Friday, December 11, 2009

Privatising the prisons

A couple of months ago, the government passed a law allowing private prisons in New Zealand. When they passed it, they told us that these would be new prisons. Now it turns out they're planning to turn existing prisons over to the private sector.

This is privatisation, pure and simple. A state asset will be given to the private sector, who will be paid to run it. John Key promised that there would be no privatisations on his watch. He lied.

This is also not a recipe for safe prisons. Contract lowballing and the need to make a profit will mean cuts to wages, safety, or both. And underpaid prison officers in understaffed prisons create incentives for corruption and brutality. Worse, thanks to privatisation, we won't be able to uncover it - as Labour's Clayton Cosgrove points out,

The Labour Party's main concern with the legislation was the loss of transparency, removing the ability to access information directly from the Corrections Department.

Mr Cosgrove said he could no longer raise a parliamentary question to the minister directly about private prisons.

"The auditor-general does not have the same level of penetration into a private sector company as he does in the department. "

That inability was "very dangerous in respect in protecting prison officers and ensuring that the public is safe".

Immunity from the OIA is bad enough - but immunity from Parliamentary oversight is simply untenable. Imprisonment is the sharp end of the coercive power of the state; the idea that MP's won't be able to effectively monitor how that power is used (or abused) is simply frightening. Particularly when you remember that the overseas evidence shows that private prisons are worse prisons. But I guess stopping MPs from uncovering that and holding the government to account for it is the point...