Grasses and palm fronds gently dance in the breeze as we approach Kohuora, Auckland South Corrections Facility in Wiri. With a clear view of Matukutūreia Maunga, pukekos crossing the rainbow-painted pathway and manicured gardens and water features, it’s almost hard to believe that you’re walking into prison grounds. However, the abundance of signage, the presence of custodial staff and high metal fences reminds you where you are.
After signing for a visitors pass, emptying pockets and striding through the metal detectors, we sat down to chat with ASCF’s Acting Prison Director, Gerry Smith.
Serco is an international company employing over 50,000 people to manage over 500 contracts across UK, Europe, North America, Asia Pacific and Middle East. They provide services for governments including the management of prisons, hospitals, airports, transport links, defence and immigration detention centres. In New Zealand they hold a small contract with the New Zealand Navy and the running of Kohuora.
Kohuora is a high security prison that opened in May 2015 and holds up to 960 sentenced male prisoners. The facility marks the first public/private partnership between Corrections and the SecureFuture Consortium. SecureFuture contracted Fletcher Construction to build the prison and Serco to run it.
‘Kohuora is the only privately run prison in New Zealand. Our philosophy is to innovate and we’re able to develop new ideas and find different ways of doing things. That’s where we aim to add value’ explains Gerry.
Serco holds a 25-year contract with Department of Corrections which will come to an end in 2040. As a private business with a contract in place, it’s clear that Serco is incentivised to deliver better outcomes.
‘There are three pillars to our contract with Department of Corrections’ says Gerry.
‘1) The prison is safe and secure: we provide a safe environment for all staff, contractors, visitors and prisoners.
2) Reduce reoffending: our expectation is that people will leave prison with a positive attitude and the skills to live a better life as contributing members of their whānau and the wider community
3) Providing better outcomes for Maori: we all acknowledge that we need to do better than we have in the past. ‘
Serco strives to provide purposeful engagement opportunities for all men at Kohuora. Every prisoner has different needs and is individually assessed upon arriving at Kohuora. Though Covid impacted employment streams for two years, there have always been opportunities for the men to learn skills.
‘Serco recognised the opportunities for men in our care that the Kick for Seagulls programme, developed by Rugby League legend Graham Lowe, offered. The programme teaches basic life skills, including reading, writing and maths using sporting language to increase engagement. It’s now a programme that has been adopted by prisons around the country’.
‘We also have the largest workshop space of any New Zealand prison. We have employment opportunities in all areas of the prison, including positions in the kitchen, canteen, laundry, grounds, horticulture and gym. Men have the opportunity to gain NZQA Unit standards up to Level 4 in a range of areas.’
‘Some men also have the opportunity for Release to Work, which helps them transition from prison to life in the community. ’
Serco has begun to promote less traditional, ‘on the tools’ career pathways for men, which has proved successful. They have paired with Take2 (a social venture providing justice-impacted individuals with the support, resources and opportunity to improve their quality of life) to offer coding classes to prisoners.
‘We need next century thinking around jobs and we could see great possibilities for the men. It’s not a traditional prison offering, but we are here to innovate and find new opportunities to reduce reoffending. All prison training or employment opportunities include an assessment of security risks and we manage those.
‘With Take2 we have had success with men gaining meaningful employment in companies like Datacom and Rush (the tech studio that built the Covid-19 Tracer App)’.
Judgement and perceptions of prison and prisoners are hard to overcome. Men often face hardship gaining employment after they leave Kohuora and this is where local Wiri businesses can be of help.
Serco would like to change the perception that all prisons are a harsh, dismal, and unsafe place and that men should just be sitting in their cells and reflecting on their crimes.
‘It’s a short-sighted approach. Anyone can make a mistake; most people learn from them. We want to give these men the tools to see better opportunities for their lives, for their whanau’ he says.
‘We are very much part of the community and alongside our neighbours Auckland Women’s Regional Corrections Facility, we are involved in a community impact forum which meets quarterly to ensure that we maintain those relationships. It’s important that we stay on top of what’s on offer for local men and if there’s any employment opportunities available. After all, there’s a range of people that come to us and they all have different gifts and skills to offer back to the community’ concluded Gerry.