Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Prisoners’ Rights and Media Wrongs: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Media Representation of Private Prisons in New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-22, 09:34 authored by Boyle, Otis

In 2009, the Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons) Amendment Bill was passed, implementing the New Zealand (NZ) Government’s policy of prison privatisation. Subsequently, ‘Mt Eden’, a public prison previously managed by the state, was contracted to British conglomerate Serco and a second private prison, ‘Wiri’, was built under contract to the same company. However, in July 2015, a cell-phone video capturing Mt Eden prisoners engaged in fights, in full view of prison officers and CCTV, was uploaded to YouTube. It captured the attention of the media, politicians and the public. An unprecedented stream of media revelations about prisoner mistreatment, corruption and various human rights violations followed, prompting the Department of Corrections to seize control of the prison. In the wake of this ‘crisis’, this thesis explores the changing nature of legitimacy for private prisons in NZ. Where previously, legitimacy of the penal system was largely staked on security and maintaining sufficiently austere prison conditions, the revelations of serious rights violations at Mt Eden prison highlights one of the ‘moments’ in which the legitimacy of the prison system was fractured for being too severe.   To examine the changing nature of legitimacy, the study investigates the treatment of private prisons by three media sources - the New Zealand Herald, Stuff and Radio New Zealand. It uses framing, critical discourse and source analysis, with the aim of exploring how dominant penological discourses operate to protect and sustain the prison system in the face of a human rights scandal. The thesis separates analysis into two critical periods: after the introduction of private prisons in 2009; and after the release of the YouTube videos. A managerial frame is consistently found across the news outlets alongside a source bias towards mainstream politics and corporate interests. Before the human rights scandals, the focus on how to deliver punishment, rather than the state’s obligations to those it incarcerates or wider social goals, established the legitimacy of private prisons under the banal everyday discourses of managerialism. While humanitarian framing increased substantially after the human rights scandals, these were subsumed under the frames of managerialism, security and less eligibility. These frames acted to depict the prison crisis as an unfortunate individual aberration of security that could be managed through a government response. In short, the legitimacy of the prison remained intact and was, ultimately, strengthened.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Media Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Institute of Criminology

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Stanley, Elizabeth