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Ombudsman to crack down on prisons

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 6/10/2016

Corrections is set to face more attention from the government department watchdog following a damning report into fight clubs and prisoner treatment at Mount Eden prison.

A report released on Thursday detailed private operator Serco's negligence at the jail, including, lax supervision, regular organised fights and some prisoners being denied proper medical checks and access to lawyers.

Now the Office of the Ombudsman, which handles complaints against government departments, says it's got Corrections in its sights.

"It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that prisoners should be detained in humane conditions, appropriately supervised and treated fairly and in a manner consistent with their legal rights," Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier said.

He said a programme to monitor how inmates were treated was already on the way and the team checking prisons had grown from one to three members in the last year.

They would make formal inspections or unannounced visits and would have full access, he said.

"I consider the inspection and monitoring process under Crimes of Torture Act to be the most effective way in which I can satisfy myself that all appropriate safeguards are in place."

Meanwhile, Labour MP Kelvin Davies - who sparked the investigation into Mount Eden by revealing details of fights clubs at the prison last year - says he wants other jails run by Serco to also be investigated.

He said sources had told him there was still gang-organised fighting at other facilities and the matter had not been properly looked into.

The inquiry into fight clubs and contraband in the prison was ordered last year after footage of brawls became public, prompting the government to take back the running of prison from the British company.

Among the findings, the report from the Chief Inspector of Corrections says in June and July last year organised fights were regular affairs, likely to be happening at least once a week.

"Prisoners reported that if they refused to participate they would be threatened, "pack attacked" or assaulted by [gang] senior members," it said.

Guards were at times found to be playing pool or table tennis instead of supervising inmates and some prison areas went more than two hours without being watched due to staffing shortages.

Corrections has made 21 recommendations, calling for a raft of changes to staffing and procedures at the prison.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins says most have been implemented and others are in progress.

On Thursday she criticised the Corrections Department monitors responsible for reporting on the prison, telling TV3's Paul Henry their claims of "pushback" from Serco during investigations were "absolute nonsense".

A second simultaneous report into eight prisons run by Corrections found no evidence of fight clubs and that supervision was adequate at those facilities - although prisoners were still gaining access to phones.

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