8 May 2015

Private prison: serious business

5:13 pm on 8 May 2015

The private prison operator Serco will be fined $150,000 if anyone dies in one of its new jail cells in South Auckland.

Staff demonstrate how they will deal with any major incidents at the prison.

Staff demonstrate how they will deal with any major incidents at the prison. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

It is just one of the conditions the company has as it prepares to accept its first new inmates at the $300 million prison in Wiri.

The new prison, called Kohuora - Auckland South Corrections Facility, was officially opened at a ceremony today and will start accepting prisoners in 10 days.

The high-security prison was built under a public-private partnership deal with the Government and by October will reach its full capacity of 960 inmates.

A cell block at Auckland South Corrections Facility.

A cell block at Auckland South Corrections Facility. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The prison is the country's largest public-private partnership, and Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga said he had confidence in Serco's ability to run it.

"They've got a good track record in New Zealand... we're confident they're going to meet the terms of the agreement.

"Within the agreement we've got sanctions if things don't got to plan and we've got financial incentives if they're able to exceed the desired outcomes," the minister said.

The contract focuses on sentence compliance, reductions in reoffending, and better outcomes for Maori prisoners.

Standard cells feature televisions which double as computers without internet or email, and telephones so inmates can make calls to pre-approved numbers.

Standard cells feature a TV / computer and telephone to call pre-approved numbers.

A standard cell. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Mr Lotu-Iiga likened the technology to life's basics.

"Prisoners have hot water, they've got electricity - they need things to live by. In terms of computers, they're a learning tool - they're educational tools to help them grow, train and educate themselves.

"We want prisoners who are literate. Two-thirds of prisoners that come into prison are functionally illiterate - that's unacceptable," he said.

Serco already runs Mt Eden Prison in the central city.

Its Asia-Pacific chief executive Mark Irwin said control of the new prison could be taken off it if Serco's operation did not live up to what had been promised.

He said the Department of Corrections had set ambitious targets for the new prison and Serco would better those targets where it could but was aware of the challenges ahead.

One of the conditions in its contract is that it will outperform the Corrections Department in reducing re-offending, in line with the Department's overall goal of reducing reoffending by 25 percent by 2017.

"There is absolutely strict performance criteria, not only with regard to reoffending but many other areas such as loss of control and deaths in custody - those are clearly prescribed in our contract," he said.

Serco said the prison had state of the art security measures, being used for the first time in this country.

A cell block at Auckland South Corrections Facility.

A cell block at Auckland South Corrections Facility. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Department of Corrections chief executive Ray Smith said it had a "great" working relationship with Serco and the prison came ahead of time and on budget.

"Having somebody else and another management team that's challenged to do better than the public service kind of lifts everyone's game.

"So if they can do better we can learn from that, and we can take all of the ideas here and put them in the public prison service if we think they're going to work better," he said.

Mr Smith said the collaboration meant both sides had opportunities to learn from each other.

A working prison

Prisoners will be able to gain work experience in commercial workshops at the prison through agreements with PlaceMakers, Envirowaste and portable cabin maker Cabins To Go.

Workshop area of the new Auckland South Corrections Facility.

Workshop area of the new Auckland South Corrections Facility. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Robert Grimmer, the national manufacturing manager for PlaceMakers, said prisoners will be making finished timber framing for the building-supplies giant.

"We struggle to get staff to replace the ones we lose... they're doing real live work so the frames which are made here will be going to housing sites around Auckland to be put up," he said.

Inmates will also be able to leave the prison for the day while wearing an ankle bracelet for work depending on their security rating.

Working prisoners will be paid by the Department of Corrections and earn the same money they would receive if they were working in a publicly-run jail.

It amounts to between 20 and 60 cents an hour depending on their level of responsibility in the work place.

PlaceMakers will pay a full commercial rate for the finished products it gets.

Kohuora, Auckland South Corrections Facility

  • 960 inmates and 29 buildings
  • Three blocks for higher security ratings and 10 self care units for inmates with lower security ratings
  • 1,500 prisoners expected to move through the facility each year
  • 480 prisoners will be in two-person cells
  • 284 employees in varied positions
  • Expected to be at full capacity by October