Prisoners scapegoated while Serco lives high on the haul

By   /   July 23, 2015  /   23 Comments

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Nearly every day in Whangarei a lawyer is asked by a black-eyed prisoner to seek a short adjournment so that he’ll stay in the North’s Ngawha Prison rather than being shipped back to Serco where they will be beaten with impunity rather than afforded protection owed to people so vulnerable to systemic abuse.

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My pulse quickened, as it always does, when I heard the first steel gate lock behind me.  A cold trickle of sweat ran down my sides.  I arrived at a scanning portal, fished out my ID and stepped through.  A prison guard on the other side lounged in his chair, slowly got to his feet and looked me up and down like a piece of meat. The electronic wand he used to scan me more closely went off as it picked up on the steel shank in the instep of my boot. I removed them for inspection. He read the Italian label, smirked and then returned them to me, hanging on, just a moment too long as he passed them over, reminding me of who was in charge in the little slice of Hell they called Mount Eden Prison.

After going up the narrow stairway, I arrived at a shabby waiting area with narrow form seats against the wall. I approached the desks with the two chairs that contained lounging guards. Their fingers were loaded with the big chunky gold and ruby rings favoured by well-to-do gangsters. These guys were clearly privately wealthy for they were bejewelled to an extent that could not be supported by a humble prison guard trying to live off government wages in the Big City.

They continued talking, not bothering to look up or acknowledge me. Their conversation about the rugby eventually concluded and I was asked who I was there to see. I mentioned the name. He scanned a list, looked at his colleague with a barely contained smirk. “He’s not on the list,” he said. I told him I’d booked the visit days ago. He looked at me long and hard and slowly put his ringed index finger on the page and furrowed his brow as he looked down. He found the name, told me to sit down and wait before picking up on his rugby conversation.

After a few minutes he picked up the phone and told the person on the other end to bring my client through. After 15 minutes, I was gestured through, having been given a small black box with a red button on it. It was a “duress alarm” – I only had to press the button and the staff would rush to my assistance. He smirked, making me pause for a moment before he dropped it into my sweaty palm. The message couldn’t be more clear: my safety was in the hands of people who may well need to finish a conversation on sport before attending to the sudden violence that even lawyers sometimes experience when seeing clients in cells.

My client today was a nice man who I did not fear. Indeed I had greater concerns about the guards than I did him, an honest drug dealer who’d been caught up in a wiretap case and ultimately, would be sentenced to 20 years not long after.

He asked me if I’d heard the news. I flicked an eyebrow, indicating he should go on. He mentioned the name of a man, not knowing he was my client. He rattled through a list of contraband hidden behind a panel in his cell. The list began with half an ounce of P and progressed through two portable laptop-style DVD players, a dozen or so porno DVDs, a wealth of that universal prison currency – phone cards, two tattoo guns, a hammer, a hacksaw and, he said with a laugh, a dozen Farmer Brown eggs.

Initially I thought the naming of the brand of eggs was an embellishment. The initial Police disclosure hadn’t revealed the brand. But, a few days later when a better description arrived, sure enough, the eggs were indeed the product of Farmer Brown.

The man whose cell had been searched was a cleaner. His extensive history, known to the Prison authorities, revealed that he was a gangster with a very long criminal history. It was no surprise that he was a cleaner. This was a coveted job in the prison which allowed them to travel more widely within others. Everyone knew that cleaners had a greater opportunity to smuggle contraband within the prison. Whether it was mere communications or products, cleaners were the ones used to transport the goods around the prison.

But while it might have been a coveted position for some, for others there was no joy in being forced into being a courier. My standard advice to young clients was not to become a cleaner under any circumstances for, very quickly, they would be required to take on additional duties in an illicit trade.

So it was no surprise that a cleaner was found with such a stash, but I was left wondering what he had done to have his enterprise destroyed by the search which would see years added to the lengthy sentence that already loomed large in the crystal ball.

There was no doubt in my mind that the supposed usual methods blamed for introducing contraband into the prison weren’t being used. These DVD players had clearly not been smuggled in up lawyer’s bums, in the nappies of babies, the brassieres of loved ones or transferred, mouth-to-mouth with a kiss. Nor were these DVD players thrown from the motorway into the yard. Nor were they catapulted over the high stone wall.

A review of the case law in preparation for sentence revealed that possession of drugs in prison was seen as worse than possessing them on the outside. Rather than seeing prisoners as vulnerable captives whose addictions had been taken advantage of by unscrupulous guards, offending within the prison confines was seen as an aggravating feature. Prisoners, subject to a sentence, were expected to wring their hands in contrition and shun the evils of drugs while in prison.

A submission that it was a mitigating factor was met with raised eyebrows in the High Court. The judge was not enamoured of the idea, but listened with the diplomatic patience he was renowned for.

The case law relating to the importation of drugs mostly related to visitors bringing in small amounts, hidden within clothing. These were the people who no doubt fell foul of the searches conducted on entry. The diligent searches, I realised, enabled guards to turn their bejewelled hands upwards, demonstrating they were not the ones responsible for this trade. The pillorying of the mugs they caught enabled them to explain away the source of these drugs. Indeed a cynic might think that the odd mug being caught was all part of a scheme which enabled the main trade to flourish unabated.

The judge put his pen down and looked at me squarely as I talked about a vulnerable prisoner with addiction issues being put in the position of being a cleaner and, clearly, being supplied with contraband that could only be brought in by staff or a teleporter.

Sympathetic to the submission, but not wanting to push the boat out on this issue, a comparatively modest sentence was imposed with no uplift for the aggravating feature of offending within prison. And while there was no stated reduction for being preyed upon by staff, the modest sentence could be seen as an unwritten message that it had been taken into account.

The ancient stone prison was closed a few years ago, replaced by the shiny new Serco building. The staff now are more professional looking and scurry rapidly about their duties. But all that glistens is not golden and recent footage from Serco’s “fight club” reveal that contraband and even use of staff radios is going on. Given the footage and the history, I’m venturing that some of the worst villains there get to get home at night. The old culture is alive and well.

The lack of staff at Serco is evident to any lawyer who has tried to visit. After a drive from Whangarei for a visit, I remember once waiting for an hour before being told there simply weren’t enough staff to bring the prisoner to the interview room. Things have improved recently following many complaints by lawyers, some of who have told Courts that telepathy seems to be the best way to contact clients who were often inaccessible within the prison.

A lack of staff also, no doubt contributes to the unchecked violence that goes on within the prison, but when power-hungry video recorders and prison radios appear in the picture, there’s little doubt there’s more than just neglect going on.

During the course of the initial conversations about the Serco video footage, there was a cry about the presence of contraband and the organised fights. There was a risk of the baby getting thrown out with the bathwater and, indeed, the ministers Justice and Corrections are doing their best to obfuscate. “These are bad people,” came the cry from the Minister of Justice, forgetting, conveniently, that many of these men are on remand, innocent until proven guilty. The implicit message is that bad people deserve inhumane treatment.

The presence of a cellphone within the prison in actual fact has been a good thing here. Without prisoners filming what is going on within the prison, stories of Fight Club would be just that, stories. The presence of a joint in the prison has also been used to create a smokescreen where the Government would rather whip up anti-prisoner sentiment without reference to where these drugs may well have come from or recognition of how innocuous the humble weed is compared with systemic corruption.

The focus here needs to be on the bashed and dead prisoners who are the victims of the corrupt system. Nearly every day in Whangarei a lawyer is asked by a black-eyed prisoner to seek a short adjournment so that he’ll stay in the North’s Ngawha Prison rather than being shipped back to Serco where they will be beaten with impunity rather than afforded protection owed to people so vulnerable to systemic abuse.

Reinforcing the assertion that this is a systemic problem, no prisoner is willing to go on record about this. Life is tough enough without interfering with the commerce evident in Serco.

To blame the problem on privatisation is too simple, but there is no doubt that as workers’ pay diminishes in real terms as Auckland property prices rocket, the incentives for smugglers increase. There is no doubt that taking a profit from prisoners is a flawed model that will not improve prisoners’ lives nor reduce the misery in our communities.

Prisoners are not there to be profited from. Prisoners, rightly, should be a cost to society, for making money out of them is a culture that needs to be crushed rather than celebrated.

There are no simple answers, but it is the community that is hurt by offenders and it is the community that has an interest in successful rehabilitation. Serco is not part of our community. It’s a grubby multinational here in New Zealand to profit. It is not a model which promotes a reduction in prisoner numbers, but one which is dependent on a steady flow of new clients. Indeed, having built a prison, it has a legitimate expectation of continued business and would no doubt sue if the community’s desire for less crime and fewer prisoners became a reality. Serco passes the test of being a true parasite, for without the host it would die.

A culture of harm reduction flies directly in the face of Serco’s profit motive. I don’t care what the cost is of getting this cancer out of New Zealand. Nothing can compare with the human cost we all face when the private sector profits from prisoners. As Serco goes on the front foot, denying the harm and blaming the naught prisoners, the absence of the voices of victims is evident. No one within dares talk openly about it. They’re all too damn frightened. Meanwhile, Serco’s apologists are falling over themselves in an effort to further pillory the soft target prisoners represent.

A lockdown is in process at Serco and every cell is being turned over as a demonstration. But punishing those supplied will not hurt the suppliers. Punishing those inside will not help them speak out against the system which is so dangerous to them and, ultimately, us.

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About the author

Kelly Ellis

Contributor

A staunch human rights advocate and barrister, she ran on the Labour ticket in that electorate in 2014. When not working or politicking she plays with old cars and motorbikes, sails, fishes, cooks or hides out on her boat.

23 Comments

  1. Rae says:

    Wonder if any Serco shareholders understand the dividends they are paid include blood money

  2. hornet says:

    Corporations are the only non living entity permitted to ACT as if they are a person – so they will never have Humility, Empathy, Compassion, or CARE.

    The life blood of Corporations is REVENUE – for that is their Oxygen.

    So we have a non living, non breathing entity which is NEVER capable of giving Human Rights – and yet we keep asking for them from it – this is an impossible task – for it cannot give something it is not. It is NOT and never will be a HUMAN BEING.

    Differences in Corporations – When the Police was run as a SERVICE – we had no BUDGETS, NO TIMES SHEETS, NO constraints on where resources were directed – so if Burglaries were a problem SERVICES were directed accordingly to fix the problem.

    Now that the Police is managed like a CORPORATION looking for CUSTOMERS- for REVENUE – its focus will always be on looking to REDUCE COSTS – so where a Service costs money – like investigating CRIME it will be reduced to save money and INCREASE PROFIT.

    This has to be a concern now we have CORPORATE – Private public partnerships running PRISONS looking for CUSTOMERS to make a PROFIT.

    That is why you see immediately a REDUCTION in SERVICE – because the focus is no longer on SERVICE Delivery – but on PROFIT ( its lifeblood ) – with NO CARE, COMPASSION or HUMILITY.

    This is the concern for Humanity – for we have many wonderful HUMAN BEINGS working for Corporations – yet as a whole that entity is never capable of being HUMAN – and CARING.

    I always remember when my company was purchased by a corporation – the FIRST thing to happen was all the names of HUMAN BEINGS were replaced by Corporate Titles – totally dehumanising their efforts and contributions.

    • Helena says:

      The country called New Zealand is a registered corporation.
      The facts are there for the interested to find.

  3. Helena says:

    Talking to a prison officer from Ngawha yesterday. He said that prison runs educational programmes which keep inmates fully occupied from sunup to sundown. The only negative was that there’s no money in educating Maori about their own culture. Education in “westernized” culture, which has kept this earth drowning in blood and in warfare for hundreds of years, spawns organized gangs called Serco.

  4. ourchateau says:

    Spot on Kelly. Meanwhile the only service which is being nationalised is legal defence. Figure that out!

  5. Save NZ says:

    Great article. Really interesting to hear how bad it is within the prison system and also good point that the prisoners are victims if the guards are the ones supplying the contraband like drugs.

    A murder and serious assault in a prison should be investigated as thoroughly as any other murder in this country by police. They should be called immediately and the scene sealed off and investigation started.

  6. Brutus Iscariot says:

    Not sure why this is generating such big headlines.

    Violence has been a feature in prisons since year zero, certainly long before Serco came along. Amazing how it takes a couple of youtube videos can suddenly remind people that the sky is blue.

    • wild katipo says:

      In that case would you endorse gibbets for hanging treasonous politicians?

      We – most kiwis – DO NOT endorse this thunderdome crap.

      This is not what this country is about.

      Prisoner or no – no one deserves this sort of sick assault.

      It actually pisses me right off.

    • Andrea says:

      ‘Violence has been a feature in prisons since year zero’

      So?

      Is that any reason to let it continue unchecked?

      Smoking tobacco has been around since ‘year zero’, too. Scorched earth policies in war zones. I thought we’d had thoughts about changing to something less aggressive…

      No. I’m not being ‘ridiculous’.

      There is no need to continue these ancient and disreputable customs. They serve no greater good whatsoever. It encourages the mean, the petty, the spiteful who are, unfortunately, free in our communities, to continue with their smug stupidity.

      Are the guards at SERCO places locals or qualified imports? And who is setting the corporate culture?

      To be wearing rings – even wedding rings – while on duty… Like having personal knuckledusters, eh? Do a lot of damage with big rocks on your fingers. Unacceptable and unprofessional.

    • mary_a says:

      @ Brutus Iscariot – if society imprisons someone for a criminal offence, then the same society has an obligation to keep that prisoner safe from harm, regardless!

    • Helena says:

      21 Dec 2012 : Humanity passed a marker without nuclear war. This opened the door for what I suppose you could call a raising of consciousness and this in turn is leading to the collapse of the banking elite which is underway which will in turn lead to the National Economic Security Act being effected by the BRICS. Before 21/12 this could not have happened.

  7. Helena says:

    Ran a check on the Board of Directors of SERCO Group PLC.
    Rupert Soames CEO; Roy Gardner Chairman.
    You all know what I’m going to say next …….
    Yep, all mates of John Key and the elite which calls themselves The Bilderberg.

    Well, when you’re PM you can appoint your mates to anything!

    Good news though. John’s ‘king of the castle’ fantasy is crumbling. The more we know the more John has to lose.

    • mary_a says:

      Thanks for the info Helena. Not at all surprising FJK buddies are appointed as CEO and Chairman of Serco NZ! It figures.

      So from what you have said, I doubt these gits will be held accountable, just like their friend FJK!

      NatzKEY and mates have blood on their hands!

    • Helena says:

      Thanks – enjoyed that link. Reminds me of the true story of the UK Min of Defence which paid out for years and years for a ship refit until one day a bright young thing investigated only to find the ship didn’t exist.

  8. Blake says:

    Corporate greed and privatization – GO GO NATIONAL AND FJK – as we watch you take our country further into despair and chaos.
    You all are doing such a fine job and now you have blood on your hands.
    Was all that money and greed worth it ? Young Nats wake up ! ! !
    Voters get informed.

    • downwithnats says:

      The young Nats are so attached to the tit of privilege that they haven’t the nonce to think outside their greed or the compassion to understand humanity. It will all have to happen from the ground and swell up. Get every poor person to enroll and vote.

  9. Blake says:

    Seems Serco is having problems in Britain and Australia.
    We have sold out to something that will not serve our people and our institutions very well.
    We loose while others get rich.
    TO PROFIT ON THE BACKS OF OTHERS SUFFERING IS WAY BEYOND SANE ; FAIR AND RIGHT ! ! Gross lack of ethics ! !
    It mostly all comes down to greed instead of proper services.
    People paying for others greed based profits – privatize it all and we loose on many levels. Lame and lying jonkey donkey is selling us down the river and now TPPA will be the icing on his disgusting cake and his horrendous legacy. Hawaii – please call him back.

    http://weownit.org.uk/privatisation-doesn%E2%80%99t-work/whats-problem-outsourcing-companies

  10. mary_a says:

    Out of the mouth of the Almighty FJK, who says –

    “One of the claims that had been made, I think, was that someone had been thrown off a balcony – in fact, actually, Serco say that the person jumped off the balcony, or tripped, or fell.”

    Regardless, dropping, tripping, jumping, falling etc, the outcome was a man died, unnecessarily! Serco is failing! In this instance, the lack of staff monitoring and supervising prisoners was obvious!

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/70472683/Corrections-Minister-looking-at-options-for-Serco-run-prisons-after-allegations-of-ill-treatment

  11. elle says:

    Well if you think the Serco prisons are bad wait till TPP is enacted , just about every public service is at present being made ready for privatisation, overseen by Americans Paula Rebstock and Goldman Sachs.
    The corporations will be in NZ picking over what they want from the privatisation pot.
    Thats why National killed the bill that was put forward to stop corporations from coming into NZ and wrecking more
    of our economy.
    Corruption by National, and still John Key is allowed to get away with it enabled by yes men and women MPS,who are so concerned about promotion they will flush NZ down the toilet.
    Whenever we hear of JKs criminality we get excuses, smirks and “Its Labours fault” Enough is enough,it would be good if someone could force criminal proceedings ,but of course the whole system of law for polititions is compromised by excepted corruption by police and courts.
    Privatisation is another word for for asset sales.
    As Helen says BRICS are maybe going to fix the problem ,but the corporations are in or coming in, very soon ,4 days to TPP signing.
    We are a registered on New York stock exchange as NZ inc, we will be the bolthole of corporations as a place to be safe and cream the wealth from the country , enabled by our leader JK.

    9-2=7 capcha

  12. elle says:

    Watch Wake up New Zealand, a film about the workings of corporations.
    A real eye opener,it shows how the workers have a legal obligation to
    be loyal to the corporations in their object of making more and more money regardless of the harm they cause.
    It explains the way this government are assisting the entry of corps’ because JK is a loyal worker for corps’ and his mps are loyal to JK.
    No moral issues are recognised.

  13. The whole argument that prisoners get what they deserve when they go to prison is lost on me. They go there to do time, but also hopefully to take time out, have a look at themselves and whether this is the way they want to spend their lives.

    For some, unfortunately the answer will be yes, but not everyone is an unremorseful thug who thinks the world is against them. Those that want to turn themselves around should be applauded for realizing there is a better way than cell and key. But they might be damaged goods to society if we let in house thuggery do this to them.

  14. Helena says:

    Regarding TPP; (sorry not about Serco) but …
    There is a term called: The Rule of Law.
    The rule of law is the legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials.
    I suppose it could be argued that as these are secret discussions/agreement the matter could be challenged.
    John Key could be called a dictator.
    A bit like I have spoken you will obey.

    Can’t see Andrew Little buying into that one, can you!
    I really believe Mr Little is a good man.