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A New Zealand Prison Is Giving Inmates Phones and Computers

South Auckland's brand new Kohuora Prison has a phone and computer in every cell and a bunch of people aren't happy about that.
Photo of Alcatraz prison via Flickr user Alexander C. Kafka

New Zealand now has a high security prison with a phone and computer in every cell, and they're accepting inmates in this week. While this move has largely been seen as progressive there are plenty of cynics. The NZ$270m South Auckland facility—given the auspicious name of Kohuora, or 'coming out of the mist into the new world of the living'—is the result of a NZ$840m government contract awarded to multinational corporation Serco to operate the facility.


The British-based conglomerate has its tentacles in traffic control, aviation, military weapons, detention centres, prisons and schools around the globe. It even has the contract to set Greenwich Mean Time. The company also has plenty of marks against its name, many of which stem from complaints about its prisons in the United Kingdom. These failings, along with a general skepticism surrounding the opening a privately operated, profit-driven, prison have raised many brows. Criticism has ranged from comments by the Sensible Sentencing Trust that landlines and computers in cells will encourage more reoffending. Through to the suggestion from a left-wing blogger that it's a money-saving venture that will equate to less staff on prison wings. However, when Serco introduced phones and computers into its UK prisons they saw fewer assaults and less bullying as a result, and inmates had improved communications with their families and loved ones. In addition, they also saw a drop in the number of phones being smuggled into the facilities.

VICE contacted Roger Brooking, a long-standing advocate for more humane treatment of New Zealand's prisoners to discuss the pros and cons of such a controversial move.

VICE: What do you think of the decision to put phones and computers in cells at Kohuora?
Roger Brooking: I think it's the most progressive innovation in the New Zealand penal system in 50 years, quite frankly. Prison is such a dehumanising environment whereby your ability to function as an autonomous individual where free will is fundamentally removed. If having a phone in your cell enables you to call family and selected people who have been approved for you to call, I think that's something that actually empowers the prisoners. It enables them to stay in touch with their families and that's really important in terms of keeping the prisoner's spirits up and helping their rehabilitation and eventual reintegration. An awful lot of people have their relationships break up soon after they're incarcerated, and part of the problem is they simply can't call anybody. The corrections department makes it very difficult.


How so?
Well, there might be one phone in a particular wing, and you might have 20 to 30 prisoners trying to access it all at once. And if they're in lockdown for hours and hours every day then there's a hell of a scramble to try and get to the phone, in the hours that it's available. So inevitably it causes conflict and strife. So this is an incredibly progressive thing that Serco is doing. In saying that, Serco is an abominable company. This whole business of privatising prisons and making money off them is abhorrent in my opinion, but nevertheless I'm kind of delighted that Serco is doing this.

By reducing the movement of prisoners, is Serco simply saving money?
My understanding of a phone system in a corrections department is that it doesn't require extra officers to monitor the use of the phone. Once the prisoners are unlocked from their cells the phone is available to them. Unlocking is automated, so I don't really see that this is going to have any impact on staffing.

Is the smuggling of cellphones into prisons in New Zealand a big problem?
It's a massive problem. The number of prisoners being caught with cellphones in their possession keeps rising. If all prisons throughout the country had phones installed the problem would be resolved, because there'd be no use smuggling cellphones in.

Functional literacy among inmates sits about 50 percent. Do you think in-cell computers will help raise that?
I really don't know because there is no real information about what programs will be available on these computers. They're not going to have access to the internet for sure. Maybe more information will become available, but the only purpose I've heard about so far is that it enables the prisoners to make a choice off a menu. If that's all it's going to do then it's not going to help the prisoners one bit. But if there are educational programs that are able to go on the computers, and there are all sorts of programs that can help with literacy and numeracy and more, I think it will be extremely helpful if that happens. I haven't heard anything from any government official or any Corrections Department person saying that these ideas will be offered.

The Corrections Department chief executive commented that if it plays out well at Kohuora it could be something that's rolled out in other prisons. What do you think of that?
The current situation where the Serco prisoners have phones in their cells means that a lot of prisoners will probably want to be transferred to that prison so they can actually call their families. So in one sense I think it's an innovative and progressive step for Serco to take, but on the other hand I think it's going to cause tension between the private system and the Corrections Department, because prisoners may want to end up in a Serco prison where they have easy access to a telephone. One of the potential implications of that is that the Serco prison will always be full, so in other words Serco will always be making money because prisoners will want to go there and it could lead to further degradation of the Corrections Department. And it may eventually lead to more private prisons being established in New Zealand, and who knows, we may end up with no Corrections Department at all. Can you elaborate?
Well, Serco get whatever get paid whether they have one prisoner, or 960 prisoners. No matter how many are there they get paid the full amount. That's a hell of an incentive for the government to make sure that Serco prisons are always full, otherwise they are not getting their money's worth. Though this is a fantastic move, I'm cynical about that overall direction. I'd rather have seen the government and the Corrections Department put phones in every cell in every prison throughout New Zealand.

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