Opinion: Ministers need to wear it over prison fight clubs

She might have served some time out for bad behaviour – but Judith Collins hasn’t lost her touch.

The Corrections Minister came out swinging yesterday, taking aim at Corrections, Serco and even inmates over an excoriating report into failures at Mt Eden .

Her round of media interviews – there was a backlog of journalists queued up outside her office yesterday – was a masterclass in deflection.

And judging from matching comments from Prime Minister John Key, the Government had got its lines straight.

But there was something missing. Ministerial accountability.

Corrections got the lion’s share of Collins’ disapproval, carefully crafted for the cameras.

She blamed them for failing to keep tabs on the corporate British behemoth. And she claims – contradicting yesterday’s report – that fight clubs are a feature of publicly run-prisons.

She trotted out the favourite old spin about greater transparency.

Scrutiny might have an impact on conduct in the public service. But Serco have been at the centre of numerous international scandals – not least the running of detention centres, covering up the sexual abuse of immigrants and using them as cheap labour.

All these headlines made hardly a dent in the way they operate and they continue to win outsourcing contracts the world over. A few public prison inspectorate reports and a scolding from Collins will hardly scare them into line.

Collins and Key did a great job in body-swerving questions about the company’s contract to run Auckland South Corrections Facility at Wiri.

It’s inconceivable that the company should continue to run Wiri – especially as its staff stand accused of smuggling contraband into Mt Eden.

But the Government – and Collins in particular -  is in a bind.

Key says ending the Wiri arrangement might spark a legal fight. But the real dilemma isn’t legal: it’s ideological.  

Really Serco can’t be stripped of another contract because that would be to admit the PPP experiment has failed.

Key got close to admitting that yesterday: “Look, in hindsight, you'd say that they didn't live up to their contractual obligations so, in that regard, clearly they were the wrong choice.

“But I don't think it's wrong to have a private prison provider and Wiri, where it's the same provider, they seem, on balance, to be doing a good job.”

Serco says it struggled with increased numbers of remand prisoners – largely a result of Collin’s tough law and order policies as Justice Minister.

The company runs jails around the world – of course it could cope. More plausibly, it didn’t want the increased staffing and other costs cutting into their bottom line.

It was Collins who oversaw the privatisation of Mt Eden – and Serco was chosen in spite of its reputation.

Prisoners are human beings with complex, demanding and expensive needs. They are not commodities and that’s why private jails don’t work.

The US has recognised this, with the Justice Department ordering an end to their use earlier this year.

It’s pointless to blame a company like Serco for trying to protect its profits. The real blame lies with the ministers in charge.