ve only been operating for a year.
Correct. But they’ve been going 17 months.
They haven’t actually gone through their period yet.
They file monthly performance reports, quarterly performance reports and yearly performance reports. So in the time they’ve been operating, that’s, what, quick calculation, more than 20 reports. Not a single one is available publicly.
Well, that is very unfair, actually, Lisa. We’ve got 18 prisons in the prison estate. The only one you focus on is the Serco-run one, and, actually Corrections has said—
Well, Serco has lost its contract at Mt Eden, Minister, so it is important where they have failed that they be scrutinised.
I can say the same about the fact that over the years, Corrections has had to put in whole new management into some of their own prisons where there has been a failure in management and in direction, and quite clearly, that happens.
Why aren’t those reports publicly available? You want people to believe that that prison is doing a good job. Why not give them the information to assess that?
Corrections has told me that the time— It’s only a brand new prison and that after a year, they’re still—
It’s not brand new, Minister. They have filed 20-odd performance reports. Not a single one available. What impression do you think that—?
Well, are you interested in any of the other ones?
What impression do you think that gives to the public that that information is not available?
Well, actually, I think the fact that they have a far greater regime of monitoring. I’ve been into the prison, I’ve had a look round, I’ve seen people, I walked through it.
Have you seen those reports?
I haven’t seen those reports, because we don’t get those reports as a Minister. But what I do, though, is I get reports every week about what’s happening and various things, if there have been instances, and I get reports now of any instances in all of our prisons. But I don’t single out a particular prison and say I’m only interested in that prison.
So should that information be available to the public in a timely fashion?
Well, I think it needs to be available in a far more forthright manner, and that’s about what’s happening in our prisons. There has been over the years not a lot of interest in any prison that’s not run by a private prison, and, actually, I think we all need to have an interest in these areas.
Why is Serco still out there at Wiri? Is it just too hard, too expensive to get rid of them? If you had your choice, would you ditch them from that contract?
No, actually. My choice is that we have a provider or some providing of some competition but also benchmarking for Corrections.
But is that the right company to offer that competition, given what’s happened at Mt Eden?
Well, if I worked on that basis, we wouldn’t have a Department of Corrections, because we’ve certainly had failures in the past. I mean, you’re talking about fight clubs, and we’re all talking about we’re concerned about these fight clubs that have happened in Mt Eden, but I’ve got a 2009 report with me that Corrections shows that when it was run by Corrections, that there were fight clubs that there was obviously staff involvement, that there were all these things, and that’s from a 2009 report based on 2008 activities.
But you also have a 2013 report as well, and, again, Serco was in charge then. Nothing seemed to happen.
So, actually, what you’re dealing with is a very difficult situation in a remand prison where people are on remand because they can’t get bail or they haven’t yet been sentenced. They have a stay on average 23 days. It’s a very volatile situation, and two-thirds of the population in prison in there for violence, and most of them in remand are very violent people.
Right, we’re out of time, Minister, but just before we go, I do want to ask you — on the subject of young offenders, do you personally support raising the Youth Court age to allow teenagers up to 18 to go?
Well, you know, Lisa, this is a matter for Cabinet, and we have—
I’m asking what you personally think, Minister.
Well, I don’t have a statement that I’m going to make on it until after Cabinet has decided. I know it is a very difficult area, and I particularly know that some of these young offenders coming through are extremely violent and extremely physical. It’s a very hard decision, and Cabinet will make that. I will obviously — obviously — support the Cabinet decision of my colleagues.
All right, thanks for joining me this morning, Minister.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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