Private 'Con Air' plane for prisoners

ANNA WILLIAMS
Last updated 09:47 28/06/2013
Prison van
Waiting for the prison van

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Prisoners from Christchurch have been flown on a private Con Air-like flight to Blenheim to appear in court, as part of a taxpayer-funded trial.

The charter flight, costing $6500, was a Corrections Department trial of more cost-effective, efficient transport options for prisoners.

Prisoners are usually brought for court appearances in a small truck or police van that can take up to 15 prisoners with separate compartments for each prisoner.

However, Corrections Services southern regional commissioner Ian Bourke said prisoners appearing in Blenheim and Nelson district courts were flown out of Christchurch on May 16 in an 18-seat Jetstream J32 aircraft.

The transport trial has some hallmarks of the 1997 thriller Con Air, starring Nicholas Cage. The flick involves prisoners taking control of their transport plane, trapping a US Ranger onboard.

The Corrections Department-chartered plane made the return trip from Nelson to Blenheim and back to Christchurch on the same day. The same aircraft has been used to transport prisoners between the North and South islands.

"This wasn't just a cost-saving exercise," Bourke said. "We are looking at whether this is an overall more effective and efficient mode of transport for this region and purpose."

Prisoners travelling by truck are usually transported between Christchurch and Blenheim twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays.

Tasman District police spokeswoman Barbara Dunn said police were responsible for delivering sentenced and remand prisoners to a correctional centre under warrant within seven days.

Dunn and Bourke said the cost of transporting prisoners in the truck was divided between police and Corrections, making it difficult to assess. For security reasons, they would not comment on how many prisoners were transported at any one time.

Blenheim lawyer Rob Harrison said his clients remanded in Christchurch usually arrived in Blenheim on Monday afternoon for a court appearance that day.

After their appearance, they were held in the cells at the Blenheim police station until Friday.

His clients remanded in Christchurch prisons often chose to miss their court appearance as the travelling conditions to Blenheim were difficult to endure, he said.

"They travel for four hours in little cages in a little truck, designed to keep them all separate. It's pretty hard on them."

Harrison went to Christchurch about once a month to visit clients.

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It was difficult to talk to his clients by phone as there was a time restriction on calls and it was not particularly private. It made it hard for his clients to feel comfortable discussing the intimate details of their case, he said.

Flying prisoners to Blenheim instead of putting them on the prison truck was a fantastic idea, he said.

Prisoners would arrive on time for their court appearance and would not have to spend five days in the police cells in Blenheim.

Bourke said flying prisoners between Christchurch and Blenheim had only been tried once and no more flights were planned at this stage.

"We are currently evaluating the benefits of transporting prisoners to Nelson and Blenheim courts in this way," he said.

The use of audio-visual links (AVL) and scheduling court to minimise court appearances was also being explored.

Blenheim District Court is to be third in New Zealand when the AVL technology is introduced in January, allowing prison inmates to make court appearances in Blenheim without leaving their cell through the use of Skype-like technology.

The AVL system would be more efficient as Corrections and police did not have to spend time planning, transporting or funding escort duties from prison to court and back again, Bourke said.

But Dunn said police would still be required to deliver sentenced and remand prisoners to a correctional centre.

Only a portion of cases would be dealt with using AVL, she said.

Bourke said air charter was not an unusual method of transporting prisoners to different regions in New Zealand.

Prisoners transferred by air went through the normal prison searches before leaving a prison, as well as those of a normal passenger.

They wore waist restraints during the flight and were supervised by corrections officers at all times, he said.

"Our prime consideration in deciding how we will move prisoners is the safety of the general public and our staff."

- The Marlborough Express

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