Private prison companies dispute criticisms

BY MAGGIE TAIT
Last updated 15:44 01/07/2009

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The State should be responsible for prisoners not private companies, the Human Rights Commission said today.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan appeared before Parliament's law and order select committee which is considering the Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons Amendment) Bill.

Senior managers from private prison company GEO Group were present and heard groups condemn their business.

The firm ran Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP) for five years until Labour won the 1999 election and refused to renew its contract.

Ms Noonan said protecting the rights of detainees was a key function of government and should not be contracted out.

"The management of prisons involves the exercise of some of the state's most coercive powers against individuals," the commission's submission said.

"There should be direct accountability for the exercise of such powers. A government department directly accountable to a minister provides the clearest accountability."

If the bill was to go ahead the commission wanted its monitoring measures beefed up.

Recommendations included protecting staff from being sacked if they gave information to monitors and permitting prisoners to complain directly to monitors. Also prisons should be required to comply with international conventions around torture.

Ms Noonan said early intervention would make the biggest difference.

She called for willingness across parties not to make political capital out of the issue.

Catholic organisation Caritas was concerned problems in the United States' private prisons – such as beatings, rapes, suicides and other deaths in custody – would be repeated here.

It noted that in the US the same people running private prisons were also involved in lobbying government for longer sentences.

GEO Group Australia managing director Pieter Bezuidenhout said his company had managed prisons in Australia for 17 years, operating in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales.

He said he had listened to criticisms and said his company could only do what governments told it to.

"We've got no say in terms of the length of sentence. We've got no interest in the length of the sentence," he said.

"We are paid on a bed capacity. . . It's up to the state or government to fill those beds. There's no interest for me to have longer sentences or lesser sentences because I am getting paid for 500 beds."

While National MPs had emphasised cost savings, that should not be the only driver, Mr Bezuidenhout said.

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"Privatisation is not about cost savings. If that's all you want to achieve I am saying that you are knocking at the wrong door.

"Privatisation will bring an enhanced public service because you've got a mixed economy, and in a mixed economy both the private operator and the public service will improve and enhance service."

He said in NSW prisoners spent 30 per cent more time out of their cells than those in public prisons.

GEO was aware of problems in the US but said there was high awareness about issues in Australasia and the company had to protect its reputation so would not cut corners.

Dom Karauria, a former general manager for ACRP and now executive general manager for the firm's operations in Australia, said politicians had the power to ensure safety.

"The answer is you people. You people here are representing the New Zealand public and I'm sure the final legislation that is determined will ensure there is no avenue for those difficulties to occur here."

MPs asked about penalties for errors. Mr Bezuidenhout said in Queensland a death in custody, not from natural causes, resulted in $100,000 penalties.

Mr Karauria said in Auckland the prison was penalised $50,000 per escape and there were two in the five years the company ran the prison.

Labour's Rick Barker questioned about whether GEO would be open to being covered by the Official Information Act and be audited by the Auditor-General.

Mr Bezuidenhout said that was up to the Government.

"If the State determines, when you tender, that you will make everything available then so be it. . .I'm purely there to serve what the state tells me to do."

Corrections Minister Judith Collins has indicated Auckland's Mt Eden Prison may become privately managed.

The redevelopment of the prison is due to be completed in 2011.

-NZPA

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