The recent news about the violence in Mount Eden Prison has many elements. Political, naturally; Labour will be pleased to have been given the opportunity to rub National’s nose in the troublesome policy of privatisation. The Prison Officers’ Union will be equally pleased to say I told you so. And they will have colleagues in Australia, England, and wherever else this policy is practised, giving them stories of yet more failures to beat our government with.
Another element is the ho-hum inevitability that prisoners in every system will indulge in violence, brew alcohol, abuse drugs and sneak in contraband like cellphones.
The question that needs to exercise the minds of journalists and broadcasters is whether the private prison’s ratio of supervising officers equals that of public prisons. Instead of frantically defending themselves on this scandal, government ministers would be more respected if they showed genuine concern for the prisoners exposed to violence.
If the video clips are to be believed, officer supervision of inmates in Mount Eden Prison is worse than appallingly slack, it borders on criminal negligence. And if the so-called ‘dropping’ allegation prove true, criminal negligence is a likely outcome.
Personally, I have no objection to consenting adults fighting. It is far from ideal, of course, but to many of these men a disciplined fighting contest is not necessarily as frightening as it may seem to members of the general public, who would find such behaviour outlandish. On the contrary, such contests may be useful for reducing boredom, stress, frustration and, yes, violence.
However – and it is a big however – there’s consent that really is consent and the kind of consent a new fast-food employee signs up to when his new employer presents him with an agreement. And, as may be imagined, the pressures on inmates can be even more intimidating.
Fight or be beaten-up, for instance. So while I do not rule out fighting entirely, I would insist on boxing gloves, a prison officer referee and no inmate spectators. But to get back to the point, in trying to deflect blame, one cabinet minister made a comment to the effect that the paramount concern of prison authorities is to keep prisoners in prison.
Unfortunately I cannot remember who that minister was but the comment made my blood run cold because it implied a shallow understanding of societies’ responsibility for prisoners. In my opinion, allowing private, for-profit enterprises to run prisons is already proving that part of the motivation for doing so is to distance government ministers from responsibility.
Yes, keeping prisoners locked-up is paramount but only if they are kept in a safe place.