God locked out of NZ jail

GOD has been remanded without a chance of appeal at one of New Zealand's toughest prisons.

Inmates at Auckland's Mt Eden prison have had church services and one-on-one meetings with men of the cloth slashed since the jail was taken over by private firm Serco five months ago.

Serco admitted the prison had been using a temporary chaplaincy team since four permanent padres left in October after failing to agree with the company's plans. Serco said the situation "isn't ideal".

Salvation Army prison visitor Collin Mellors said he rarely attended Mt Eden any more since it was taken over by Serco.

"I used to be there a lot but since it changed hands it has become a bit awkward to re-establish yourself," he said.

"I know that a number of inmates are unhappy because the chaplains simply aren't there to provide a friendly face."

One long-term prisoner told the Herald on Sunday many men felt they were being denied a spiritual lifeline.

"Since I found the peace of God, my lag is easier to do but the past few months have been hard for a lot of people in here," the inmate, who has asked not to be identified, said.

"Church visits have been cut from once a week to about once a month and we can't get to see a padre when we want to."

The prisoner said he knew of at least 30 others who had been affected. He also claimed complaints to prison bosses had fallen on deaf ears.

Mt Eden became New Zealand's only privately-run prison in August after Serco won a 10-year contract from the Government, valued at about $380 million.

The jail's two full time and two part time chaplains left their jobs not long after the takeover, Serco's Sydney-based spokesman Paul Shaw said.

"We are advertising for two full time chaplains for Mt Eden and expect the posts to be filled within weeks," Shaw said.

"Of course it isn't ideal, but at present we have a transitional chaplaincy team of six who are providing pastoral care, bereavement services and mass. They are based at local churches and their availability means we can quickly meet prisoners' requests.

"The team will remain in place when the two new posts have been filled. We place a great importance on meeting the religious and spiritual needs of prisoners," he said.

"As far as we are aware, only one complaint has been received about these arrangements and there are no outstanding requests for baptisms at Mt Eden."

Jarrod Gilbert from the Howard League for Penal Reform said the situation was of "great concern".

"Before Mt Eden was put into private hands, there were concerns that this would lead to financial corners being cut and, as a consequence, inmates would suffer," Gilbert said.

"If new measures like cutting the number of chaplains have been introduced so that a private management company can make greater profits, then I think a lot of people would be very worried about that.

"Alarm bells should be ringing. If they are cutting back on chaplains you have to wonder what else is going on."