Gordon Campbell on the government’s dogged reluctance to condemn Serco

The refusal by Minister Sam Lotu-Liga to hold Serco accountable for the company’s failings in prison management is bad enough. Basically, this ingrained reluctance is an echo of the government’s wider failure to heed the dangers that are inherent in turning our prisons into profit opportunities for the private sector. Serco’s poor track record in the UK had been brought to the government’s attention long before it chose to award the company the contracts to run (a) the Mt Eden Corrections Facility and (b) the new Wiri prison complex due to reach full capacity later this year.

In early 2012, only months of taking over the running of the Mt Eden Corrections Facility, Serco was already failing to meet agreed targets:

….Labour’s Justice Sector Spokesperson Charles Chauvel says that the Government’s plans to privatise up to a quarter of New Zealand’s prison capacity will worsen the already dangerous failure to meet requirements.

“Figures out today reveal worrying trends in Serco’s management of the Mt Eden Corrections Facility over the last eight months. Of particular concern are failures to meet drug testing and offender management plan targets, wrongful releases, and an escape from custody.

The recent revelations of endemic violence at Mt Eden (and the chronic, profit-driven understaffing that are related to it) are not news. They’ve been known for a long time. Over the last three years, Mt Eden has had more assaults on prisoners and staff than any other jail in the country.

….in the 12 months to June there were 139 fights between prisoners and 26 assaults on guards. There were 141 prisoner assaults in 2013 and 149 in 2012. There were also 39 assaults on guards in the 12 months to June 2013, and 22 attacks in 2012. Mt Eden has the capacity to house 966 prisoners. By comparison, Christchurch Prison has 926 inmates and reported 83 assaults last year.

These poor outcomes can be traced directly to Serco’s greedy reluctance to hire sufficient staff:

… Public prisons are required to have at least one guard for every 15 remand prisoners, with a typical wing housing 45 inmates. However, Corrections Association president Beven Hanlon said there was no such requirement at Mt Eden. He said the prison had just two guards per wing. “If somebody goes sick they don’t replace them so you’re left with one. So you’ve got one officer to 45 prisoners … and sometimes even worse. We’ve walked around that prison and there’s been one officer to 90 prisoners,” he said.

Even so, when the recent examples of prisoner-on-prisoner violence were first made public by Labour MP Kelvin Davis, Lotu-Liga’s initial response was to deny knowledge, and accuse Davis of making things up. Subsequently, it became clear that Davis had in fact brought the chronic violence at Mt Eden to Lotu-Liga’s attention at a select committee weeks beforehand, to no avail:

Serco and the minister have both denied any knowledge of a practice called “dropping” – and say the first they heard about it was this week.

But it has now emerged that Lotu-Iiga was grilled about the practice by Davis at a parliamentary select committee hearing weeks ago. A transcript of proceedings show Lotu-Iiga was told by Davis: “There’s this guy that passed away recently…apparently he had a ruptured lung. I’ve asked ‘how do you get a ruptured lung? It’s often from a high impact collision and there’s accusations that prisoners have been thrown off balconies and then they’re getting transferred out of Mt Eden correctional facility.” Asked on Wednesday about that transcript, Lotu-Iiga appeared to have no recollection of the exchange.

To complete the dismal picture, it also seems that Serco had not been reporting some of the serious violent incidents occurring on its watch.

Given the current political furore, Serco face the likelihood of financial penalties under their contracts. How much? In the event of a death occurring at its new $300 million prison facility at Wiri, the firm stands to be contractually liable to a maximum fine of $150,000 – a mere drop in the bucket given the profits to be made from prison privatisation.

Meanwhile, the pressure to depict Serco’s prisons as a raging success story runs all the way from the guards on the prison floor right on up to the Minister’s office. Ultimately, the Serco experiment in prison privatisation has been planned as the blueprint for contracting out the service delivery in other traditional functions of government, such as welfare provision. Ideologically, there’s too much at stake for the government to back out now, and abandon Serco. Similarly, there’s too much money to be made from privatisation by its corporate friends ; even if, as the events at Mt Eden have shown, the profits involved are (literally) blood money. Expect at most, a token fine levied on Serco, noises of disapproval and a pantomine of care.

Swift vs Minaj

In one of the more bizarre artist-on-artist spats in recent memory, Taylor Swift has been slagged this week from the Guardian to Salon for – among other things – being ‘faux feminist’ and ‘tone deaf to racism’ and for ‘picking a fight’ with Nicki Minaj. Huh? It was Minaj who had picked the fight, by complaining that the reason her video hadn’t been selected as an awards contender must have been because of the racists and sexists in the music industry, who allegedly prefer videos with women who have ‘skinny butts’ instead – a clear reference to Swift, one of the two chosen contenders. (The other contender chosen was Beyonce, which would seem to undermine Minaj’s entire argument.)

Swift’s initial response was that she had always supported Minaj in the past, and couldn’t see why Minaj had chosen to attack her publicly. (This outrage is what galvanised the Guardian into accusing her of ‘faux feminism’.) Clearly only a grovelling personal apology for being nominated ahead of Minaj would have sufficed. Given that Swift has already had an awards ceremony disrupted by Kanye West bounding on stage to claim that Beyonce deserved the award, not her ….maybe she should just give up on the awards process entirely, given that she has become the easy, readily available punching bag for anyone outraged by the industry’s rampant racism and sexism. Of which I would argue, Swift is not the prime cause. For the record, here’s the Minaj work of genius that has been so cruelly denied its due measure of acclaim.

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