The Blame Game: How Pointing the Finger at Serco only Addresses the Symptoms, not the Cause

While it will be interesting to see what comes of the investigations of Serco’s management of Mt Eden Prison, the main issues leading to the investigation – organised fighting and prisoner possession of contraband in the form of cell phones, alcohol and other drugs – are issues in all New Zealand prisons. They are issues everywhere because all of our prisons are being run in a way which will cut costs in the short term, but lead to bad outcomes in the long term.


I strongly believe that the State should be the only body in charge of incarceration. The freedom and rights of individuals, even those who have committed crimes, need to be in the care of the Government, because those rights are too important to be delegated to anybody, but especially organisations whose main purpose is, by definition, to make money. Fundamental human rights can never be put on a scale to be balanced against profit margins. The incentives are all wrong. Governments don’t exist to make a profit, they exist to protect and empower their citizens. They are in a position to limit rights when necessary for the greater good. Now, having said that, we can’t let ideology blind us from seeing that the failings of the Serco run Mt Eden prison are in fact failings across the whole of New Zealand’s prison system.

Former prisoners at any of New Zealand’s prisons will tell you that organised fighting in prison is common. It is a ‘normal’ (for the environment) dispute resolution mechanism often used to resolve arguments between gangs. It also doubles as a way to induct new members into gangs. Like anywhere, more conflicts arise the more stressful the environment gets. In prison two of the primary stressors are the cell arrangements and the amount of time prisoners have to spend in lock-down.

Many prisons in New Zealand have two prisoners to a cell, despite evidence that having prisoners in single cells reduces tension in prison. Reducing tension has a positive effect on prison fights and also on rehabilitation and a decrease in recidivism. Yet Corrections continues double bunking prisoners as a cost cutting measure. Most notably, Spring Hill prison was purpose built with single prisoner cells, for a total muster of 650 prisoners. It currently has around 1050 prisoners because of double bunking. Double bunking in cells designed for one prisoner means inadequate ventilation (compounded by the presence of toilets in cells).

This overcrowding is made worse by understaffing. Understaffing is also a significant problem at all prisons. The understaffing at Mt Eden is in the public eye because the presence of contraband indicates that there are not enough staff to adequately monitor prisoners. The videos of the fights will have been taken between guards doing rounds. The fewer staff, the longer the rounds and the greater the opportunity to fight.

Another consequence of understaffing is significant periods of lock-down. Lock-down is the time each day that prisoners are confined to their cells. Former prisoners have noted that often lock-down periods are much longer than they are supposed to be. A particularly bad time is during school holidays and summer holidays when many staff take leave – during these periods lock-downs at some prisons are extended to 20-23 hours per day as there is simply not adequate staff to supervise the prisoners.

It is not surprising that a combination of over-crowding and extended lock-downs would lead to anxiety and frustration. I wouldn’t want to spend 20 hours a day every day in a cramped room with a toilet in it with my best friend, let alone a random member of the public. It makes sense that conflicts arise in that environment and that they are resolved violently. In a hierarchy like prison, violence provides clear rules for assessing victory and it is a brief escape from the endless monotony of the situation people find themselves in.

If there was adequate staffing to monitor prisoners and adequate room for housing prisoners, it would remove stressors from prisoners and the fighting would decrease.

There is another factor which makes Mt Eden prison an even bigger breeding ground for violence and contraband – it’s a remand prison. Prisoners on remand are either waiting for their trial or waiting to be sentenced. The vast majority of remand stays are less than three months long, but some stretch out to over a year. Because the prisoners have not been found guilty or have not been given a sentence, they are kept separately to the rest of the prison population. Because remand prisoners are kept separately they cannot access prison work or training and because some have not yet been found guilty, most remand prisoners don’t have any access to rehabilitation either. This means that remand prisoners have even less to occupy their limited unlocked-down time. This means more boredom, more conflicts and more fights.

Understaffing and overcrowding are issues everywhere, but Corrections has strict rules against prisoners talking to the media and former prisoners rarely want to talk about their experiences – they would usually rather just move on with their lives and not face public scrutiny about their history. Those who may be inclined to speak up will often find that the media is not interested in the treatment of prisoners. When the poor treatment of prisoners reflects badly on private business the media and the public have more of a stomach for questions of prisoner treatment. However, those questions are still just as relevant no matter who is operating prisons.

There is often an attitude that offenders did bad things and therefore they deserve to have bad things happen to them. Offenders certainly did illegal things and their punishment is deprivation of their liberty – removing their freedom of movement and diminishing their freedom of association. Exposing prisoners to situations which demonstrably will incite violence is not part of the punishment. Prisons should be an option of absolute last resort where mandatory detention is used as an opportunity to engage people in meaningful rehabilitation and wrap around care so that when they are released they are able to contribute to their community and grow it rather than detract from it. This will create a better New Zealand in the long run – with less recidivism and intergeneration harm. It requires a substantial investment and not the attitude of cost cutting which is currently present in Serco, as the last couple of weeks have shown, but also in Corrections as years of prisoner and staff experience will confirm.

By Hannah Gabriel, JustSpeak National Operations Manager