It should seem obvious to employers, private or public, that it’s important to do what you can to retain your best, most experienced staff. They make life easier for you because they’re effective, attentive and often respected by those around them; they carry years of invaluable institutional knowledge with them; they pass that knowledge on to new employees, ensuring that the next generation are just as effective, if not more so. You want to retain these people, especially in high-stress, high-risk workplaces. You definitely don’t want to encourage these people to leave your workplace and take their skills somewhere else.
So it’s confusing, then, to see the Department of Corrections doing just that: encouraging some of its most experienced corrections officers, nurses, psychologists and case managers to leave the Department and take up a role in the new Auckland South Corrections Facility.
The Auckland South Corrections Facility at Wiri will open in May, to be operated for 25 years by British outsourcing company Serco. The prison has been built and run as part of a public-private partnership, and Corrections insists that this arrangement means that Serco shares the Department’s goals of “improving public safety and reducing reoffending”.
That’s certainly what the National Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Jeremy Lightfoot, says in an email he sent to prison managers around the country in November last year. In that same email, he tells those managers that Serco is advertising for experienced Corrections Officers and that “here at Corrections, we’re fortunate to have these staff”. He then tells those managers to “forward the attachment, which provides information on job opportunities [at Wiri], to your staff.” The attachment lays out pay scales, leave entitlements and benefits for Serco employees in extensive detail.
It’s also what Chief Executive of Corrections Ray Smith says in a newsletter published in May last year. After identifying those “common goals”, Smith rattles on:
ASCF will be an important part of our prison network and it’s in everyone’s interest that we see it has the best possible start. As we know, the safe and effective operation of a prison relies on highly capable staff and here at Corrections, we’re fortunate to have these staff. Serco understands this too and wants at least 65% of their prisoner-facing workforce in the new prison to be experienced. This means they will be looking for experienced staff from a range of disciplines, including corrections officers, nurses, psychologists and case managers. In total, approximately 250 staff will be employed at the site. Recruitment for these roles will start around August of this year.
I’m sure some of you will be interested in moving into roles in the new prison. It’s only natural for people to seek new opportunities for both professional and personal reasons.
Smith then asks prison staff to complete a survey “to help us understand the level of interest in roles at the new prison so we can plan ahead for any impacts”. But the impacts are quite clear – if Serco wants at least 65% of its prisoner-facing workforce to be “experienced”, then there is the very real possibility that at least 160 experienced Corrections employees will be poached to staff the new prison.
Serco’s obviously looking out for itself here. Corrections Association Lead Advocate Beven Hanlon told 3 News that the first year of training for a prospective prison staffer costs about $120,000, so every employee poached is a lot of money saved. But those poached employees need to be replaced, and Corrections will have to foot the resulting bills. It’s absurd that Corrections is effectively subsidising a private multinational in this way, although it’s quite consistent with the National government’s total inability to effectively negotiate deals with private companies. Serco’s just walking the road well-trodden by corporations like SkyCity and Warner Bros.
But it’s especially absurd that Corrections is serving its employees up to Serco like a buffet when both Serco and Corrections are allegedly experiencing the bite of staffing shortages. Serco has long been criticised for maintaining low staffing levels at Mt Eden Prison, which it has operated since May 2011, and the high number of inmate assaults at the Prison, including the recent brutal assault that left a prisoner with broken bones in both his legs, has in the past been attributed to those low numbers.
Meanwhile, there are real concerns over staffing levels and whether they’re able to meet the demands of the current – high – prison population. Prisons like Spring Hill, where the Chief Ombudsman recently found that “the underlying impact of high security, unmotivated prisoners with little access to suitable programmes and who were placed in a unit with a restrictive regime” had played a role in triggering the riot in June 2013, cannot afford to bleed experienced staff to a prison that’s not prepared to assume some responsibility for building its own workforce.
Ultimately, the situation at Wiri is just another sorry example of National’s recklessness in pursuing its privatisation agenda. Anne Tolley turned the sod on Wiri in September 2012, but rather than planning ahead and building its own strong, experienced workforce, Serco have left it till the last minute and asked Corrections to pick up their slack. It’s astonishing that Corrections are more than happy to do so.