Fights in a prison are probably not unusual, and often worse that the "fight club" video from Mt Eden that has had a political chain-reaction. First, prison operator Serco responded with a "lockdown" that made it difficult for lawyers to visit clients. Soon cases in the district courts were being delayed. With judges grumbling and the Government fumbling, the Corrections Department has taken over the prison.
It is paydirt for politicians who opposed contracting out the prisons and some of them are quick to claim it discredits all contracting of social services to the private sector. With so much political investment riding on the problems in Mt Eden, it is hard to keep a dispassionate eye on the public interest.
Once the Government let prison contracts to a private company the contractor ought to have realised that any lapse of care or discipline in the prison would be brought to public attention one way or another. Prison officers more comfortable in state employment have kept Labour's corrections spokesman, Kelvin Davis, closely briefed on Serco's problems. But the Government can hardly complain about that, since the political sensitivity of private contracts was one of the checks that was supposed to ensure they would perform better than the public prison administration. Arguably, that is exactly what has happened. Would film of organised fisticuffs in a cell have been re-played on television every night for a week or more, if it had happened in a state prison?
Much worse is said to have happened on Serco's watch, especially the "dropping" of prisoners over balustrades from heights bound to cause broken limbs. But the one such case reported to Mr Davis did not stand up to the Weekend Herald's checks. The inquiries, though, confirmed that a prisoner had arrived at a Manawatu prison in March with serious injuries suffered at Mt Eden. And lawyers said unusual numbers of remand prisoners were coming to court with black eyes and broken arms.
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This should not be happening to any prisoner, let alone those remanded in custody. Some of them are in custody for their own safety, some of them are awaiting trial and might be acquitted, others have yet to be sentenced. The argument against private prison administration is that only the state has the right to keep people captive and it is the state's responsibility to ensure they are kept safe.
Private companies, so the argument goes, need to operate at lower costs to leave a profit for shareholders from their public funding and will try to manage with fewer staff. Images of inmates fighting with no prison staff in sight reinforce that impression of Serco's operation at Mt Eden.
The company has a mixed record in other countries and the fact that executives came from Australia in response to the Government's summons does not inspire confidence in its management here. The Government must hold the company to the letter of its contract and make an example of it. Public prisons may be no better but private enterprise has to perform or suffer the consequences. That is how it works.