A week, they say, is a long time in politics. A few months can be swift and brutal.

April, 2015, Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga stands in Parliament to face questions about the private prison operator, Serco.

“In the last prison performance table, might I just add, Serco’s Mt Eden Corrections Facility was the most exceptional prison,” he tells the House.

Serco Mt Eden: the golden child.

July, 2015, Lotu-Iiga is back on his feet in Parliament.

“I am appalled at the images that were shown in the last week that have come out of our corrections facilities,” he says, in reference to the YouTube footage of Mt Eden Fight Clubs.

Serco Mt Eden: the unwanted misfit.

Worse than that, actually. Within days of that speech, the Corrections Department had stepped in to take over the running of the prison again.

By December, Serco had lost the contract to run Mt Eden.

And Lotu-Iiga was dumped as minister.

It was a bloody demise for both Serco and Lotu-Iiga as months of anguish and allegations about Mt Eden spewed forth in Parliament and the media.

But did the scandal mask wider problems going on in the prison system?

Lotu-liga wasn't the only person whose career took a blow in the wake of the Fight Club.

In the shadows, and rating barely a mention, was the swift beheading of the Serco-employed Mt Eden prison director, Gareth Sands.

He’d been lured to New Zealand in 2013 after running run both private and state prisons in the UK. “I like a challenge,” Sands tells us. “I guess I hadn’t quite looked as closely as I should at the extent of the challenges…

“I saw a very ambitious Government with, I thought, superb targets around reducing reoffending...and I liked the fact the Government had an appetite for privatisation.”

Privatisation: it’s the stone which got hurled by everyone, on almost all sides, in the Fight Club fallout. In examining the wreckage, it would be wrong to disregard completely the fact that Mt Eden was run by a private operator, but to conclude that was the sole issue would be to ignore a body of evidence about problems within the wider system. But that’s for later.

Just for now, let’s focus on Serco. And there were plenty who wanted to do that.

“Serco should never ever have been given a contract from the start,” Labour’s Kelvin Davis told Parliament in a snap debate.

A British-based global company which specialises in “outsourcing”, Serco was once known as the “biggest company you’ve never heard of”. Run by Rupert Soames, the grandson of revered wartime British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, it has contracts in justice and immigration facilities, healthcare, IT, transport - basically, anywhere there’s a contract on offer, you’ll find Serco.

In December, 2010, Serco was announced as the successful bidder for the new private contract to run Mt Eden.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins was confident about the company’s ability to introduce international best practice.

“Serco has a strong track record in managing prisons,” she said. “I’m confident that the company will bring the high standards of professionalism, safety, rehabilitation and security expected by the Government.”

She defended suggestions the introduction of a private operator was about reducing staff.

“The private provider will suffer financial penalties if the conditions of the contract are not met,” said a press release from her office. “These are strong incentives to ensure adequate staffing levels are kept.”

So in 2011, Serco was handed the keys to Mt Eden, the biggest prison in the country, a prison with a large remand population, and with some peculiar challenges including the building itself (it was actually two prisons, an old one and a new one, lumped together on the same site).

Right from the start, Serco had enemies. Opposition parties decried problems at the prison.

“This privatisation agenda has been a fiasco, a shambles and an embarrassment to the Government,” Labour’s Kelvin Davis told Parliament.

And Mahesh Bindra, a NZ First MP and former prison guard: “Privatisation of prisons through Serco is one of the worst ideas this government has had, not to mention a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

This widespread dissent about Serco was like a cloud which hung over the prison, and one that Gareth Sands, who had taken over as director in early 2013, noticed. He believed it was one of the relevant factors at play when the Fight Club footage emerged.

An anti-Serco sentiment fuelled what Sands called the feeding frenzy which followed.

“It was a perfect storm.”

Sands laughs sadly, not for the first time. It’s the reaction of a man who is looking back on history and piecing together his own downfall.

Central to the contract between Serco and the Government were six “relationship principles”, one of which was “transparency”.

Even now, more than 12 months since he was removed from his position, Sands repeats it like a mantra. In three major interviews with him, he uses the words “transparent” or “transparency” 25 times.

“As a public servant I like truth and transparency,” he says one time. It’s what makes him more aggrieved, more perplexed about what unfolded - not just once the Fight Club scandal broke, but in the build-up.

Exhibit one, for him, is a key report from July 2014 which was shrouded in secrecy.

The Department of Corrections report was into an investigation which began when a Probation Officer passed on allegations that a Fight Club was operating at Mt Eden.

From June 2014, even before the investigation was completed, he began asking for what was being learned.

“I was just trying to understand what I needed to do to mitigate risk and to ensure that staff and prisoners [were safe],” he says.

But something peculiar happened. No one would give him the report. He thought to himself: “If there is nothing to hide...let’s not be nervous about that, let’s put things on the table as they are.”

But something peculiar happened. No one would give him the report.

He kept badgering for it. “I was asking a range of senior people within the Department of Corrections. They know who they are and there’s a forensic trail, a very clear trail.”

Strangely, though, it wasn’t going down well. At one point a message was passed on to him from a senior person in the department to “reduce the noise”.

He declines to say what he thought that meant, but he does say: “I did not stop asking questions and I did not reduce the noise. That would be inappropriate for me to do that and I would be raising the risk. I knew there were risks of violence in New Zealand prisons. Research says that that, investigations say that, incidents...say that, and therefore I would not reduce the noise.”

In the meantime, Sands says, he was not sitting around waiting for the report.

He introduced rolling lock-downs, a system under which prisoners are released from their cells in a staggered way rather than all at once, but says he was told by the department to stop it.

He pushed for improvements to the CCTV system, put in proposals for better intelligence-gathering in the prison and gang strategies.

“We brought in innovations, we ensured that prisoners were gainfully employed in terms of access to activities, we delivered reducing reoffending programmes which looked at violence, and investment in families, education, numeracy and literacy.

“We did a whole range of things which have never been captured in any of this discussion.”

Finally, in May 2015, he was given a redacted version of the Fight Club investigation report.

Even the circumstances in which it was delivered were odd.

Sands, who, remember was in charge of the prison directly connected to the allegations, was handed a printed off copy in a brown envelope and was told not to share it.

''In my career I've never experienced anything like that before.''

- Gareth Sands

He eventually came to an agreement that he could show his senior management team, but he remained concerned. “It should [have been] delivered transparently, it should be delivered in a timely fashion, not 10 months after asking.”

That report, along with all the other documents and material Sands had, have long been handed back to his employer.

But he remembers it vividly, along with other incidents in the build-up to the Fight Club scandal.

For instance: “On the 11th of June 2015 I specifically said I am concerned about the safety, security and welfare of staff and prisoners. I said that to the Department of Corrections and to Serco.”

He believed the prison had reached what he called a “tipping point”.

About 1 pm, he’d been asked to take more prisoners, but believed doing so was risky. He had no choice, however, and the prisoners arrived.

“I knew there was something wrong in the prison and I said there is something wrong in this prison. I’m responsible for the prison, so let’s not get away from that. But I can’t fix everything.

“As a seasoned operator I was raising risk but I cannot control the thousands of prisoners that come in and out of the prison and I cannot control the reports that are out there that can help me.”

Anyone who wants to see a copy of the July 2014 report - at least a redacted version of it - can now go online and find it on the Department of Corrections website. It was finally made public the day before the US elections, amid questions about why it was released then, while the world was captivated by the Trump/Clinton battle.

The report outlines details about Fight Clubs not only at Mt Eden, but at Ngawha and Rimutaka prisons too. It names gangs and prisoners who were behind the organised bouts.

It should have raised serious alarm bells within the department.

Instead, an internal audit of the report’s handling concluded it didn’t even get elevated to the chief executive, let alone the minister.

Another report released on the same day reveals that there was a Fight Club operating at Mt Eden in 2009 - two years before Serco was even running the prison.

Why were neither of these reports taken as seriously as they should have been? Especially when you consider what happened when evidence of the Fight Clubs finally went public.

Is transparency really a principle within the prison system, or just a clause in contracts it signs with Serco?

We wanted to find out what Corrections had to say about this. But first we wanted to talk to the agency which has independent oversight of the prison system, the Office of the Ombudsman.

And some of what they’ve been uncovering is disturbing.



This is part three of a six-part series examining the prison system and asking: is there a better way?