Rundown jails need $420m cash fix

By Eugene Bingham

By EUGENE BINGHAM political reporter

The country's jails are in a mess, with $420 million needed to fix sanitation, security and safety problems.

A Department of Corrections report obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act reveals the huge bill required to bring the 17 jails up to scratch.

Slop-bucket toilets, security risks and safety issues for prison guards are among urgent problems that need fixing in the rundown prisons, the report says.

One-third of the country's cells pre-date the Second World War.

The report, into the amount of maintenance put off in the past few years, found that money which could have been spent on routine replacement had instead gone towards building new low-security cells, creating a huge backlog of problems in the older prisons, three of which were built more than 100 years ago.

Prison staff, who have voiced concerns about the state of their workplaces, are considering taking the department to the Employment Court over the issue.

The health and safety coordinator for the Corrections Association, Brian Davies, said yesterday that one of the worst examples of poor conditions was the slop-bucket toilets in some cells.

It was unhygienic and disgusting for prisoners and the guards who had to deal with them.

"How would you like to go into a cell where possibly more than one inmate has been urinating into the bucket all night?" asked Mr Davies.

"And it's not unknown for a bucket to be thrown over a prison officer in the morning, either."

While most cells had flush toilets, prisoners in some central North Island and South Island prisons still used buckets.

Mr Davies said one of the worst examples he had seen was the four punishment cells at Christchurch Women's Prison, where inmates could be locked up for up to 23 hours a day.

"They have a canvas mattress, canvas blankets and a piss pot in the corner - that's it."

He listed the worst prisons as Mt Eden, Waikeria, Rangipo-Tongariro, Christchurch Women's, Dunedin and Invercargill.

But rather than replacing facilities and bringing buildings up to minimum modern health and safety standards, the department has had to pay for expansion programmes.

By March last year, it had forked out $92 million from its existing budget on new cell construction.

While the report did not identify specific problems, it referred to another document listing major risks.

"Defective security was listed as an exposure, with escape, drugs and weapons smuggling as consequences."

The report said the department had taken steps to address these hazards.

Other risks included earthquakes, fires and loss of value.

"The real loss to the Crown through deferred maintenance in recent years is not hypothetical. The most recent revaluation [of prison buildings] has written off $60 million from the value of assets, which reflects a real and avoidable fiscal cost," said the report.

"Much of the deferred maintenance cannot reasonably be further deferred."

Outlining the cost of what had to be done, the report set out three options. The most critical work would mean spending $233 million over the next five years, while the best scenario cost $420 million. A middle alternative was $259 million.

A department spokeswoman said no one was available to comment on the report yesterday, but the most recent annual report said funds from the Budget had enabled some work to begin.

Budget documents show that the department was allocated $3 million to "upgrade prisons to ensure statutory compliance, avoid asset degradation and manage operational risks."

Mr Davies said the Corrections Association was beginning its own inspection at all prisons this week so it could point out exactly what needed to be done.

"If they don't take steps to improve things, then we'll go to the Employment Court."

Some of the problems he had found already included:

* Unsafe prisoners' workshops with little regard for industrial safety precautions.

* Unhygienic kitchen conditions.

* Unfenced balconies allowing people to be thrown or fall three storeys.

* Poor lighting and bad lines of sight.

A spokesman for Corrections Minister Matt Robson said he was not available for comment.

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