Serco rated 'exceptional' as fight clubs operated

5:52 pm on 7 October 2016

Private prison operator Serco was scoring "exceptional" performance marks when it had too few guards to detect or stop organised fight clubs at Mt Eden remand jail, a report says.

The inquiry into fight clubs at Mt Eden released yesterday showed Serco used a system that rostered on guards who were on leave, or who no longer worked there at all, leaving the prison understaffed.

A Serco sign at Mt Eden prison

Serco ran Mt Eden prison and still runs Wiri prison. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Chief prison inspector Andy Fitzharris said in the inquiry report the only way of detecting and preventing organised fighting was having enough properly trained staff on deck.

Guards who were supposed to be supervising prisoners in units while prisoners' cells were unlocked were doing so only 40 percent of the time, the report said.

"[Serco's staffing model] was fundamentally flawed as there is documentary evidence that the staffing roster used included some staff who were on annual leave, medical leave, or had resigned," the report said.

It said Serco's contract with the government did not set staffing arrangements, making Serco responsible for determining how many staff were sufficient to meet its obligations.

In the report, Serco dismissed the lack of staff as a cause of the fight clubs - blaming violent gang culture instead.

The fight clubs, often in cells but sometimes in full view of CCTV, happened weekly, and possibly daily, in at least half of the prison's 10 units that house 1000 men.

Inmates were coerced into fighting by gang members, the report said.

Serco's management was 'willy nilly' - Ray Smith

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith described Serco's management as "willy nilly".

"There were failures there on quite a large scale," he said.

"Staffing had been an issue that I had been pushing Serco along with for quite a long time and, you know, I thought we'd made progress at various points along the term of the contract.

"But really, in the end there was just a lack of people on the floor, poor training and supervision and poor procedure and structure."

Mr Smith said he was now taking responsibility for fixing it.

But from 2013 to September 2015 his department rated Mt Eden in its top two performance categories, and for most of that time as an "exceptional" performer.

Ray Smith - Chief Executive Corrections

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Only after the fight club video footage emerged on Youtube, did it plunge to the lowest category of "needing improvement".

Mr Fitzharris's report said injury rates indicated the jail was a dangerous place to be from around 2012.

"It is likely that senior management were unaware of the full extent of organised fighting at MECF [Mount Eden Corrections Facility].

"However, senior management were aware of multiple internal reports suggesting that organised fighting was occurring.

"It is likely that some prison officers were aware of some events of 'contender fighting' and 'fight club' activity which they did not report."

Reports of fight clubs emerge in January 2013

The first official Serco report to emerge after it took over Mt Eden in 2011 was in January 2013 when the acting prison director registered alarm about contender bouts.

However, it was concluded this was an isolated event.

A year later, probation offenders claimed a lot of organised fighting was going on, but Corrections couldn't find evidence of it, the report said.

Only once were fight clubs recorded in Serco's log of issues, and it did no investigation itself before mid 2015.

Corrections' own monitoring officers raised an alarm about fight clubs only once with Serco, in March 2015.

Monitors judged Serco's first report into fight clubs was inadequate and sent it back. They were then sent back the very same report by Serco. Then the matter was dropped.

Monitors 'overwhelmed' - report

It was common for Serco to push back against the monitors, including over serious matters such as the use of force on a prisoner in June last year, which was dropped by monitors with no record of anything being done.

"Monitors have been overwhelmed, worn down and consumed by MECF management continually challenging their requests for resolution to matters," Mr Fitzharris said in the report.

That finding was echoed by Mr Smith.

"It can be very, very difficult for those people on the ground that are trying to make change and it isn't a healthy way to run a contract," he said.

"And clearly we got stuck here, and looking back, I wished that I'd provided more support to those monitors on the ground so that they could've done a better job."

Serco continues to run Wiri Prison in South Auckland.

Corrections has installed extra monitoring there, and said it was beefing up prison monitoring as a whole.

The Office of the Ombudsman said it planned to put the Corrections Department's running of prisons under greater scrutiny.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said prisoners had the right to be detained in humane conditions, appropriately supervised and treated fairly.

He said a programme aimed at proactively monitoring how prisoners were treated was already underway and would include Mt Eden.

Mr Boshier said the monitoring process was the most effective way to ensure appropriate safeguards were in place, and working properly across all prisons.

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