Prison officers have hurt job opportunities - Garrett

An MP from government confidence and supply party ACT today told prison officers who spoke out against private prisons that they had hurt their future job prospects.

David Garrett's remark came hot on the heals of accusations yesterday that the Government attempted to intimidate and silence people. Those claims were sparked by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett releasing benefit details of two women who criticised a government decision to cut a training allowance.

Today a group of prison officers, representing 30 officers who had previously worked for a privately run prison, made a submission to Parliament's law and order select committee which is considering legislation to enable private operators to run prisons.

After Bart Birch, Uaea Leavasa and Satish Prasad criticised how Auckland Central Remand Prison was run under private contractor GEO Ltd between 2000 and 2005, Mr Garrett weighed in.

"You say that you don't want to go back to working in this environment - to the private (sector). You'd be aware that given your submission here, you wouldn't get offered a job anyway, would you?"

Other MPs on the committee were visibly disturbed by the remark and National's Shane Ardern was quick to reassure the men they should feel free to speak their minds before a committee of Parliament.

"Can I say from my own party you can sit here without fear or favour," he said.

Acting chairman on the committee Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove added his support for Mr Ardern's remark.

Corrections Association of New Zealand president Beven Hanlon told NZPA he thought the remark out of line.

The union already had concerns about Mr Garrett's involvement in the Sensible Sentencing Trust which advocates for tougher and longer sentencing.

"All the things that private prisons advocate for," he said.

"For him to then threaten staff over (their) future employment is a great concern."

Mr Cosgrove described the comment as "Bennett mark two".

"(People) should be able to come to a select committee without fear or favour to give their view."

Mr Garrett's tone had been badgering and he carried that style on when other submitters made presentations, Mr Cosgrove said.

"I think he needs to learn that we live in a democracy and in a democracy ... you're allowed to have a view and we should (give) people the respect of actually listening.

"But he's behaving like a bully and I guess it is Paula Bennett mark two."

Mr Garrett stood by his comment when questioned by media.

"They were quite clearly extremely negative about the private prison managing company. It would seem to be most unlikely they would get a job with that company."

He agreed the select committee process should be open and MPs should not stymie free exchange but did not think he had affected that.

"They have the right to say whatever they like ... I didn't see I was stymying free debate at all."

Asked why he felt compelled to talk about the officers' job prospects rather than ask questions about the bill, Mr Garrett said their motives were relevant and he had no regrets.

"It was certainly no attempt to stifle the debate."

Mr Garrett walked away when NZPA asked him to comment on the union view it was a threatening remark.

In their submission, the officers said they had worked both for GEO and the Corrections Department. Under private management the focus was on protecting the company's reputation.

They said under GEO staff were told to resign rather than have negligence revealed, an incident where a woman allegedly helped a relative escape was not investigated, and systems were not robust in areas like drug control and suicide.

Another complaint was that GEO paid less for local workers and used contractors from Australia to fill gaps who were on salaries as much as $30,000 higher. Those contractors appeared unaware of cultural issues for Maori and Pacific inmates.

Other casual workers were used and had lower levels of training and experience than full time staff who were not familiar with the prison, which raised risk levels.

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