The Serco Circus

Every now and again a public issue appears to unite community concern to the point where the Government is forced to make some hasty adjustment to policy. Despite the international Serco group being granted oversight of Auckland’s Mt Eden Remand Prison which was then heralded as an example of best practice privatisation of our prisons a much publicised series of failures at the prison has forced a re-evaluation. In a recent series of revelations of video evidence of drug taking and fight club activity compounded by news of a meth ring organised from within the prison and medical evidence of serious injury and death , on 24 July 2015, Serco was revoked the right of running the prison and Mt Eden prison was given back to the New Zealand Department of Corrections to resume control.

Although it is blindingly obvious that Serco’s oversight of the Mt Eden Remand prison has failed to deliver on the Government expectations, what is less clear is that the Government or the Corrections department is entirely to blame. However since the more embarrassing aspects suggest unwise initial decision making, let’s review those aspects first.

I admit the public has a perfect right to be puzzled as to why the New Zealand Government continued to assure the New Zealand public that Serco should be trusted to run private prisons, particularly when Serco’s failures in a variety of international ventures over the last few years are so well documented and in the public arena. For example in September 2013, Serco was accused of extensive sexual abuse cover-ups involving immigrants at Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre prison in Bedfordshire in England. This clearly upset Natasha Walter, a spokesperson for the organisation Women for Refugee Women, was quoted as saying “Serco is clearly unfit to manage a centre where vulnerable women are held and it is unacceptable the government continues to entrust Serco with the safety of women who are survivors of sexual violence”.

Australia gave a contract to Serco to manage their refugee centre on Christmas Island which holds many refugees and anywhere up to 1000 children. The Union of Christmas Island Workers drew attention to the systemic failure by Serco to manage the centre. Under Serco, there were examples of Children photographed in cages, of Serco staff beating prisoners as well as an increase of deaths in custody and instances of self-harm. When the Australian Ombudsman finally checked out the situation for himself by visiting the site, he confirmed to the Australian radio programme that “In the first week of June …. more than 30 incidents of self-harm by detainees held there were reported”. Serco, according to a staged memo leaked to the Australian was reported as trying to set up a “bargaining tool” by blaming the detainees for “creating a culture of self-harm”. The former manager of the Serco run detention centre stated the centre was grossly understaffed whereby it was “typically 15 staff members short every day”.

Apart from the examples of Serco being found to be negligent and even fraudulent in its control of a number of UK contracts for Justice Department contracts, eg grossly over charging for electronic monitoring, understaffing a number of establishments. In its involvement with the NHS, health services Serco was discovered making fundamental errors in NHS laboratory services , pathology lab mistakes, (some of which resulted in death) and even the deliberate falsification of 252 patient records for the Cornwall NHS. These examples should have raised real concerns. The only real advantage Serco seem to offer for government departments was offering cheap alternatives in its particular brand of privatization.

I find it hard to accept that the Minister of Corrections was unable to access such information as is already mentioned when as I a private citizen could gather such information simply by checking on the internet and asking friends with appropriate connections. An experienced ex prison guard with current friends in the Prison service assured me some weeks ago that the number of guards at Mt Eden prison was reduced to a dangerous level when Serco took over(stated in Parliament on 29 July as from the recommended 50 down to 15!). But this is where the issue is clouded. I have heard via prison staff that there are four Government officials providing full-time independent monitoring at the prison and that Serco independently monitors its own procedures. Further there is a permanent phone connection with the Corrections department for the use of prisoners so that prisoner concerns can be passed on if required. Prison Chaplains also visit the prisoners regularly and these should also have noted if and when the situation was getting out of control.

If the media are to believed, the Corrections Department had been largely unaware of the recent issues like having insufficient prison guards on duty on each floor to notice the existence of fight clubs and the video evidence of drug taking at Mt Eden. Allowing Serco to do much of its own monitoring would naturally have appeared unwise particularly as there was extensive evidence of Serco losing control of a number of its facilities in the UK over recent years. On the other hand four permanent staff independent monitors and the chaplains should have noted anything substantially untoward – unless of course they were derelict in their duties.

While the current media focus is on a minister of Corrections apparently asleep at the wheel there is also the issue of why none of the apparently independent observers employed for the express purpose of monitoring the situation also failed to report concerns, not to mention the host of others including those concerned with prisoner welfare and who come into relatively frequent contact with the prisoners. Prison visitors, lawyers, chaplains, cleaners, were all presumably failing to report concerns and even more surprisingly, the prisoners themselves apparently made little attempt to use the confidential phone proved for the purpose. It seems highly unlikely that all the guards, visitors and other staff members were unable to smell and identify the distinctive traces of smoke from the drugs the videos showed being used in the prisons, and even more curious, it is hard to explain the presumed lack of interest in following up the likely physical harm from beatings and gang fights.

What is still to be determined is how the current problems affecting Serco will now feed into the National Party policy of shifting much of the social development policy into private control.

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