Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Behind Prison Walls

Signal Failure: Following the change of government in 2008, the "model" Spring Hill Correctional Facility’s inmate muster went from 650 to 1,038. In 2013, Spring Hill prisoners staged one of the largest and most destructive prison riots in New Zealand history. Under-resourcing in New Zealand's prison system is not confined to Serco's privately-run facilities, it afflicts the public prisons as well.
 
MAKING MONEY out of locking people up. How would you do it? Presumably, by making sure that the costs of looking after prisoners never amounted to more than the income you received for imprisoning them. In a more brutal society than ours, this would be easy. Those convicted of crimes could be sent to dank, dirty prisons, fed on slops, and allowed to die as Nature ordered. Very few staff would be required, and very little money need be spent. Provided none of the prisoners escaped to harry and harm the public, only a handful of simple-minded do-gooders would ever want to know what goes on behind prison walls.
 
The problem with making prisons profitable in today’s world, however, is that the State has an internationally mandated duty of care towards all incarcerated persons. Regardless of whether a prison is publicly or privately run, its inmates have rights that must be acknowledged and enforced by the people in charge. Unfortunately for profit-seekers, human-rights cost lots of money.
 
For those seeking to make a profit out of prisons, the challenge is, therefore, to present the State with a plausible plan for upholding the inmates’ rights, while surreptitiously cutting the institutions’ running-costs to the bone. Obviously, this requires a large measure of collusion on the part of the State. There will, accordingly, be plenty of scrutiny of the plans for rehabilitating their inmates, but very little, if any, of the budgets showing how these will be paid for. Likewise, the State will give lots of publicity to the private prisons’ promises; but none at all to their actual performance.
 
Why would the State collude so blatantly with private sector incarcerators? The explanation, sadly, is the same as the private sector’s: to make a profit. Except, the State doesn’t call what it does “making a profit”. It’s preferred term is “achieving a surplus”. In brute, political terms: it reduces expenditure on the prison system, which the public doesn’t like, in order to free-up funds for spending on things the public does like – such as schools and hospitals, or tax-cuts.
 
It requires a very strong-minded government to push back against this kind of political logic. A government determined to uphold its duty of care to prison inmates – even in the face of concerted public opposition. Rather astonishingly, in the light of recent events, New Zealanders elected such a government just 16 years ago.
 
Matt Robson - Minister of Corrections 1999-2002
 
In the Labour-Alliance Government of 1999-2002, led by Helen Clark and Jim Anderton, the Minister of Corrections was a man named Matt Robson. As a lawyer, Mr Robson knew a thing or two about the shortcomings of our prison system. Indeed, he is reported to have said that the best thing that could happen to Auckland’s dank and dirty Mt Eden Prison would be for it to be bulldozed flat. Sadly, that did not happen. What Mr Robson did do, however, was order the construction of Spring Hill Prison in North Waikato.
 
Spring Hill was to be a model, state-owned and operated prison for a maximum of 650 inmates. Each prisoner was to have his own cell, and the institution’s commitment was to rehabilitation through education and skills acquisition. The collapse of the Labour-Alliance Government, in 2002, brought an end to Mr Robson’s short stint as Minister of Corrections. He left Parliament in 2005 – two years before the Spring Hill Corrections Facility finally opened.
 
A year later, in 2008, a much more conventional Minister of Corrections was appointed to oversee New Zealand’s prison system. Judith Collins, like so many of those who had come before her, was determined to reduce expenditure on, and improve the efficiency of, the business of locking people up.
 
It was Ms Collins who contracted the global conglomerate, Serco, to manage the Mt Eden Corrections Facility. She was also responsible for the “double-bunking” of prisoners nationwide. This decision, bitterly criticised by inmates and criminologists alike, was seen as a sure-fire means of increasing prisoner stress levels through institutionalised over-crowding. The Spring Hill facility’s inmate muster, for example, went from 650 to 1,038. In 2013, Spring Hill prisoners staged one of the largest and most destructive prison riots in New Zealand history. Mr Robson’s “model” facility lay burned and broken.
 
The unfolding scandal at the Serco-managed Mt Eden Corrections Facility, while shocking, is only one aspect of the under-resourcing crisis afflicting our entire prison system. Yes, the privately-run facility is chronically under-staffed. And yes, the State does appear to be covering-up some of its deficiencies. But many of our state-run prisons are equally under-resourced. The State’s duty of care is being called into question on a daily basis – in both the public and private sectors.
 
As citizens of a civilised nation, we have a duty to care about what is being done, in our name, behind prison walls.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 July 2015.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

The answer to prison is jobs, jobs, jobs, but unfortunately there is not a political system in the world which can keep job creation an on-going creation in any society. War, death, destruction famine and national disaster used to help but to-day worlds needs more than. Prison is a dire place to work and Serco thought that a easy -going prison would get co-operation, that has been tried before and never worked. What is the answer in prison I do not know, I believe the answer lies outside of the walls.

A O said...

Not enough people pay much attention towards how businesses and organisations make their profits as it is, I don't expect things to change just because there's a new way to make a dollar. Duty of care is largely absent in this civilized society across the board, let alone trying to get it to pay attention towards this one aspect (which is just a symptom of a much larger beast anyway).

Davo Stevens said...

'Close the Railway Workshops - build more prisons' is an accurate adage.

No doubt those of the Rightwing here will applaud the privatising of our prison system. They will no doubt say that the Private Sector can do the job better and cheaper than the Gubbies can. A company like Serco can only make a profit if they cut back on overheads, usually staff. They employ cheap guards usually on or near the minimum wage and reduce the number of staff working in the shifts.

As Anon at 18.47 said; we need more jobs! The Rightie wingnuts have had 40 years to sort that out but we are worse now than before. Something is very wrong with their thinking.

Nick J said...

I dont believe in prisons. I believe in preventive detention centres and secure psychiatric facilities.

Without reticence for a criminal act no amount of punishment will have any positive effect. What we need is to protect society from those who pose a danger, not to exact retribution. There must be far more positive means of dealing with crime such as a restorative process or as previously pointed out jobs.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

To be fair, we've never done a great deal of rehabilitation in our prisons. According to various experts on incarceration anyway.

Anonymous said...

Best results come from salt lake city. Each prisoner is adopted by a family who write and visit

greywarbler said...

Most prisoners should serve suspended sentences, only the damaged vicious people should have different paths. After a couple of days of solitary confinement in prison, most should go into a philosophy learning program. There they can learn the different ways of viewing the world, and review their own, and pursue their own whakapapa. Then they can be taught a skill they want, and be encouraged to work out a plan for achieving a better life for themselves and how they can cope with long-standing problems. Then when they feel ready to embark on their plan, have learned something that will help, how to read, do maths or whatever, plus a new skill, they get released on probation. Their time in prison would be spent on learning new things, not just locking them up, spending money without advantage.

I think to deal with the chronically bad and violent, they need to stay in a type of prison. At present, because they are mostly men, and the country is run by mostly men, women often are their choice object of hostility and put at risk when these men are released from restraint. It is not a good look to treat women as experimental prey, at the no-mercy of a predator who if he attacks again, must be caught, tried and locked up again, perhaps the process to continue in the future.

I think for the worst prisoners what is needed is prison farms where prisoners live confined under guard, but have as near a normal life as possible. They could have marital relationships, with their wives living nearby and visiting regularly. It would be run like a cult does, with a lot of control and loss of advantages for lack of compliance. For rule breaking and non-compliance they would return to prison and be kept in virtual solitary confinement for short to long periods for serious infringements.

There would be few in such a situation, and they would be treated as if mad, with the level of care that mentally incapacitated receive which should be humane but compulsorily enclosed, and lifelong. Capital punishment is simplistic as a method of dealing with such. Once state killing becomes accepted, there is a likelihood that the elite and powerful will use it unfairly, and inhumanely as in the USA.

Nick J said...

Man will you get offside with the hang'em high brigade. Some good ideas there Grey.

greywarbler said...

Thanks NickJ. Chris' article shows that things aren't well in prison land. So it makes sense to turn the page over and write a different menu on the back. With the purpose of keeping crime down, seeing recidivism getting pettier petty-crime all the time (it will happen, the only cure for all diseases is death, and we don't want the poison of the death sentence.)

And keeping costs down, the prisoners can grow their own food. And they could make some furniture for their families, perhaps book shelves and glass-fronted storage where they could proudly put all their honestly obtained treasures, when they manage to acquire some!)

And the poisonous ones, the vile, the ones who have lost their soul, their mauri, their respect for others as well as for their own standards,
they can live in close confinement, giving society and the vulnerable freedom from fear. And not have them running their foul organisations from prison. With no air conditioned tunnels etc etc.

Also parents get child benefit, but each year they have to attend workshops appropriate to the ages of their children, talking amongst themselves and with psychologists about the problems they face in growing up, and with philosophers on ways of thinking, the importance of ethics, and how it is easier to bring up children who show respect to parents, if in turn parents show the same, with standards of fair behaviour set in the family. When children come before the Court, the parents will appear with them, and explain what they can do to assist the child to be socially responsible. That would be interesting, and the same would apply to diversion, of which there would be much more. Good on the Auckland police for trying to get the young drivers on the right track.
To hell with all the critical negative nit-pickers who hate the poor, and youth and want to punish, punish. End of comment.

I think nothing good will happen from suggestions so I should leave it till next year before further venturing into criminal justice territory. (Except I'll just add I don't like all police always wearing tazers. Not necessary as the only way to manage regular problems. And comment has been made about how police are becoming dangerously near to being militarised. Perhaps the 10% fear that people will get angry one day at being robbed of their very lives in the lands of plenty.)