Maori Party stooges for prison privatisation

There is something fundamentally wrong with Judith Collins’s plan for the private sector to run prisons.

If the state takes the extreme step of depriving a person of their liberty then those the state employs to incarcerate must surely be directly accountable to the state. Privatising that accountability is wrong in principle.

New Zealand has experienced a privately run prison before and a lot has been made of how well the Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP) was run after a National-led government awarded the management contract to Sydney-based Australian Correctional Management (ACM) in the 1990s.

The feedback from Maori groups in particular was very good and some Maori expressed dismay when the private contract was not renewed by the Labour government in 2005. Local iwi representatives said they had been consulted well by the company before the contract was let and enjoyed excellent relations with the prison management. They were made to feel welcome and involved in rehabilitation programmes. National also claimed the cost was lower with a private contract. At the time National’s Tony Ryall said the cost per prisoner at ACRP was $43,000 compared to $54,000 in state run prisons. However his figures were a con because they compared the cost at a remand facility with those associated with maximum security prisons where the costs are much higher. Labour has since released figures to show that the actual cost per prisoner at state-run remand centres was just $36,000 compared to the higher figure at the ACRP.

It was important for National and ACM that the first private contract to run a prison in New Zealand would be successful. It was therefore funded especially well by the government while the company took care not to scrimp on spending.

In supermarket terminology this was a “loss leader”. Once they got their foot in the door this would open up bigger opportunities for private investment and government-guaranteed profits. The involvement of Maori early on was also a key part of their strategy because it helped blunt opposition to privatisation. If Maori, as those most negatively affected by imprisonment, were seen to support privatisation then those opposing had an uphill battle.

This same strategy was used to get the Auckland Skycity Casino up and running. Never mind that down the track Maori are disproportionately the victims of gambling, the up-front involvement of Maori was a successful, cynical strategy to help bulldoze opposition to thousands of pokies invading Auckland.

The private sector certainly know how to run a scam and it’s useful to look at the behaviour of ACM’s parent company – the US-based Wackenhut – once it was established running prisons for profit in the US.

The company was started by former FBI agent George Wackenhut whose corporate empire extended to providing services in strikebreaking, international security work (which included providing security for chemical weapons shipments to Saddam Hussein in Iraq) and beating anti-nuclear protestors as well as running private prisons.

After becoming well established in prisons their loss leaders became cash cows. The results were disastrous.

Wackenhut lost contracts to run prisons in Louisiana and Texas in 1999 after scandals involving mistreatment of prisoners and profit-taking at the expense of such things as drug rehabilitation, counselling and literacy programmes. A Louisiana judge called one Wackenhut jail unsafe, violent and inhumane while a government review reported assaults, abuse and humiliation of juvenile prisoners. Two Wackenhut-run prisons in New Mexico had appalling management and experienced numerous riots and murders.

This was the company National chose to run the ACRP and while it’s not the only private prison contractor there are plenty more like just like them waiting in the wings.

Private contractors make their prison profits by lowering staffing levels, 15% lower is the typical overseas figure, and employing staff on poorer pay and conditions of work. None of this is helpful to prisoners or rehabilitation. Quite the opposite in fact.

It’s virtually certain the first new prison contract will be awarded in conjunction with an iwi group. Just as with the ACRP contract this will again be the entry point for the private sector into our prisons.

Already the Maori Party are keen to provide the political cover. Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia says private management of prisons is an investment opportunity for iwi while the usually astute Maori MP Hone Harawira simply says the state has failed Maori in prisons and it’s time to try something new. He’s right about the failure so it’s plain stupid to race ahead even faster in the same direction.

Mad as it is, New Zealand prison policy is about to get worse. If you are frustrated at all this mindlessness then put in a submission to oppose the privatisation of prisons. You have till the end of next week to have your voice heard.