Friday, 13 March 2009

The Takeover

To secure a florishing private prison system, it is first necessary to secure an ever-increasing supply of prisoners. Fortunately, this isn't difficult.

LET me share with you some ideas I’ve been working on for a political thriller, its working title: "The Takeover".

The plot kicks-off in the United States, back in the early 1980s, with a private security firm, staffed by a volatile collection of former FBI and CIA agents, deciding to cash-in on the Reagan Administration’s privatisation programme.

With contacts in Washington, and friends in the Republican Party, they have little difficulty gaining ground-floor entry to the brand new business of designing, building and running private prisons.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and we discover that what started out as a little firm providing security for sensitive military installations and nuclear power plants, has morphed into a global corporation managing private custodial facilities all over the world – including New Zealand.

Now it’s the end of the 1990s, and this big American corporation – let’s call it CON-International – is on the point of signing a multi-million dollar contract with New Zealand’s conservative government, when a general election tumbles a raucous combination of social-democrats, democratic socialists and greens into office.

Overnight, CON-International’s plans are thrown into complete disarray. The new Corrections Minister, a former Trotskyite socialist, turns out to be an implacable foe of private prisons. Within months of taking office, the new left-wing government has passed legislation making the private operation of custodial facilities illegal.

Now, this is where the plot really gets going. Because CON-International isn’t all that bothered by the political turn of events. Its sojourn in New Zealand, though relatively brief, has convinced its bosses that making a profit out of the country’s tiny prison system will be, to say the least, challenging.

What CON-International needs to succeed is more prisoners. Increase the muster of inmates and you generate an irrefutable case for increasing the number of jails. CON-International’s interim mission, while waiting for its conservative friends to be returned to power, is to generate new inmates for the new jails it will, sooner or later, be contracted to design, build and run.

Now, when it comes to generating new inmates for new prisons, nobody does it better than CON-International’s man in Washington – "Alec". This veteran K-Street fixer specialises in setting up grass-roots organisations dedicated to scaring the public into "getting tough" on crime.

Once established, Alec supplies these "grass-roots" bodies with ready-made and field-tested campaign initiatives like "Truth in Sentencing" and "Three Strikes & You’re Inside For Life".

The aim, of course, is to induce moral panic – always easy when "If it bleeds – It leads" is the news editor’s rule-of-thumb. Once generated, this mass public anxiety places irresistible pressures on the main political parties to lengthen sentences, eliminate parole, limit bail, and increase the number of offences punishable by imprisonment.

With the need for new prisons thus established, Alec’s work is done. All that remains is for CON-International to submit its bid for the new federal contracts.

Alec flies to New Zealand to get a feel for what sort of grass-roots organisation is best suited to the task of inducing the requisite moral panic over here. After travelling the country, and talking to all the leading conservative opinion-formers, he presents CON-International with a memorandum:

The momentum for a tougher line on law and order will come from the "heartland" of rural and provincial New Zealand. The ideal person to lead such a group would, therefore, be a person who epitomises "heartland" values. My suggestion would be to pick an elderly farmer. He should come across very obviously as a graduate of the "University of Life", and look like everybody’s favourite uncle. There is already an abundance of political, media and financial resources available for such an organisation and its leader. For obvious reasons, however, these should be kept hidden from public view.

Alec’s plans are put into effect, and the ensuing moral panic plays a significant role in driving the left-wing government from office. Everything seems set for a CON-International takeover of New Zealand’s prison system – whose inmate population is about to explode.

Trouble is, I can’t decide how to end the story.

Should I go for an heroic, Frank Capra-type ending, where the people see through CON-International’s manufactured moral panic?

Or, should I go for a bleak, Coen Brothers ending, where the conservative government awards CON-International the contract and everyone cheers them on?

Which ending would you choose?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday, 13th March 2009.


XChequer said...

If I were a publisher, I'd put it on the books!

"This veteran K-Street fixer specialises in setting up grass-roots organisations dedicated to scaring the public into "getting tough" on crime."

Isn't this a case of the pot and ... err something about the black kettle, Chris? Are you not doing the same thing here?

And the idea of this "supposed" tory govt. about to sign an impending deal? Where would the basis for that come in?


Ahma Daeus said...

A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)


The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.
We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.

Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”

Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.

John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”

There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!

The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.
These new slave plantations are not the answer!

For more information please visit: or email:
To sign the petition please visit:


William Thomas
National Community Outreach Facilitator
The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons
P.O. Box 156423
San Francisco, California 94115


An enjoyable fantasy there , Chris.
I trust you have read or seen A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin.

Anonymous said...

Chris: if you're looking for an ending to the story, how about a sequel with the working title "Arms Race"?

"Arms Race" asks the questions, "What if everyone took the law into their own hands and followed the example of the Brazillian Military Police?", and "what if the riots of Los Angeles in 1992 were to erupt in NZ?"

Anonymous said...

hello mr exchequer.
you may not have heard of me but my name is mickey suttle. I am an elder member of the jedi council of morm-jordil. we had previously tried to spread the jedi faith via the blogging community in ireland, but they have relected us.
We wish to bring the star wars message to the southern hemisphere where we feel few people have heard of george lucas or the jedi religion.
It is our goal to within the next ten years to make at least one country a jedi protectorate.
your police will be replace by the jedi knights who will patrol your streets and keep order.

please pass this good news message onto your fellow bloggers in NZ. we hope you wont react the way the irish did with hostility.

(please note: the jedi do not support the privatisation of prisons)


rouppe said...

In Chris's defence it is not unheard of that judges accept bribes from private prisons in order to manufacture high internment rates. Other than that, I presume it was a fantasy thriller...

No-one can deny that the state of prisons is not flash. Prisoners escape, they routinely have contraband and luxuries while inside, they run illegal operations from inside and some commit unspeakable horrors on the weak or isolated. There is no measure of punishment while incarcerated and while some might say the incarceration itself is enough, the human rights act means that conditions cannot be punitive or demeaning, no matter how vicious or demeaning the crime on the victim.

Free cable/satellite TV, free gym membership, free housing, free meals all makes - for one such as a gang member accustomed to a hard life - for a pretty easy life.

By all accounts the Auckland Remand Prison was run well. I fail to see what the problem is by having a prison institution run privately, when we are perfectly happy to have private institutions educate our children.

Anonymous said...

Are cut price prisons run by ex bouncers and police rejects really necessary, let alone going to anything apart from cream off more taxpayer funds for vile companies like Wackenhut?

Incarceration is the heaviest state sanction that can be applied to citizens bar capital punishment and forced military conscription. Imprisonment should be conducted with due seriousness inclusive of rehabilitation.

Anonymous said...

By the time you have written it someone else will have taken the film rights. Get the concept published on the web immediately! Ah, you've done that above! Put '(c) Chris Trotter' after it. It's a winner.
I was writing a story and then the 'Age of Stupid' just came out as a film, we re in the age when all these obvious narratives are occuring to everyone anyway. Interesting times.