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Prison officers at heart of allegations

Published: 3:45PM Wednesday May 23, 2007 Source: One News/Newstalk ZB

New claims of corruption have been levelled at prison guards, with allegations they used inmate labour to work on private vehicles, homes and even refitting a yacht.

The Corrections Department and its officers have been under pressure in the last few months over various incidents including the death of teenager Liam Ashley in the back of a prison van, and the decision to parole convicted killer Graeme Burton. 

Also in April a corrections officer was dismissed from Christchurch Men's Prison for bringing in contraband, while another officer is still being investigated. And a number of officers at Rimutaka Prison have been suspended on suspicion of similar corruption.

National Party justice spokesman Simon Power made a raft of accusations in parliament on Wednesday afternoon.

They include prisoners being rewarded with food for working on the cars of a prison staff member and an Auckland officer using inmates to help build a workshop in his home. He says another prison staff member used inmate labour on a 40 foot boat that is now known in prison circles as the HMS Corrections.

Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor says he is aware of some, but not all, of the allegations. He says they are being investigated.

The allegations come a day after the under fire Corrections Department announced it is to undergo a major revamp.

Corrections Chief Executive Barry Matthews says there will be significant changes at senior management level, including the disestablishment of a number of head office groups and the creation of several new support groups. Also on the cards is the official appointment of an internal team investigating corruption.

Matthews says its new structure will help it concentrate more on rehabilitating prisoners as well as wheedling out corruption.

"We're going hard out to combat corruption and anybody acting corruptly is at risk," he says.

The changes will come into place from July and could see up to 10 members of staff made redundant.

Matthews says what the department wants to be known for is turning prisoners around. He says ultimately staff would like to be able to stand back and say they have made a difference to the offenders who have been in their care.

Damien O'Connor welcomed the announcement.

The minister says he is pleased to see the department has acted to address concerns expressed about its structure and ability to meet future challenges. He is particularly welcoming new clarity around accountability and is looking forward to an improved performance as a result of the changes.

But National's Simon Power, a long standing critic of the department, says he has no confidence in the restructuring.

Power is sceptical about the establishment of the anti-corruption unit and says he has no faith in the department's ability to investigate its own. He says it is a curious move to establish such a unit when the CEO of corrections has said corruption is limited to a few bad apples.

Power says if that is the case, it defeats the purpose of having an entire unit set aside to deal with corruption.