23 May 2017

Corrections refuses to explain Serco ratings

7:24 pm on 23 May 2017

The Corrections Department broke its own rules by giving high marks to private prison operator Serco shortly after a near-fatal attack on an inmate in Mt Eden jail.

A Serco sign at Mt Eden prison

Serco began running the rebuilt Mt Eden prison in 2011. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Guards left Benjamin Lightbody lying in his cell with brain injuries while they filed paperwork and ate afternoon tea in mid-2013.

Corrections' inspectors failed the prison for security and safety, but the department then gave it a pass.

It has refused to explain why.

The inspectorate's investigation report in July 2013 went to Corrections chief executive Ray Smith. Mr Lightbody obtained it under the Privacy Act.

It found a root cause was widespread understaffing that meant Mt Eden's wings frequently went unsupervised by guards.

Mr Lightbody, who has permanent brain damage, wants to sue Corrections.

Yesterday, the department wrote to Mr Lightbody's lawyer saying it was keen to meet the Northlander to "help address what occurred".

From 2013 through to 2015, when videos of fightclubs operating at Mt Eden emerged, Corrections scored the prison as 'exceeding' (twice) or 'exceptional' (six times) for rehabilitating prisoners.

To receive those ratings it had to pass a benchmark test of meeting minimum requirements for being safe and secure. It passed that benchmark every time.

But Corrections' own inspectors were telling the department that Mt Eden was not safe and secure for prisoners or staff in reports in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

In the Lightbody report, the prison inspector said often there were only two guards in a whole wing, and that went down to one when a prisoner had to be moved meaning a side of a wing would go unsupervised.

"The investigation witnessed how short staffed and under-supervised the wings are.

"Conversely, management appeared to be of the opinion that staffing levels ... are sufficient to provide a safe and secure environment for staff and prisoners. The investigation found this not to be the case."

It also found Mt Eden's reporting systems, risk assessments of violent inmates, and rosters were unreliable, and Corrections later admitted its monitoring of Mt Eden was very poor.

Later investigations, in 2014 and 2016 were similar to the 2013 one.

Corrections praised Serco in its annual reports in 2013 and 2014. It noted Serco had new violence reduction strategies.

But the 2016 investigation said staff didn't properly implement most of those strategies and some were just abandoned.

In May 2015 an inmate, Frenchman Kevin Mussard, was seriously assaulted by other inmates. A month later inmate Nick Evans was hospitalised within hours of leaving Mt Eden and died soon after; his family blame an assault there, which Corrections denies.

Corrections declined an interview.

In repeated statements it said it followed the performance ratings rules, but did not explain how this worked when the rules said an unsafe prison should automatically score the lowest rating of the four ratings - of "needs improvement".

Corrections fined Serco $163,000 in 2012 to 13 for having too many serious assaults, but still passed it for running a safe prison.

That fine was not reported at the time. The glowing ratings were what the public saw.

Just before the Lightbody attack, then minister Anne Tolley said the new performance ratings tables would boost accountability and that Mt Eden was ranked as "one of the best-performing prisons in New Zealand".

At that time, Serco had just won a huge contract to run the government's second private prison, at Wiri in South Auckland, a contract it still holds while it lost the Mt Eden contract.

The last of Serco's guards left Mt Eden prison in April this year - the government has said there is nothing to stop Serco bidding for more Corrections work.

Serco had been enjoying success internationally - its shares are up 30 percent for the year as is the bids it has lined up for huge contracts, worth $15 billion, such as running prisons and hospitals.

Timeline of Serco's involvement at Mt Eden

August 2011 - Serco begins running the rebuilt Mt Eden remand jail

September 2012 - Serco is part of a consortium that wins the contract to build and operate South Auckland prison at Wiri

January 2013 - First report recorded by Serco of a fightclub in the jail - it judges it an isolated incident

March 2013 - Then minister Anne Tolley introduces Prison Performance Tables (PPT)

May 2013 - Benjamin Lightbody attacked in prison yard

June 2013 - Mt Eden scores as "exceptional" on PPT

July 2013 - Prison inspector gives Lightbody report to Corrections chief executive, saying lack of staff contributed to the attack and is "common" throughout Mt Eden prison

September 2013 - Mt Eden scores as "exceeding" on PPT

October 2013 - Corrections orders an independent review of staffing levels at Mt Eden after complaints it is unsafe

December 2013 - Mt Eden scores as "exceptional" on PPT (and keeps this "exceptional" ranking to March 2015; in June 2015 it slides to the lowest ranking "needs improvement")

May 2014 - A second round of the review finds some improvement but not much

2014 - Serco penalised $50,000 for the safety and security failings

May 2015 - Inmate Kevin Mussard badly assaulted in Mt Eden

June 2015 - Inmate Nick Evans hospitalised within hours of leaving Mt Eden and dies soon after; his family blame an assault there

June -July 2015 - Fightclub videos emerge and Serco loses contract to run Mt Eden

Late 2015 - Corrections drops Prison Performance Tables; overhauled assessments begin appearing in late 2016

December 2015 - Corrections chief executive Ray Smith said some of the jail's problems were due to a record increase in the number of remand prisoners since 2011. Mt Eden opened with 900 prisoners in September 2011; at the time of the 2013/14 review it had 904; in mid 2015 it had 985.

2016 - Corrections increases monitoring of Serco

Early 2017 - Lightbody investigation report released to victim under Privacy Act.

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