Building relationships to improve outcomes for youth in Corrections

Dr Ashley Shearar
Principal Adviser – Youth Strategy

Brigid Kean
Project Manager – Service Design and Implementation

Author biographies:
Ashley Shearar has recently returned to the Department of Corrections after managing the Youth Policy team at the Ministry of Social Development. She previously held a variety of roles with Corrections, from working as a probation officer to leading the High Risk Response Team. Ashley completed her PhD at Victoria University comparing youth justice transformation between New Zealand and South Africa. She is passionate about improving outcomes for young people in the justice system.

Brigid Kean project managed the Department of Corrections’ Youth Strategy Acceleration Project. She has worked in a variety of roles in criminal justice in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, and began her career as a probation officer in Porirua.

“I learnt that in all walks of life we all experience fear, anger, sadness, happiness, anxiety and pride. I learnt to overcome my fears and push myself to complete tasks with a little bit of risk involved. I learnt that I can overcome any challenge standing in the way of success, if I just set my mind to it. I learnt that no matter what life you’ve lived, you’ve still got a life to live and it’s up to you what you do with it.”– A young person from a Corrections Youth Unit who took part in an “adventurous journey” as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award.


Young people present a unique challenge for the Department of Corrections. They are at a critical stage of development, requiring acknowledgement of their strengths and aspirations, as well as genuine opportunities and support to permanently exit from the justice system and go on to live happy and productive adult lives.

The Department recognises that to achieve a significant reduction in re-offending overall, it must improve outcomes for youth. We have demonstrated a commitment to improving services, supports and outcomes for youth through the implementation of the Corrections Youth Strategy in 2013. In 2015 we increased our efforts through the Corrections Youth Strategy Acceleration Project which set aspirational goals to:

  • develop Youth Units as centres of excellence
  • provide exceptional staff engagement with a focus on Youth Champions
  • develop world leading rehabilitation and reintegration services.

The challenge and the opportunity

For the most part, the youth we work with have complex needs and extensive histories of trauma and abuse (Moffit, 1993). Their important early attachments were often severed as a result of their parents’ drug and alcohol addictions, mental health issues, criminal activities and imprisonment, leaving them vulnerable and with few, if any, positive role models or trusted adults to turn to (Moffit, 1993). A high percentage of youth in Corrections have been in and out of the care and protection or youth justice systems, destabilising their sense of identity, belonging and security and disrupting their learning and development. There is no doubt that these experiences contribute to their offending behaviour and that to address their offending we need to find ways to improve their environments and change their future narrative.

The Department cannot do this alone. The only way we can succeed with the youth in our system is through our joint efforts with communities, families and partner agencies.

We are fortunate that there is a lot happening in the wider context that we can take advantage of to improve outcomes for these young people. For example, government, businesses and philanthropists are partnering more to increase youth development opportunities around New Zealand. Also, a new approach to vulnerable children could enable access to better transition support for youth in Corrections. We also know that social investment modelling, which is increasingly informing where the government should concentrate its resources for longer-term benefits, consistently identifies youth in the justice system as a population needing targeted effort.

This wider context lends itself to reaching out, increasing the visibility of youth in the Corrections system and building relationships where we can work alongside each other to help our youth navigate through our system back to the community. We are progressively seeing this playing out, with a number of new partnerships emerging, creating exciting and inspirational experiences for youth.

Corrections Youth Units

Over the past year, the two Corrections Youth Units in Christchurch Men’s Prison and Hawkes Bay Regional Prison have been looking at ways to involve communities and other agencies in their rehabilitative and reintegrative efforts. This is helping them to develop more stimulating environments which engage young people, respond to their needs and capability and provide them with relevant learning and development opportunities. The Youth Units are also finding ways for the youth to give back to the community. For example, honey from the apiculture work and vegetables from the Youth Unit garden in Hawkes Bay are sent to community trusts that distribute them to Women’s Refuge and families in need.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Hillary Award Trial in the Youth Units

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Hillary Award trial is one example of how youth in our Youth Units are benefitting from a partnership with a community group that offers philanthropic support.* The Award is a programme for 14 – 25 year olds which is open to all young people in the community, regardless of background or ability. It offers young people a range of personal benefits such as enhanced self esteem and a sense of achievement. The Award also provides young people with many of the skills and qualities employers value, including: communication, reliability, decision-making, confidence, team work and leadership. Internationally, over 6,000 young people who have offended have engaged with the Award in over 200 justice-focused facilities. Research shows that working towards the Award improves relationships between young people and staff, and that re-offending can be significantly reduced (Duke of Edinburgh’s Award International Association, 2007).

For the first time in New Zealand, the Youth Unit trial focuses on offering young people in prison the opportunity to achieve the Bronze Award in a custodial setting. The Bronze Award is made up of three long-term sections: skills development, service, and physical recreation. Two of these sections must be completed for three months and one section for six months. The young people must also complete a two-day “adventurous journey”, and preparation training sessions. How these sections are currently being completed in our Youth Units is outlined below.

Skills development (3 or 6 months):

The Youth Units’ current life-skills and independent living skills activities undertaken by the young people can be counted towards achievement of the Award. This includes joinery training and developing cooking, horticultural and agricultural skills. Activities are packaged together as a way to evidence the “soft” skills employers are looking for in new employees

Service (3 or 6 months):

The Youth Units also run activities that count towards the Service section of the Award. Examples of these activities include:

  • Making and selling wooden furniture (with the money going to charity or the prison resource fund if the furniture is sold)
  • Beautification of the communal or public areas of the prisons
  • Growing vegetables for the prison kitchen
  • Assisting with catering for prison events.

Physical recreation (3 or 6 months):

This is increasingly becoming an embedded part of prison life in the Youth Units. The young people play touch rugby and basketball, run round the inside perimeter of the prison wire and train in aspects of Crossfit. They then document their progress in their Award record book.

Adventurous journey (20 hours training, 2 days 1 night practice tramp and 2 days 1 night qualifying tramp):

Young people in the units also complete a two night “adventurous journey” which involves camping on prison grounds, and preparation training sessions. A typical comment from a young person was “truly amazing”, with one reflecting: “I felt like the whole Corrections facility believed in us”.

The adventurous journey enables the young people to discover new things and to look at the world differently while achieving an internationally recognised award during their sentence:

“We learnt leadership skills and that obstacles can be overcome.” – A young person from a Corrections Youth Unit who took part in an “adventurous journey” as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award.

Building on the gains

Innovative ideas like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Hillary Award are adding value and tangible reward to existing programmes. They remind us that we have collective responsibility in supporting our young people. Young people in our system really appreciate input from the wider community during their sentence. It gives them a chance to identify their strengths and interests, makes them feel connected and valued, and helps them to shape a more positive identity. Serin, Mailloux and Wilson (2008) highlighted that building a prosocial identity and setting high expectations which provide “hope and a life worth living” are among the key dynamic protective factors which can help to reduce the risk of re-offending.

We are now looking into how we can build on what the Duke of Edinburgh’s Hillary Award has started as the young people prepare to transition back to the community. For Corrections, this will require good communication between prison staff and the Community Corrections staff who will be managing the young person’s order following their release. Probation officers can play an important role in acknowledging a young person’s efforts on the programme and identifying ways to continue to grow and achieve. Our Duke of Edinburgh’s Award colleagues are interested in identifying ways to continue to support the young people who have been on their programme after they transition to the community. Together, we are starting discussions to develop a plan around how this can occur.

Involving the wider community during a young person’s sentence is not enough. To prevent re-offending, young people must be assisted to sustain and build on any gains they’ve made to help prevent future offending. It is therefore essential that we develop our relationships so the wider community can continue to support young people well after they complete their sentences.

* The sponsor for this programme wishes to remain anonymous.


The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award International Association (2007). Young Offenders and the International Award.

Moffitt, T.E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life course persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674-701.

Serrin, R.C., Mailloux, D. & Wilson, N.J. (2008). Practice manual for use with dynamic risk assessment for offender re-entry (DRAOR) scale.