Editorial: Time for correction of Corrections

Retiring Corrections Department boss Barry Matthews has had a challenging six years. On his watch, at least six prison guards have been charged with corruption, the department has been reprimanded by the ombudsman for the inhumane transport of prisoners, rebuked by the auditor-general for failing to adhere to its own rules about dealing with paroled offenders, and spent millions of dollars on cellphone-jamming technology that does not work in all parts of all prisons and about which health concerns have been raised.

At a personal level, he fell out with his minister, Judith Collins, who, for some months, refused to express confidence in him, and publicly squabbled with police over whose fault it was that convicted killer Graeme Burton, then on parole, was not recalled to prison before he went on the rampage that cost Karl Kuchenbecker his life in 2007.

Now a Dominion Post investigation has raised questions about the way in which the department has allocated contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to private sector consultants and contractors, links between the contractors and department staff, and whether those contracts should have been disclosed to Parliament's law and order select committee.

Information obtained by the paper suggests 80 per cent of department contracts were not tendered during the 2009-10 financial year, a significant number were awarded to firms that did not have unique skills, such as law firms and recruitment agencies, and that former staff of one of the biggest private suppliers of services to Corrections – Honeywell NZ – managed the department's contract with that company.

None of the above is proof of wrongdoing. Government departments are not required to tender all contracts, although the auditor-general's guidelines recommend that contracts for which there are several potential bidders should be tendered, as should middle-to-high-value contracts. Not all contracts are renewed every year. And it would plainly not be feasible to forever prohibit former employees of private companies from having contact with those companies after joining the public service.

However, the questions raised about tendering, plus the revelation that the department's $5.7 million budget for the cellphone-jamming project has blown out to almost $11 billion, suggest an independent review of the department's operations would be a good idea.

With Mr Matthews retiring today, now would be a good time to do it.

By all accounts, he inherited a poisoned chalice when he took over as chief executive. The department has historically been underfunded, it has been placed under extra pressure by increasing prisoner numbers, and it has a workforce resistant to change. Mr Matthews, a former policeman, would have had to be a miracle worker to run a prison system from which no-one escaped, in which no prisoner was ever assaulted, and in which every prison officer was a paragon of moral rectitude.

Nevertheless, answers to the questions raised by The Dominion Post are warranted.

The Dominion Post