It is hard to get used to the idea that the private sector can run prisons. Of all the powers of the state, the ability to deprive people of their physical freedom would seem to be the last one that should be contracted out. Yet the British firm Serco has been running the Auckland remand prison for some time without serious crises and it is set to operate the new low- and medium-security prison at Wiri that opens this month.
It will do so with a good deal of room for its own initiative in how it meets the rehabilitative targets that will determine its profits. There is no better illustration of that discretion than its decision to equip the cells with personal phones and computers. The decision has been criticised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust for reasons that are entirely predictable and not at all sensible.
This is not an indulgence of prisoners by public policy-makers who had succumbed to compassionate theories of criminology. It is a decision made on grounds of hard-headed profitability. The company stands to earn bonus payments if the reoffending rate of Maori released from the prison is 10 or 15 per cent lower than the average recidivism of Maori released from the other 14 minimum- or medium-security units in the country. It can earn a further bonus if its overall recidivism is 10 per cent lower than the average.
Given this incentive, it was up to the prison operator to decide what sort of environment was most likely to put inmates on a better path. It did not put its money on the sort of harsh, punitive conditions advocated by the likes of the Sensible Sentencing Trust; it has calculated that computers are a better investment.
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Criminal offending predominantly occurs among young men with very little education, often illiterate. Digital technology offers them enjoyable ways to learn, become proficient with a keyboard, express themselves in a different way and broaden their horizon. It is just a pity that security restricts the uses prisoners can make of the cellphones and computers. They can make only pre-arranged calls to approved people and cannot receive calls, and they will not have internet access. But they will be able to use the devices for study, make bookings within the prison and choose their meals.
It sounds little enough but it will give them some proficiency and a sense of new possibilities in life. The benefits are obvious even to the Sensible Sentencing Trust's Garth McVicar, who suggests they will be an inducement to crime for those with no other access to a computer. If he is right, Serco has made a costly mistake that will increase recidivism among its inmates. Would Mr McVicar stake money on methods he advocates?
If the computers prove successful Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga wants to put them in all New Zealand prisons. This sort of innovation is one of the benefits of private prison administration. Private operators stand to suffer more than state services if things go wrong. Opponents are poised to condemn private prisons at the first sign of a problem.
Serco has started as it needs to continue, refreshingly willing to make improvements.