30 July 2015
Much of the debate around the events at Auckland Remand Prison have centred on the fact it is run by the international giant, Serco. There has been the attendant implication that had the prison being state-run none of this would have occurred and all would have been sweetness and light. And some have tried to extrapolate that even bigger disasters lie ahead when the government outsources the delivery of certain social services.
Leaving all these ideological and long bows to one side, there are some universal issues that we ought to be considering. The first is how endemic a culture of violence is within our prison system and what are we doing to stem that. It is hard to believe that violent practices are not ingrained within other prisons, particularly given the high numbers of gang members behind bars.
It would be instructive for some comment from the Corrections Department about what incidents there have been in other prisons and, more importantly, what steps are being taken to curb their incidence. It is simply not credible to allow the belief to take hold that what happened in Auckland was an isolated and rare set of events. So we need to know how widespread institutionalised violence is within prisons, and what steps are currently being taken to eliminate it.
We also need to know who the victims are. Is the violence random, or more organised, and are there patterns in how it is inflicted? Do we have confidence that Corrections Officers have the support, training, and inclination to identify and curb violence, and, if not, what are we doing about it?
But there is a bigger question that the sway of the vigilante groups like Sensible Sentencing make it difficult for us to have a rational discussion about. Our prison population is burgeoning (is that itself a contributory factor?) but is prison necessarily the right place for minor offenders, often the young, the disadvantaged and the first time offender? Or are we just enrolling them in the University of Crime?
We need to be making more use of the alternatives to prison for minor offenders. Home detention is one option. Long-term community service with perhaps evening curfews or weekend detention is another. After all, for many, including white collar criminals, the real punishment is the humiliation of being caught and sentenced in the first place.
And then we can start to consider what the proper role of prisons should be, whom they should be incarcerating, and under what circumstances. If prison was the place to where only serious offenders were sent, then not only would the numbers of prisoners reduce, but also we could better ensure that the prisons were better equipped to deal with the hard core which reside there.
The horror of what has been revealed at Auckland Remand Prison should not be left as just the fault of Serco. It should be a wake-up call for the way our prisons are operating and a wider spur for change. But, unfortunately I fear, wallowing in the ideological blame game will prove the far easier option, and therefore the outcome most likely to prevail.
Until perhaps the next violent outburst.