Minister's statements are all well and good but the seriousness of prison claims requires a harder line.

When New Zealander Nigel Richards won a French-language Scrabble competition the other day, despite not being able to speak French, one of his friends told a reporter: "He just learned the words. He won't know what they mean." Listening to the Minister for Corrections, Sam Lotu-Iiga, this week, I couldn't help feel that the same might be said of him.

It was all reviews and investigations and serious consequences and reports that "should have been elevated", yet he appeared not to have grasped the substance or gravity of the alleged events at Mt Eden Prison to which his words referred.

Still, at least the minister was taking action. Executives from the private prison operator Serco had been "summoned", "hauled in for an urgent meeting" yesterday morning, went the headlines.

Again, however, the words weren't especially meaningful. Despite the impression given, this was just a regular monthly meeting between Serco and the minister.


As the Serco executives headed into the meeting with the likeable Mr Lotu-Iiga, Corrections boss Ray Smith addressed one of the allegations put by Labour MP Kelvin Davis in the House, that a Mt Eden prisoner had in February suffered two broken legs after been thrown off a balcony at Mt Eden by other inmates in an act of "dropping".

The expedited finding by the chief inspector of Corrections was that the man, who later died after being transferred to another, state-run prison, "fell over the balustrade ... as a result of being chased by another offender who then physically assaulted the prisoner".

So there you have it. Except that, having googled up a picture of the balcony and the balustrade at Mt Eden Prison, it's hard to fathom how you might accidentally fall over it.

It would help, perhaps, if Corrections could release any video footage. Surely there must be some, whether from surveillance cameras or inmates' mobile phones.

It was inmates' camerawork, of course, that kicked off the miserable week for Serco, Corrections and Lotu-Iiga.

Clips captured on contraband devices emerged online, showing "fight clubs", with prisoners beating the bejesus out of each other, as well as drug and alcohol use. They make disturbing viewing and deserve serious attention, but are undoubtedly not unique to the Serco-run facility.

What is alarming is not just the claim that "dropping" is routine, but what happened to prisoner Nick Evans after he suffered a ruptured lung, which according to Davis also happened after a case of dropping. The most troubling allegations of all: that a prison operator might not be accurately reporting incidents and that prison transfers might be undertaken in an attempt to satisfy contracted performance requirements.

Even as unproven allegations, they should be to enough to turn Likeable Lotu-Iiga into Angry Sam.


The privatisation of prisons is, of course, part of a wider ideological pattern. Whether it's social housing, schools, or prisons, National and other like-minded governments around the world want the state to do less, to delegate as much as possible to other providers, be they community groups or private sector companies.

As far as prisons go, the policy focus is reducing reoffending, with Corrections having set the ambitious target of a 25 per cent cut on 2011 levels by 2017.

Whatever the objections from the other side of the ideological fence, were private prisons able to prove themselves discernibly more effective at rehabilitation and cutting recidivism than state prisons, without sacrificing safety, security or accountability, the argument for their introduction and expansion would be compelling.

Regrettably, international examples paint a picture of a sector driven by cost-saving and bedevilled by perverse incentives.

Serco, whose successful bid for the Mt Eden contract in 2010 was welcomed by then Corrections Minister Judith Collins as an opportunity to "bring in new ideas and international best practice which will benefit the entire corrections sector", has attracted plenty of controversy.

From its base in Hampshire, the company has grown into a global behemoth over the last 15 years as governments embarked on the great outsourcing. The company today operates in more than 30 countries, with a workforce that outnumbers the population of Dunedin.


Among other roles around the world, Serco holds contracts to perform school inspections, conduct driver testing and carry out soldier training. It also oversees railways, hospitals, asylum seeker detention centres, air traffic control systems and nuclear weapons. Until recently it was even involved in keeping time, operating Britain's National Physical Laboratory, which sets the standard for measuring Greenwich Mean Time.

In recent years Serco has suffered what the Financial Times calls a "litany of blunders on outsourcing contracts". A series of scandals have contributed to successive profits warnings. The company's market valuation has collapsed by billions, or as much as 80 per cent.

Serco remains under investigation by the UK Serious Fraud Office after overcharging for electronic monitoring of offenders. Some of the offenders it said it was keeping tabs on had died.

Given the practical and philosophical questions about privatisation in the prison sector, and the blemished record of Serco worldwide, you'd like to think that everyone, from the minister to the Corrections chief to the bosses of Serco, are applying acute scrutiny to its operations in Mt Eden and Wiri, South Auckland.

It hardly inspires confidence to learn the two executives "hauled in" for their regular monthly meeting in the minister's office yesterday, director of operations Scott McNairn and managing director Paul Mahoney, both live in Australia.

Max's holiday: a review

Max Key's post of his holiday with girlfriend Amelia Finlayson. Photo / Supplied
Max Key's post of his holiday with girlfriend Amelia Finlayson. Photo / Supplied

Herewith my complete thoughts on the topical matter of the Prime Minister's son, Max Key, posting an online video of his holiday:


1. Looks like an enjoyable holiday if you like that sort of thing.
2. The video is a bit long.
3. It's not as exciting as the clip with the surfer punching the shark.