Q + A - March 29, 2009: Judith Collins interviewed by Guyon Espiner
GUYON Welcome Minister thank you very much for coming along to the studio this morning, we really appreciate that.
JUDITH Good morning.
GUYON The bill that actually give the private sector the ability to manage prisons passed its first reading in parliament this week. This is a big deal isn't it, you're essentially allowing the private sector the ability to deny liberty and to actually profit from people's crimes, why are you doing this?
JUDITH Well we're not actually allowing the private sector to deny liberty, decisions on liberty are made by the courts and that's obviously in the public system, so this is actually about delivering on some of the services that we expect for prisoners and for the public.
GUYON We have 20 prisons in New Zealand, how many of those do you envisage being managed by the private sector?
JUDITH Well at this stage we're looking at the new prison that's going to be built soon, but we're also wanting to leave our options open in relation to any of the other prisons. I would hope that we will end up with a good combination of mostly state run prisons with a small number of privately managed prisons.
GUYON What say three or four five, how many?
JUDITH That will depend really on just how well we do with the first prison.
GUYON Don't we potentially by giving the private sector a crack at a new facility like what happened last time with Auckland Remand Prison get into the situation where the private sector runs the gleaming new prison and the state sector runs the clunky old prisons?
JUDITH Well I think - that's why we do want to make it obvious that we can allow the privately run prisons to look at some of the older prisons as well, but prisons aren't just about buildings they're actually about the services that are there but also about making sure we keep the public safe as well as the prisoners safe and the staff safe, so it's not just about the buildings and some of our - maximum security prison at Paremoremo for instance Auckland's east wing, that's 40 years old and that has had three escapes in 40 years, so you can't just say because something's new or cos it's old one's gonna be better than the other.
GUYON When are you going to put those existing prisons up for tender and allow the private sector to have a go at those?
JUDITH Oh we'd want to see how we go with the first prison first and certainly those are decisions that we're going to come to over some time.
GUYON We're looking at some of the detail but when you rise out of this and look at the principle of this thing, if you're going to allow the private sector to run private prisons, what about other law enforcement agencies, what about the Defence, what about Customs, if you're going to allow the private sector to run prisons what about those areas?
JUDITH Well there's no thought to that at all, management of prisons is something which has been done privately in Australia, in the UK, in the US, in New Zealand actually very well in New Zealand. So this is actually about results, what works and the point that you made at the start about denying someone's liberty, those decisions are made by the state through the court so they're certainly not made by the prisons.
GUYON How will you know whether it's working, I mean will you introduce fines for prisons who have people escaping?
JUDITH Yes we will, that will be part of the contracts and the Auckland Central Remand Prison when that was privately managed there was a fine of $50,000 for every escape, that actually resulted in one escape in five years, that's a fantastic record given the fact that they were full for most of the time, that they had high security prisoners there, they had maximum security prisoners and yet they had one escape in five years.
GUYON Do you envisage the fines being similar this time under the ...
JUDITH Oh I would have thought so something to that magnitude. It's very important - you can put incentives in private contracts which you can't necessarily do in the public sector.
GUYON What else would you be either incentivising or fining for in a prison contract?
JUDITH Well I would want to see that recidivism rates come down, I want to see that the drug use by prisoners is low and when the prison was privately run there were 5.5% of prisoners there who tested positive for drug use. At the same stage in the state prisons there were 20% of our prisoners showing drug use, so those are the sorts of things I want to see and I think that those can be incentivised, but also rehabilitation.
GUYON When you did contract out, say you put up a prison for tender, would the Corrections Department also have the ability to tender for that prison?
JUDITH Yes absolutely.
GUYON But doesn't that put a conflict of interest situation for Barry Matthews because he's the one negotiating the contract, how can he be both applying and actually deciding on the details of the contract?
JUDITH Well we dealt with it last time and it would be dealt with again.
GUYON Well how would it be dealt with?
JUDITH Well you can put in place all sorts of mechanisms and the decision is ultimately signed off my myself and it would actually have to be tabled in parliament 12 days after the contract, so you know it's very transparent, but I just want good results for Corrections, I want them to be able to send out prisoners out of correctional facilities better people than what they went in, and certainly the Auckland experience was it did work.
GUYON Okay let's look more generally at the Corrections portfolio and let's start with the mission statement that your department has and it's to improve public safety by ensuring sentence compliance and reducing reoffending through capable staff and effective partnerships. Let's take some of those things individually, reducing reoffending. Now you have nearly 70% of people reconvicted and returning to a sentence within four years, now that's a catastrophic failure at the moment isn't it?
JUDITH Well it's certainly not where it should be and I would like to think as I've said before Guyon that people actually come out of prison better people than when they went in.
GUYON What are you going to do to ensure that?
JUDITH Well I think we've got to put a far better effort into rehabilitation and this government has promised to double the spaces available for people for drug rehabilitation, I mean that's one of the practical things we can do.
GUYON Will you make a commitment on money here, you spend nearly a billion dollars in this portfolio, 10% of it goes on rehabilitation. Are you comfortable with that ratio?
JUDITH I'm comfortable with the fact that I know there is a budget bid in at the moment and that this government is going to deliver on its promises we've promised twice the amount.
GUYON So you're going to increase the amount of money spent on rehabilitation?
JUDITH We're going to increase the number of places available and I think you just have to do some simple maths to work out that there is a very substantial budget bid in.
GUYON What about the Probation Officers I mean Corrections say that they have 10% fewer Probation Officers than they actually need, this all came to light when the Auditor General did his report. Are you going to fund those places?
JUDITH Well there is a bid in as well on that and that's also substantial, and you'll understand too is that we have to have that probation office that parole service working really well because they deal with a lot of community based sentences and unless we want to keep locking people up for longer and longer times we actually have to have that working extremely well and have the public confidence in it.
GUYON One of the biggest problems it seems is actually finding space for the prison population that we've got is what 8000 at the moment, your own advisors show that by the middle of next year all the beds will be full, what do you do then?
JUDITH Well that's why we've got to actually have a probation service and parole service that works really well, but we are trying to - very much putting the big emphasis in this government on getting rehabilitation working, we don't think it has worked nearly as well as it could.
GUYON But that's not gonna save you by the middle of next year is it?
JUDITH No well we've got double bunking, we've got double bunking available.
GUYON So you're going to make the prisoners share their cells?
JUDITH Well that's what happens in New Zealand already.
GUYON Are you comfortable with that?
JUDITH I am comfortable as long as there is a lot of you know obviously commonsense but also procedures taken into place to make sure that you use some sense around that, but just last week Guyon a prisoner in our system was saved by the fact that he was double bunked, he was trying to self harm and his cellmate got the Corrections Officers involved, actually save a life, and that's why the Police in their cells at Manukau for instance they always double bunk and the reason is people actually end up with less harm.
GUYON So what proportion of those 8000 odd prisoners are going to have to be double bunking in the next few years because your own department tells me 275 beds are needed next year?
JUDITH Well there's already double bunking that's available right now Guyon that's going to depend on the numbers, if people keep being sent to prison for long periods of time unfortunately that's what's going to happen. We've actually just inherited a system that's been set up in the last few years of just incarcerating people for longer and longer times but very little being done on their rehabilitation, we're trying to put the emphasis on rehabilitation, that's why we see a great opportunity for Iwi and for other community groups to come in.
GUYON Will Iwi get the chance to manage these private prisons?
JUDITH Look these are going to be tendered, the private prisons, privately managed prisons, there's no reason at all why Iwi cannot form part of a group or actually Iwi can tender for the contracts.
GUYON Has that been discussed, I'm just wondering if the Maori Party has been supportive of this bill?
JUDITH Oh the Maori Party has certainly said to me that they see opportunities for Iwi involvement and given that 51% of our prison population is Maori I can't see that we wouldn't gain from having better Maori involvement in our prisons.
GUYON So it's quite likely that Iwi may get a chance to...
JUDITH Of course, I see no reason at all, certainly the Auckland Remand Prison when it was privately run had a huge input from Iwi and it had great results.
GUYON You mentioned that half the prison population is Maori, they make up 15% of the population. Why?
JUDITH Because Maori keep being reincarcerated and there has actually been very little done in terms of rehabilitation that works. I think we've got a major problem here with Maori offending and incarceration and that's one of the issues that I want to take forward and I think you know involvement of the Maori Party in this has been crucial and it will be crucial to us getting better figures.
GUYON I mean if you look at this issue your own department says that to succeed overall we must succeed for Maori. You've clearly not though.
JUDITH We're clearly not no. We're clearly not doing that and not well enough. I've been to see the Maori Focus Unit in Rimutaka, there are other units around there and they are having a good uptake and certainly good results, because Guyon if people come to prison not knowing anything really much about who they are, they they're there, what's you know - or even feeling that they're part of the society, they're not gonna come out better people at the end of it unless we do something about it, and the work that people like Dr Pita Sharples have done in the past, you know they have changed people's lives and we can do that again.
GUYON Okay, you're also the Police Minister, one of your more memorable comments early in your tenure was that you wanted to see some boy racers' cars crushed.
JUDITH Oh yes.
GUYON When is the first car going to be crushed Minister?
JUDITH Well we have legislation that has been drafted and it will depend very much on whether we get the numbers to bring in the legislation that we want.
GUYON And that legislation will allow you to crush cars will it?
JUDITH It will allow a court to in fact order a car to be crushed for a recidivist offender.
GUYON So you've had advice that this is legally possible to do?
JUDITH Well it's already done now in terms of certain low value cars under the previous government, but it wasn't specifically for these offences.
GUYON Why are we doing this, I mean it would see like a waste of money why not sell the car and give the money to charity?
JUDITH Well obviously people would like to do that except who buys a boy racer car except another boy racer, we're just recycling the problem, and for some people fines mean nothing, they do care about their licenses and you know we're looking at some of the issues around that and they do care about their cars.
GUYON So this is important to clarify cos you've been ridiculed by some saying this just isn't possible. You're telling me this morning that cars will be crushed?
JUDITH Well they might be if people keep reoffending and if a court orders it and also Guyon if we get the numbers in parliament because we are a minority government we have to get support from other parties.
GUYON And do you have that support at the moment?
JUDITH Well at the moment we don't because the Labour Party has said on the one hand they'd like to see something done but on the other hand they've backed away from it so I don't know whether or not they'll support it.
GUYON But the Maori Party, the Act Party, United Future?
JUDITH We're still talking about that.
GUYON But you believe that you will see cars crushed and presumably this is going to be a symbolic message to those boy racers that you're not gonna stand for it?
JUDITH Well it's actually about the safety of the public. If we continue to have dangerous cars being used dangerously on the roads and innocent people get killed by it, innocent people are constantly having to deal with this, well we should take action.
GUYON How much of a priority is this for you because this has been an ongoing thing hasn't it, government after government, minister after minister has come in and said I'm going to deal to the boy racers, are you seriously going to deal to them?
JUDITH Well it's not about dealing to them it's actually about making sure that the public safety comes first and understanding that the roads are there for everybody to use not to abuse, so I don't think that that's a major problem, I think it's just about making sure that you put the guidelines in there, put the rules and then you enforce them, the Police are doing a great job particularly in Christchurch of actually dealing with this problem and putting the big efforts in but we have to support them in doing it, and when we know at the moment that a car can be confiscated by the courts as they are now and put up for sale, but yet the illegal street racer can go off and try and sell it someone else and they do, then it just flaunts the law, so we've gotta actually deal with that.
GUYON Can I return to the public safety sort of arena, you're Police and Corrections Minister, a number of us on the show were talking about this during the week about how when you know we were 5, 6, 7, years old we used to walk to school alone you know in South Auckland, in Christchurch, I'm just wondering whether you personally would recommend that a parent allow their young child to walk to school alone nowadays.
JUDITH I think children still do and I don't think that that's a problem as long as you're very very aware of your age of your child and who they're going with, but actually Guyon most of us didn't just walk by ourselves we mostly walked with friends or a parent came along with us, so you've got to be sensible about the risks that people take.
GUYON I'm just wondering though whether it's a perception thing or a reality?
JUDITH Well I live in South Auckland Guyon and I work in South Auckland and actually I find South Auckland an extremely great place in which to be, so you've got to be obviously not take silly risks but at the same time most people should be able to, or everyone should be able to walk across the street or walk down the street or be in their own home without the fear of being attacked.
GUYON Just before we leave it, you're a Minister who's demanded accountability from others, how should we judge you in terms of your Corrections portfolio, is it fewer prisoners, is it greater rehabilitation, is it fewer costs for actually managing prisons. How should we judge you in your success?
JUDITH I would like to think that after my term as Corrections Minister that we will have less recidivism and that we will have fewer prisoners who are taking drugs in prison, that we will have fewer assaults on staff and other prisoners, that's what I would like to see, I would like to see us delivering for Maori prisoners so that we don't just keep recycling them for longer and longer terms, but at the same time I'd like to see us have some personal responsibility as well expected from people. So that's what I'd like to see, but ultimately the public makes their decision and the Prime Minister does.
GUYON Okay time will tell. Thank you very much.