No doubt you’ve all read about the videos that have surfaced online, showing remanded prisoners in Auckland’s Mt Eden prison engaged in organised fistfights in front of groups of onlookers.
Rather than being run by the Department of Corrections, Mt Eden is run by Serco, a British company with an enormous portfolio of government work, including prisons around the world. Serco’s new prison in South Auckland, which opened only recently, has a further 966 beds, doubling the number of prisoners under Serco’s watch. The prison has a focus on education and rehabilitation, and has made the unusual step of providing prisoners enrolled in Polytech courses with their own computers and tablets. Although they have been accused and convicted of a range of concerning and dishonest practices overseas, Serco’s record here remained relatively blemish-free until recently, when a range of complaints have begun to emerge.
While the fights in these videos are not especially bloody or violent (although some of them are clearly one-sided, and it has been alleged that the participants are not always willing) they are the tip of a much deeper and more concerning iceberg.
These fight clubs should have been impossible to miss. Guards should have been nearby and others should have been watching through CCTV cameras. Any such events should have been caught on camera. This means that either staff have been letting this happen (which also seems unlikely, although it does happen) or were somehow too busy or spread too thin to notice (which seems possible).
Unfortunately it turns out that Corrections has been aware of these issues for some time: the Corrections Association has said that they raised issues regarding fight clubs more than a year ago in a detailed report that was read by the chief executive, the national commissioner and the northern regional commissioner. Despite the seriousness of this report no action was taken, and the Minister for Corrections claims not to have been told.
Labour MP Kelvin Davis has raised further significant concerns by alleging that injured prisoners have been transferred out of Mt Eden to other prisons in order to keep Serco’s injury numbers down. One of these prisoners, whose name we know only as Prisoner Evans, is alleged to have died from his injuries. Despite having a ruptured lung he was sent to hospital only after first being transferred to Ngawha prison in Northland, which is over 240 kilometres away.
Davis alleges that this prisoner was killed by “a practice in Mt Eden Correctional Facility that is called 'dropping' - where prisoners, new prisoners usually who walk into Mt Eden, are sized up by gangs, they're bashed up and they're dropped off the balconies on to the concrete below for good measure." He claims that his also left another man with two broken legs.
If true, this represents an incredibly serious failure on Serco’s account. Much like the fights seen in the videos, an incident of ‘dropping’ isn’t something that would be easy to hide. It’s also indicative of very serious concerns within the Department of Corrections and the government. Why would staff at Ngawha take delivery of a mortally wounded prisoner without raising any alarm, and who would authorise that transfer for Serco’s benefit?
These incidents have come out just as we have entered renegotiation period for their government contract. Although the contract itself is for ten years in total, the terms and pricing of the contract can be renegotiated at this half-way point, or the contract can be abandoned altogether. If no ongoing agreement is made, the contract will end in 2016. This means we are at a critical juncture, and it’s essential that we have the right information before any decisions are made.
The Corrections Minister has promised an investigation into the videos and these allegations, but it will be conducted internally by Corrections and Serco. Given that senior Corrections staff have been aware of the issues in Serco’s prison for over a year and have done nothing, this isn’t sufficiently trustworthy. The investigation will be overseen by the Ombudsman, but it’s not clear how extensively.
The inquiry must be carried out entirely by an independent body. If it isn’t, we can’t be sure what might be swept under the rug.