Corrections acknowledges the Ombudsman’s follow up inspections of Whanganui and Christchurch Men’s prisons under the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).
“The inspections are welcomed. Independent oversight helps to ensure that people in prison are treated in a way that reflects their needs and supports them to make changes to their lives and stop committing crime,” says Rachel Leota, Corrections National Commissioner.
“However, the nature of the reports does not recognise the hugely challenging work that prison staff do every day to keep people in prison safe and change their lives, and the progress that we have made, which includes:
- Reducing the prison population by 22 percent since March 2018
- Reducing the use of double bunking by almost 40% since March 2018
- Launching the $100 million Māori Pathways programme at three prisons
- Introducing an ambitious new strategic plan, Hōkai Rangi, which puts wellbeing at the foundation of everything we do
- Improving New Zealand’s international imprisonment rate ranking from the 6th highest imprisonment rate, to the 12th highest in the OECD.
- Improving reimprisonment rates, with the proportion of people released from prison who are reconvicted within 12 months decreasing from 46% to 43% between 2017 and 2020, and the proportion of people re-imprisoned within 12 months of release decreasing from 32% to 29%.
“We have 4,100 custodial staff who show up to work in prisons every day to keep New Zealanders safe and help the people we manage change their lives. They work in some of the most difficult and challenging environments in New Zealand, with complex people. Prisons are reflective of what occurs in our communities and in recent years the environment in which Corrections operates has changed significantly.
“Whilst the prison population has reduced significantly since 2018, there is a growing number of people in prison with a history of extensive methamphetamine which is associated with a significant and lasting impact on mental and emotional function.”
“The number of prisoners affiliated with a gang has increased by almost 120 percent with resulting increases in instances of violence and aggression, and our efforts to sustainably resettle people into the community have become more challenging due to demand for accommodation.”
The reports relate to inspections carried out 15 months ago (Christchurch Men’s Prison) and eight months ago (Whanganui Prison). These inspections followed visits in 2017 and 2018 where recommendations were made by the Ombudsman.
“While many of the Ombudsman’s recommendations provide valuable insight and areas of focus, others that are noted as not achieved are made with a lack of context,” says Mrs Leota.
“For example, at Christchurch Men’s Prison, “that drug testing should be extended to include synthetic psychoactive substances”. Drug tests are carried out by urine sample, with the samples being tested by ESR. Our contract with ESR currently excludes testing for new psychoactive substances, and we are working through a procurement process to address this. While we can’t hold prisoners to account for using these substances without the evidence of test results, we were the first agency in New Zealand to train our detector dogs to detect new psychoactive substances meaning that we can find and destroy them.
“Also at Christchurch Men’s Prison, the recommendation that “the issue of excessive tagging is addressed” in the prison’s youth unit, which houses young men under the age of 20. Regular cleaning and maintenance work is carried out, however tagging is an ongoing persistent behaviour by young people, often to signal status or influence. Removing every pen or implement used to tag would be unreasonable and unjustified, however we welcome further suggestions from the Ombudsman about what more we could do.”
“At Whanganui Prison the Ombudsman recommended that “prisoners are not illegally detained in dry rooms”. We wholeheartedly agree that vulnerable prisoners should not be accommodated in a dry cell when the Intervention and Support Unit is full, however the alternative would mean moving the person to another prison which could significantly impact support they may be receiving from their friends and family, destabilise them further and exacerbate their mental distress.
“Further at Whanganui Prison, the Ombudsman recommended that “arrangements to improve ventilation in units are identified, implemented and monitored to ensure that consistent temperatures are consistently achieved” and “identified facility faults in Te Moenga Unit are fixed”. The Ombudsman has acknowledged the significant work that has gone into addressing this recommendation – with individual cell fans being issued to all prisoners and the use of cell ventilation shafts in Te Moenga Unit, along with sound dampening work. Addressing prison infrastructure requires significant capital investment to ensure that it is safe, secure and fit for purpose. We have a programme of work being undertaken across all prisons in New Zealand in priority order. It is not as straightforward as a quick fix, and more time will be needed to achieve recommendations of this type.
“Through regular prison inspections the Chief Ombudsman makes hundreds of recommendations in relation to our facilities and practices every year. The vast majority provide us with invaluable feedback to act on and clear areas of focus – with many changes made as a result,” said Mrs Leota.
“However, other examples that span multiple years due to work remaining ongoing including the recommendation that prisoner meals be served at ‘normal’ hours, which is being addressed through our Making Shifts Work roster programme currently being implemented at all prisons nationwide, which the Ombudsman is aware of.
Positively, we were pleased to see the Ombudsman recognise positive practices at Christchurch Men’s Prison, including:
- Positive and collaborative interaction between staff and prisoners
- A number of initiatives being worked on to improve conditions
- The employment of high security prisoners increasing
- Improved search entry procedures
- Robust health and safety processes
- Effective functioning of the complaints system
- Good access to telephones, mail and email system to correspond with friends and family.
And at Whanganui Prison:
- The installation of a telephone in the Intervention and Support Unit
- The implementation of an anti-bullying strategy
- A reduction in the use of double bunking
- Low rates of voluntary segregation at the prison
- An increase in constructive activities for remand accused prisoners
“Balancing our obligations, challenges and competing priorities against the time and resources available means we must make difficult choices about where to focus our efforts,” said Mrs Leota.
“We are committed to ensuring we operate prisons that protect the safety of those in our care, our staff and contractors, and New Zealand communities. We do this by providing individuals with access to health and wellness services and every opportunity for change through participation in rehabilitation, education and employment. Our goal is to give people the best chance of living a life free from crime to reduce the number of victims impacted by offending.”