Corrections Bill – Second Reading

The Green Party, of course, is supporting this bill. My colleague Nandor Tanczos sat in on the select committee hearings on the bill. Unfortunately he cannot be here tonight to give a presentation so I am presenting these comments on his behalf.

It is interesting that the self-styled “tough on crime” fundamentalists, such as Tony Ryall, Ron Mark, Stephen Franks, and Marc Alexander praise the Australian correctional services for the humane and caring way they incarcerate prisoners, while climbing over each other to savage the public service whenever it shows a similar approach. The Withers referendum, which they are all so fond of reminding us about, called for hard labour. That is the direct opposite of what the Australasian Corrections Management general manager at the remand prison, Dom Karauria, is trying to implement there.

Mr Dom Karauria and his supporters claim that the greatest strength of the Auckland Central Remand Prison is the involvement of tangata whenua in decision making, which is exactly what ACT and National criticise the Government for. So it is good if corporations do it, but bad if the Government does it! It all seems a little contradictory. Why support a facility that is the antithesis of their vision for prisons? It is not about what the prison actually does: as with education, health, and utilities, for most of those members it is their blind ideological commitment to privatisation.

As the Hon Paul Swain has indicated, the Greens have been engaged in negotiations with the Government to progress the bill, and we thank the Government for its willingness to meet our concerns. We want to see an end to the private management of prisons in this country, which has been the Green policy since 1999, and we want to improve the bill and improve the prison service by ensuring;

  • explicit reference to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners to ensure that all regulations comply with such regulations,
  • improved transparency of the complaints procedure by providing that all reports by the prison inspectorate are itemised in the annual report of the Department of Corrections, inspectorate reports will be publicly available,
  • tightening up of restrictions on the use of segregation. Prison policy says that segregation should not be used as a punishment, but in his submission Tony Ellis made a strong case that it is so used at times. We would like decisions to be reviewed monthly, and segregation should cease altogether at 3 months unless authorised by a visiting justice. New rules around how those justices are selected, trained, and rotated provide further safeguards.
  • some protection for whistleblowers by ensuring that the section 140 offences of having unauthorised communications or recordings of inmates apply only where there is a specific threat to prison security, rather than where, for example, it is in the public interest to draw attention to abuses within the prison system.
  • that the chief executive at the national level, and local prison managers, engage with local ethnic communities in developing local prison practices and programmes, and that the obligation to consider cultural identity and language when planning individual management plans should be extended to macro level planning of services and programmes.

Let me say the Greens do not, and have never, defended the shortcomings of the public service, but we believe we have a responsibility to try to address those problems across the whole prison system. The answer does not lie in defending the profits of one company and ignoring the need for reform in the public service.

The State’s coercive power is at its most extreme in a prison. Guards have very serious control over the lives of inmates. With reasonable force but relatively little justification, they can inspect orifices and generally humiliate other human beings. We should not give those powers to a multinational corporation, because that obviously carries dangers. The only other comparable group in society is the police, and most people would not support Securitas policing them.

Privatising prisons is quite different from the commercial provision of health or other kinds of social services. The “private good: public bad” mantra cannot apply here. As the Hon Matt Robson stated in his speech earlier, this is about a foot in the door for the wholesale privatisation of prisons.

Australasian Correctional Management, which runs New Zealand’s only privatised prison, is a subsidiary of the GEO Group. In 2000, in its former incarnation as Wackenhut Corrections, the GEO Group was singled out by the Observer newspaper in England for, among other things, sadism, greed, and frightening incompetence, and has been subject to allegations of sexual abuse, physical violence, and unsafe work practices.

The Australian Medical Association and others have called for an independent inquiry into Australasian Correctional Management’s immigration detention centres in Australia based on staffing problems, substandard service, and child abuse. At least one court case has found Australasian Correctional Management guilty of unsafe work practices in its prisons, so Ron Mark’s view that we can end abuse in prisons by getting multinational corporations to run them is just naive.

Of course, Australasian Correctional Management is on its best behaviour in New Zealand. The Auckland Central Remand Prison is Australasian Correctional Management’s glossy sales brochure, selling the privatisation of the prison system. This is all about market share.

All this is no criticism of the former manager, Dom Karauria. It is primarily due to his excellent work that the remand prison has satisfied its community stakeholders. It is also a brand-new facility and, being a remand prison, is without the same pressures and obligations found in the main penal system. There is no easy way to compare the rehabilitative function, because this Australasian Correctional Management prison deals with accused prisoners in a remand situation, not convicted ones.

Claims have been made by some MPs that the per head cost is less at Auckland Central Remand Prison than in the public system, but this is a false comparison because the infrastructural costs such as the building and the IOM computer systems were publicly funded. The public service is cheaper when a true comparison is made.

Our prisons are not effective at rehabilitation, and the Greens do not defend the status quo within the public system. Disturbingly, with new, tougher sentencing laws in place, the Government has boasted in Parliament that the prison population will soon increase by 20 percent. But the challenge for the Green Party has been to negotiate corrections legislation that will improve the prison system, and to promote policies that will lead to a more inclusive and just society that makes prisons less important.

It is disturbing that New Zealand is up near the top of the table internationally in terms of per capita membership of prisons. It is still a fair way behind America, which tops the list — America has over 2 million people in prisons. But when one takes a cursory approach to crime and puts more people in prisons and in for longer times, all that happens is that there is more crime and a higher prison population. This is the vicious cycle that is operating in the United States, and that can happen here if we are not careful.

While this bill does not address the rehabilitation question in any depth, it does provide certain greater rights for prisoners, which I think will help in their rehabilitation. It is important to treat prisoners as human beings and help their rehabilitation into becoming good members of society. It is good that the complaints procedure is being strengthened up a bit, and hopefully, when the Supplementary Order Paper comes forward from the Minister, there will be an allowance for the Human Rights Commission to enter the prison, as suggested in the report. It is good that the bill does retain that guarantee that people like MPs and, hopefully, the Human Rights Commission, can come in to check prison conditions. I have found it myself a good restraint on abuse within the prison system, and I have used it on many occasions.