The management contract for this prison has been awarded to an international consortium named Securefuture. Within this group, the prison is to be primarily run by Serco, a British outsourcing company with contracts for state services including schools, public transport, nuclear weapons and others in various countries. This international portfolio of contracts runs in the billions of dollars. This is to be the second privately run prison in New Zealand, after Mt Eden, which has been run by Serco since 2010. Under this arrangement, Serco provides their own staff and management, but is ultimately answerable to the Department of Corrections, and does not own the prison complex.
The new prison at Wiri will have beds for 966 male inmates, and is intended to replace units within the Waikeria, Rangipo and Rimutaka prisons, which are among New Zealand’s oldest facilities. This means relocating or terminating as many as 260 Department of Corrections employees in those prisons. They will not be able to move to the Wiri prison, however, because the facility has already been fully staffed by Serco.
As part of their deal with the government, Serco has agreed to performance targets that are better than those demanded of state run institutions. Serco’s first prison in Mt Eden generated some controversy by failing to meet more than half of its performance targets in its first year of operation, but in the subsequent two years, things have improved significantly – last year, they met or exceeded almost all of their targets, and has been ranked by the Government as among of the country’s best prisons. The one notable exception was in the category of “wrongful detentions”, where the prison accumulated a total of eight in the year 2013-2014, while Corrections’ target is zero.
Opening a second private prison has drawn some significant complaint in recent weeks by many who feel that it advances an agenda of privatisation rather than any need for greater efficiency. The Public Service Association has called it “privatisation by stealth”, and Labour’s spokesperson for Corrections has observed that the closures of the three older prisons “are all just to justify the opening of the private prison. They were unnecessary. The government spent something like $900 million during the recession to build the private prison.” Prominent lawyer and Howard League patron, Nigel Hampton QC, has raised questions about how committed a private prison can be to the positive development of its inmates: “if the profit margin gets too low, the first programmes to be limited or shut down I suggest will be the sort of education, training and rehabilitation programmes because they are the easiest to cut.”
Although things seem to have gone well here, Serco’s history in other countries has often been marred by claims of overcharging, abuse and mismanagement. Their immigrant detention centre in England, for example, has been accused of widespread sexual abuse of detainees, who are also used as a labour force in place of staff and paid as little as one pound per hour. In the UK, Serco has been the subject of a series investigations, including one in which it was ordered to pay back $69 million after billing the government for the electronic monitoring of thousands of people who turned out to be overseas, back in prison or even dead.
Private prisons are clearly an important issue in New Zealand. The government appears to be committed to privatisation as a means of reducing costs and increasing efficiency in our correctional facilities, meaning that as more aging prisons are taken out of commission we may see further contracts transferred to Serco or their competitors. The Howard League has yet to formulate an official position on this issue, but it is something that our research team is actively looking into.
Edit: an earlier version of this blog stated that the Waikeria, Rangipo and Rimutaka prisons would be closing entirely to be replaced by the Wiri prison. Only certain units will be closing in these prisons.