Private prisons

As predictable as the sunrise, the new Government has crime and punishment in its sights but with no sign whatever of any new thinking.

The National Party-led coalition of 1997 abandoned the idea of privatising prisons - along with much else besides, including the privatising of Television One and Radio New Zealand's national and concert stations, and the imposition of restrictions on the sale of power and gas utilities, airports and ports - as part of the price of staying in power.

Interestingly enough, in light of very recent events, the coalition agreement then also obliged the Bolger government to maintain the provision of publicly-owned comprehensive accident compensation services.

The privatising in part or whole of prisons was much talked about in the 1990s, as was the creation of exclusive Maori units within prisons to cater for 60 inmates at a time in separate blocks, based on similar lines as the kura kaupapa Maori language immersion schools. The now co-leader of the Maori Party, Dr Pita Sharples, was behind that idea, which did not come to fruition.

Then, from 2000, Australian Correctional Management won a five-year $102 million contract to operate Auckland's new $40 million Central Remand Prison.

The company, which operated three prisons in Victoria at that time, found itself the victim of the change of government when its contract ended in 2005, and the Clark government's policy of ending private prison contracts took effect.

There was some evidence taxpayers had been saved money by private enterprise: one study showed the cost of keeping an inmate in a high security prison run by the Corrections Department at the time was $72,000 per year; the cost in a minimum security prison was $54,000, and the cost in the privately-run remand prison $43,000 a year.

The Treasury also told the Labour government that the Corrections Department was unlikely to run the remand prison for a cheaper price. Nevertheless, it was taken over by the department. At the time, the co-leader of the Maori Party, Tariana Turia, commented the prison had operated "extremely well" under private management.

Today, we have record prison inmate numbers, about half of whom claim to be Maori, and an exceptionally high recidivism rate. The state system is clearly far from properly addressing their rehabilitation. It is this failure that needs to be the focus of the Government's attention, rather than whether private enterprise can do a better (read cheaper) job.

There are many ways to measure the costs of punishment, including the cost of keeping a prisoner locked up; the cost of providing rehabilitative services; the cost of building more prisons because rehabilitative services are failing or are inadequate; the cost of the state entitlements paid to maintain the families of prisoners; even the unknown cost paid by the victims of crimes.

That prisoners need rehabilitation is self-evident, since almost all are returned to the communities they have damaged. This requires, at the very least, recognition of their intrinsic worth as individuals, not merely as a source of private profit or as a means of reducing the government accounts.

Yet, what do we find in the most recent review of the department, by commissioner Ian Rennie: the Labour government failed to provide anywhere near enough funding to pay for required extra parole officers; it refused to pay for the much-needed 10 additional psychologists; it refused the department's request for more funding to meet just "satisfactory" standards of service.

The public may well have good reason to be concerned at the department's several notable public failings in recent years, but the whole story must also include a chapter or two on the failure of politicians to adequately fund services, even to a "satisfactory" level.

Would a private enterprise model, perhaps with the operator paid incentives for each inmate who did not reoffend, work? Certainly not without inmates being offered effective rehabilitation programmes to prepare them for crime-free working and personal lives. Would that be likely? According to some informed comment, the experience of privately-run prisons in Australia and the United States is that they are well run, but with reduced staff using non-unionised labour, and paying lower wages, and a tendency to sack the incompetent: which is to say, requiring accountability when mistakes are made.

Any prison service, public or private, must contribute to reducing reoffending and to humanely keep offenders from society. That should be the principal focus of the Government when considering private providers. And if value for money is to be a high priority, let it be measured by recidivism rates.



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