The British operators of our newest jail at Wiri in Auckland stand to earn bonuses of up to $1.5 million a year if they can cut reoffending rates significantly. Simon Collins investigates how they plan to do it.

From the moment the first prisoner walks into New Zealand's newest jail at Wiri this month, prison staff will start planning for his release.

The 284 staff at the $270 million, 960-bed men's jail, which opens on Friday, do not include any "corrections officers", the standard job title of wardens at the country's 14 other male prisons.

Instead, custodial staff will be called "reintegration officers". Serco, the British company running the jail, says: "Reintegration officer better reflects the focus of the role, which is the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners."

They have adopted a name for the prison suggested by local iwi Te Akitai Waiohua: "Kohuora", or "coming out of the mist into the new world of the living".

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The Government, which has set a target of reducing reoffending across the justice system by 25 per cent by 2017, has written Serco's contract to maximise its incentive to help prisoners leave behind what was often a disruptive upbringing leading to crime, and join the law-abiding community - especially for Maori, who are jailed at six times the rate of non-Maori.

The company will get a bonus of at least $375,000 in each year when Maori prisoners released from Kohuora are imprisoned again within two years at a rate at least 10 per cent below the average of Maori released from the other 14 prisons (excluding maximum-security units). Serco's bonus increases, up to a maximum of $1.125 million a year if its reimprisonment rate is at least 15 per cent below the other prisons.

If it achieves the bonus for Maori prisoners, it can also get a further bonus of between $125,000 and $375,000 in every year when the overall reimprisonment rate of all its released prisoners is at least 10 per cent lower than the other prisons.

Serco told the London Stock Exchange when it won the contract to run Kohuora for 25 years in 2012 that it expected it to yield revenue of 15 million ($31 million) a year. If its expected profit is perhaps a tenth of that, or around $3 million a year, it stands to increase that by half to $4.5 million a year if it achieves its maximum bonuses for reducing reoffending.

It aims to get there by helping prisoners develop positive relationships, skills and work experience both within the prison and after their release. "We want the community in the prison and the prison in the community," says Serco Asia-Pacific operations director Scott McNairn.

Community in the prison

A big advantage of the new prison is its location off Roscommon Rd, in the heart of South Auckland. Until now, local offenders have been sent far away - at best to Paremoremo (near Albany) or Spring Hill (near Te Kauwhata), but often to remote jails around the country. "We are bringing a lot of prisoners home," says Corrections Department chief executive Ray Smith.

The location will foster contact with families, especially children. Children are the most powerful motivator that turn many young men's lives around.

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Kohuora includes a "cultural centre" just outside the gate providing services for prisoners' families. Parenting programmes will be offered to both the men and their families.

"We want to encourage family to be involved in prisoners' sentence planning and sentence management," Mr McNairn says.

The jail is designed to give prisoners a clear sense of direction, from the three big higher-security cell blocks of 240 prisoners each to 10 smaller two-storey blocks of "self-care units" - flats where another 240 prisoners will do their own cooking and cleaning. The proportion of self-care units is far higher than in any other New Zealand prison.

Closest to the gate are a marae-style Whare Manaaki and a circular Fale Pasifika.

"Our operating philosophy is a 'responsible prisoner' model," says Mr McNairn. "We are encouraging prisoners to be responsible for themselves, responsible for their families, responsible for their victims, and empowering prisoners to that level of responsibility."

Controversially, the prison is empowering prisoners by giving them each a computer on which they can study and manage their appointments and even their meal menus. They will not have internet access.

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Howard League chief executive Mike Williams, who has put volunteer literacy teachers into all but two of the country's jails, says 50 to 60 per cent of prisoners are functionally illiterate. Often illiteracy got them into jail, either indirectly through unemployment or directly through offences such as driving repeatedly without a licence simply because they couldn't read the road code.

At Kohuora, Open Polytechnic tutors will run classes and encourage prisoners to keep studying on their in-cell computers.

"The interactive learning materials we have created for the tablet are specifically designed to encourage students who may not have had a successful education experience previously and who have low language or maths literacy," says Open Polytechnic chief executive Dr Caroline Seelig. She says other prisons still use paper-based materials, but the new software has been piloted on tablets at Serco's Mt Eden remand prison.

"Our results showed that the offenders using the tablet completed their studies more quickly and were more enthusiastic about learning.

"One offender also commented that his ability to write letters had improved so dramatically that his partner thought someone else was writing them for him."

Once they can read and write, the next step is to help prisoners gain the skills they will need to get jobs. Kohuora includes an industries hall the length of a rugby field, where prisoners will gain qualifications in welding and joinery and use those skills for three employers: Envirowaste, Cabins to Go and Placemakers.

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Envirowaste already uses prisoners at Spring Hill to work at its neighbouring Hampton Downs landfill, and at Paremoremo to repair truck bins. Kohuora prisoners will also repair truck bins.

Cabins to Go uses prisoners to build cabins at Paremoremo and will do the same at Kohuora.

Placemakers will use Kohuora to replace a staff shortage at its timber frame and truss factory in McLaughlins Rd just behind the prison. General manager sales and manufacturing Blake Bibbie says it can't find enough staff to supply Auckland's booming house-building industry.

"We could take eight to 10 people right now if they were trained and available," he says. "We will be providing induction and on-the-job training [in the prison]. We hope this will lead these people to qualifications that could make them useful to be employed either in our facilities or competitors' factories in the future." He says Placemakers will pay Serco the going commercial rate for its products. Serco will pay prisoners the same wages as prisoners in other New Zealand jails, which Corrections Association organiser Beven Hanlon says is 24c an hour.

Prison in the community

Serco is building an "alliance" of partners who will help to prepare Kohuora prisoners for life outside.

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Goodwood Park, a Kumeu-based mental health provider, already has a contract to work with men coming out of Waikeria and Tongariro/Rangipo prisons through the Corrections Department's Out of Gate scheme, set up 18 months ago for prisoners with sentences of less than two years.

"We work with them initially in prison to find out what their plans and needs are, then we develop a plan for them on release," says its business development manager Kenny Paton.

"We pick them up on the day of release and we work to find accommodation in advance, we work to arrange a Winz benefit, which for the majority is the starting point, and we work to make sure they have some food and clothing, because a lot of them come out with only what they are wearing."

A key issue is arranging identity documents because many don't have driver's licences or passports.

At Kohuora, two Goodwood Park staff and two Serco staff will work together as case managers, starting with the men inside the prison and then following them out into the community from a "community hub" at Friendship House in Manukau.

Friendship House will recruit volunteers to be the men's "mentors". Its chief executive Rev Vicki Sykes says the case managers will help the men find housing and jobs, and the mentors' role will be to help with their day-to-day living.

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"For example, if the guy has been doing pre-release work and has things all in place in the highly-structured environment of the prison, on release, with the lack of external structure, and with all the other factors in their lives, sometimes it's hard to maintain the resolve.

"The role of the mentor is to be that buddy and support," she says.

Pars, formerly Prisoners Aid and now renamed People At Risk Solutions, also has a mentoring scheme and will be a partner at Kohuora. Prison Fellowship provides similar community support at other prisons and may get involved at Kohuora if it can find local volunteers.

Manukau Urban Maori Authority, which has the Out of Gate contract for the other men's prisons from Spring Hill to Northland, also hopes to be involved with the new prison. It has supported accommodation for four ex-prisoners near Mangere's Nga Whare Waatea Marae, where it offers "wraparound services including Whanau Ora, a charter school, a training company and a community garden".

Firm under fire in UK and Australia

Serco has a mixed record in operating jails and other public facilities around the world.

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The UK-based company was banned from British public sector contracts for six months in 2013 after investigators found it had been over-charging for electronic monitoring of people either dead or in jail.

New Zealand Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga. Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealand Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In Australia, where it runs prisons, hospitals and immigration detention centres, it has been criticised for allowing high rates of self-harm in its 12 migrant detention centres including one on Christmas Island.

New Zealand Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga (pictured) said the 25-year contract for the new Wiri prison, including construction and operations, would cost taxpayers $840 million - 17 per cent less than it would have cost in the public sector.

But Corrections Association organiser Beven Hanlon said Serco was charging less only because its staff-to-prisoner ratios would be much lower than in public prisons, endangering the safety of both staff and prisoners.

"We have ratios [in public prisons] of 1:15 for high security and 1:20 for low security," he said. "At Wiri in each housing unit there will be two officers to 60 prisoners, or 1:30. That's their high security. Their low security we don't know yet. That prison has 240 prisoners in self-care units, and it looks like they will have three staff."

Serco Asia-Pacific operations manager Scott McNairn confirmed the 1:30 ratio.

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"That is accurate," he said. "We've had an opportunity here to design a prison with fantastic technology, closed-circuit TV right across the prison. It actually lends itself to a different staffing model.

"We operate a dynamic staffing model, which means that as prisoners move from the accommodation area to work, a proportion of staff will move with them. That is how we operate all our prisons, including Mt Eden."

Mr Lotu-Iiga said Serco's contract had steep penalties for security breaches, including $600,000 fines for a riot or hostage event, the unnatural death of any prisoner, any death due to prisoner action and any escape.

"We go into this partnership optimistically that they can continue on the service gains that they have made at Mt Eden," he said.

Scepticism over drop in reoffending

Experts are sceptical about whether Serco will succeed in cutting reoffending rates of prisoners released from the new Kohuora prison to at least 10 per cent below other prisons.

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Canterbury University criminologist Professor Greg Newbold says international experience is depressing.

The Wiri Prison Auckland South Correction facilitiy.
The Wiri Prison Auckland South Correction facilitiy.

"We have been trying to reduce recidivism actually since 1910 and no one has ever been successful," he says. "We had Integrated Offender Management. That was replaced by Effective Interventions, and that was replaced by Creating Lasting Change, and none of them has had any effect.

"They are claiming an effect now with this Creating Lasting Change and 'working prisons', but I'm very suspicious of the data."

The Government's target is to reduce reoffending across the justice system by 25 per cent in the six years to June 2017. Its reoffending index, a composite of released prisoners and offenders on community sentences, fell by 15.6 per cent in the three years to December 2013, but ticked up slightly last year and is now 13.7 per cent below its December 2010 level, or 10 per cent below the official starting date of June 2011.

But Dr Newbold says: "The most likely reason for any reductions they have is prisoners are serving longer sentences now and that means they are older when they get out."

He believes the only way Serco will achieve even lower reoffending rates is by cherry-picking older and less serious offenders.

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Rev Mark Beale of the Clendon Anglican Church, which has had volunteers working with women coming out of the Auckland women's prison, says the prisons that work best are not big ones like Kohuora, but small "community prisons" of 100-150 prisoners as in Scandinavia, where prisoners remain part of their local community.

But Corrections Department chief executive Ray Smith says Serco will not be allowed to cherry-pick and will have to take most of the medium- and low-security prisoners from the Auckland area.

High-security prisoners will still go to Paremoremo and their reoffending rates will not be counted in the measures used to compare with Kohuora's rate.

Volunteer to help
Literacy:
nzhowardleague.org.nz
Email: mikew@ihug.co.nz
Mentoring:
friendshiphouse.org.nz
pars.co.nz
pfnz.org.nz
stelizabethschurch.wix.com/ceezar.