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Corrections beefs up contract oversight after Mt Eden monitors 'overwhelmed' by Serco

Thursday 6th October 2016

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The Department of Corrections has beefed up its oversight of external contracts with an independent advisory board and set up new reporting lines for prison monitors as part of its response to Serco's failure in running the Mt Eden Correctional Facility (MECF). 

The government prison manager today released its report into organised fighting at the Auckland remand prison. Serco failed in a High Court bid to have the report rewritten.

The report made 20 recommendations, including the review of the role and responsibilities of monitors and the relationship manager at MECF, with the investigation finding those monitors had an "often very difficult" relationship with Serco and may have been "overwhelmed, worn down and consumed by MECF management continually challenging their requests for resolution to matters". 

Since Corrections took back the operation of the Mt Eden jail, it has added extra monitors at the Wiri prison, which is still run by Serco, and set up a major outsourced contract advisory board chaired by former New Zealand Transport Agency chief executive Geoff Dangerfield to advise on the strategic approach of external contracts. 

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith has also appointed a new deputy chief executive of commercial services, who's responsible for outsourced services and to whom monitors ultimately report. 

"I have strengthened our monitoring of the private provision of custodial services as recommended and gone further," Smith said in a statement. 

Serco took over the management of Mt Eden in 2011 after winning a $300 million, 10-year contract. The discovery of fighting footage uploaded to the YouTube streaming video website triggered an investigation into organised fighting and access to contraband in the prison, and came at a time when Serco’s contract was up for review.  It led ultimately to Corrections taking back management of the prison. 

The private prison operator paid $8 million to settle for the government agency's decision to step in and didn't receive performance bonuses of $3.1 million in the 2016 financial year. It's now entered into a labour supply arrangement, after which Corrections will fully staff the prison by March next year. 

In a separate statement, Serco said it received the report in January of this year and accepted in full the recommendations, and that it had learned "important lessons" and was "truly sorry" for its service delivery falling short of the Crown's expectations. It had sought to get the report rewritten in a judicial review, claiming its right to natural justice was breached by the partial reliance on anonymous interviews and that the inspector erred in law in his approach to the evidence, though the judge deemed the investigation fair and the report "measured and temperate and Serco's description of it is wholly unwarranted." 

Among the investigation's findings, chief inspector Andy Fitzharris said senior management at the prison were aware of multiple internal reports suggesting there was organised fighting at the prison but were probably unaware of its extent, staffing levels were inadequate at times, and policies to reduce prisoner violence weren't fully implemented. 

"The lack of an effective control environment at residential unit level including in particular insufficient ‘staff on the floor’ provided prisoners with opportunities to participate in organised fighting and other illicit activities," the report said. "It is likely that staff were a primary source of contraband, and that it was freely available."

A second report into whether organised fighting was going on in other prisons found no evidence of 'fight clubs' at the eight prisons inspected. 

Separately, Corrections Minister Judith Collins said she's seeking advice from the State Services Commission on how to strengthen the Corrections Inspectorate's role and make it more transparent. 

"I am confident that lessons have been learnt by all parties in relation to the events at MECF," Collins said.

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