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Corrections needed

Something is rotten in the state of our prisons and ideological squabbling is no way to fix it.

Ray Smith, left, and Sam Lotu-Iiga: too little, too late. Photo/Getty Images

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English tried to play down the Mt Eden prison furore by saying it’s not news that people fight in prisons. He was right, of course. In fact, he could have gone further and said that bad things happen in prisons regardless of whether they’re run by the private or the public sector. But it is news when prisoners stage what appears to be organised fights and guards know nothing about it or do nothing to stop it, either of which is inexcusable. And it becomes even more obvious that things are out of control when the fights are recorded on cellphones – supposedly banned in prisons – and uploaded to social media.

English made his “nothing unusual here, folks” statement on a Saturday. By Monday, a team of Corrections Department staff had taken over the management of Mt Eden from multinational contractor Serco. There could be no clearer acknowledgement that something was seriously amiss.

The fights were only part of it. The scandal gained momentum almost by the hour as it emerged that inmates had access to drugs and alcohol. Then came allegations of rape, extortion and a practice supposedly known as “dropping”, whereby prisoners were allegedly pushed over a balcony onto a concrete floor below. While the dropping claim was disputed, it was clear that one prisoner had been the victim of an assault in which his legs were broken, and to compound matters, it was claimed he had been denied proper care after being returned to prison, despite Serco’s assurances that he would be looked after. The death of another inmate, reportedly from a ruptured lung after a violent incident, is the subject of a coronial inquiry. And in an unrelated development, police arrested three Mt Eden inmates and a former staff member in connection with alleged drug dealing by the Head Hunters gang.

In short, it became clear that the prison under Serco’s management was a shambles. Even allowing for an ideological crusade on the part of Serco’s critics (both the Labour Party and the Corrections Association vehemently oppose private management of prisons), the weight of the accusations against the British firm was overwhelming.

Corrections Department head Ray Smith talked tough and did his best to look decisive. He not only put his own people in charge at Mt Eden, but also announced that Serco would be docked $565,000 for its multiple failings. Presumably we were supposed to be impressed by this muscle-flexing, but Smith’s intervention came far too late and can’t disguise what appear to be his own shortcomings. Was it pure coincidence that the announcement of the penalties came when it did, or was Smith shocked into action by the tsunami of bad publicity? People will make up their own minds.

The inexperienced Corrections Minister, Sam Lotu-Iiga, took most of the political heat, in accordance with Westminster principles of ministerial responsibility, and will doubtless have learnt an important lesson. But Smith should have known that Serco’s running of Mt Eden was a disgrace and ensured his boss wasn’t left exposed.

The management of Mt Eden is now under “review” and Prime Minister John Key has intimated that Serco’s contract could be cancelled. On top of a string of ineptly handled initiatives already this year (the becalmed social housing sell-off, Murray McCully’s questionable Saudi Arabian sheep deal, Housing Minister Nick Smith’s pratfalls over Auckland housing development), it’s another embarrassment that National could do without. And it will make it that much harder for the Government to convince a sceptical public that social housing, parts of the health sector or even care of the mentally ill should be entrusted to private contractors – especially if they’re allowed, as Serco bizarrely was, to write their own performance reports.

The priority now is for our prisons to be sorted out. And the problems are not confined to Mt Eden, as the Corrections Association acknowledges. Violence, gang intimidation, understaffing and smuggling of contraband (almost certainly, in some cases, by Corrections officers) are reportedly rampant. These issues are too important to be reduced to an ideological squabble between advocates of state and private-sector management, or to be left to a department and minister who appear to have been asleep at the wheel.

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