Kia Whaitake - Making a Difference: Investigation into Ara Poutama Aotearoa Department of Corrections
The Chief Ombudsman was concerned about the same issues coming up in prisons. These include people in prison:
- not having enough time out of their cells (also known as ‘unlock’ hours);
- not getting their meals and medication at appropriate times;
- being video recorded when using toilets and showers;
- not being able to exercise in open air; not having clean bedding; and not having contact with their family, whānau, and visitors; and
- not being able to spend their time in prison engaged in activities, programmes or services they need for their release from prison.
The Department has, over the years, accepted most of the recommendations made by oversight agencies about these issues. But the Chief Ombudsman was concerned that the Department had not made all of the changes, or that it was too slow. The Chief Ombudsman started this investigation to find out whether there are deeper issues affecting the Department’s ability to make the changes that his office and other oversight agencies have been calling for.
How the investigation was carried out
The Chief Ombudsman’s investigation involved speaking with and gathering information from a wide range of people. This included:
- people with lived experience of prison;
- current and previous employees of the Department (including previous senior leaders);
- representatives from Māori organisations;
- organisations that support people in prison and their whānau, or with an interest in prison reform;
- unions representing the interests of prison staff; and
- other oversight agencies.
The Chief Ombudsman’s investigators visited seven prisons and the Department’s training centre. The Chief Ombudsman sought advice from a panel of experts. The Chief Ombudsman also considered the Department’s stewardship duties as well as the obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi │ Treaty of Waitangi. As a steward, the Department is responsible for looking after the corrections system.
Our response to the report
We welcome the Chief Ombudsman’s report, and have accepted all recommendations made to Corrections in full.
There are around 8,500 people in prison. They are some of New Zealand’s most complex and vulnerable people, and we are responsible for keeping them secure, safe, and well, and providing the treatment and support they need to successfully transition back to the wider community upon release. This work can be exceptionally challenging, and when something goes wrong, it can have serious and lasting consequences – for the community, victims, our staff, and the people we manage. We must therefore do everything we can to prevent this, and we are always striving to do better. We value robust, independent scrutiny because it drives us to prioritise continuous improvement and helps us identify where to focus this work.
The key issues identified by the Chief Ombudsman are consistent with many of the issues we have identified ourselves, and his recommendations strongly align with the work we already have underway through Hōkai Rangi, our organisational strategy. Hōkai Rangi called on us to make change, in a safe, sustainable way that we know can’t happen in an organisation as large as ours overnight. Since the Chief Ombudsman began his investigation two years ago, we have continued our work towards this change, and have engaged in further deliberate self-review, including staff engagement late last year on our progress towards Hōkai Rangi. While there is a lot more to do, we have already taken significant steps in the past two years.
In May 2023, we released a formal proposal for change to all Corrections staff. We are proposing changes to parts of our organisational structure to improve the safety and wellbeing of our staff, and enable them to deliver better reintegration, reduce reoffending, reduce Māori overrepresentation and improve public safety. While subject to consultation and confirmation, the central objectives of this proposed change programme are highly consistent with the direction of change recommended by the Chief Ombudsman. The investigation report will now become a critical consideration as this change programme is refined and finalised.
Key proposed mechanisms of change include an operating model refocused on supporting the people we manage along the whole of their criminal justice system pathway, with a central focus on delivering improved outcomes for those we manage and for the wider community. Our plans recognise that successful transition to this new operating model will require:
- significant shifts in our people’s capability and the systems that enable and support them;
- a shift in our organisational culture to be appropriately risk-informed (rather than ‘risk-averse’), underpinned by change in the way we respond to failure, to become a learning organisation;
- streamlined policies and processes that better enable and support the outcomes we want to achieve; and
- more localised decision-making with leaders empowered to deliver outcomes for the people we manage, with iwi and other partners, for and with the communities they serve.
One of the key issues raised in the Chief Ombudsman’s report is how Corrections has addressed the findings and recommendations of oversight entities. As the report notes, we have already acknowledged that previously, we did not have mature and robust organisation-wide processes to track, monitor, assure and close recommendations. Since the Chief Ombudsman’s investigation was initiated, we have made changes at all stages in the process of receiving, responding, resolving, and overseeing recommendations raised by monitoring entities. These changes have aimed to ensure that our processes are well-designed and fit for purpose, with clear lines of accountability.
The executive-level Organisational Performance Committee now endorses oversight entity provisional reports and receives a quarterly report on progress against themes raised, ensuring our entire executive has visibility of recommendations made and our progress on responding to them. We have also developed and implemented an application which provides staff responsible for actioning and assuring recommendations with a single location to track and monitor the progress of recommendations made by both internal teams and external monitoring agencies. Prior to this, teams were tracking actions through individual spreadsheets or local databases. The application is an essential part of the change we have committed to making, by ensuring visibility, accountability and transparency of actions being undertaken to address issues raised by monitoring entities. While we can still do more to improve these processes, I am very proud of the recent improvements my team have made.
In his report, the Chief Ombudsman has expressed a view that Corrections takes an approach to public safety that has not always prioritised the interests of prisoners, focusing on immediate safety over longer-term solutions. He argues a broader view of public safety would recognise the critical role of the fair and humane treatment of prisoners in terms of promoting the safety of the public and communities when a prisoner is released. I agree with the Chief Ombudsman that treating prisoners fairly and humanely, and supporting their rehabilitation, is an important element of public safety in the longer-term. This is not a new concept for Corrections – improving public safety through reducing reoffending has been a stated goal of the department for many years. As such, I have accepted the recommendations around placing greater emphasis on the fair, safe, and humane treatment of those detained in prison.
It is important to note that immediate safety is also critical. Every day, our frontline staff manage significant immediate risks to the safety of themselves, people we manage, and the public. We manage people who have been deeply impacted by New Zealand’s systemic problems with mental health, gangs, poverty, addiction, violence and crime, often throughout their entire lives. Over 80% of the prison population have had convictions for violence in their offending histories, more than 90% have had a lifetime diagnosis of a mental health or substance abuse disorder, and 35% have a gang affiliation which is a known predictor of violence.
Our frontline staff are highly dedicated and skilled in helping people to make positive change, but transformative change is not immediate. The reality is, despite our best efforts, some people in prison go to extreme lengths to harm others, and safely managing this risk must be an absolute priority for us. This is never a justification for falling short when it comes to managing people fairly – safety and the humane treatment of prisoners are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. Our work is immensely challenging, and any failures can be life-threatening, which is why immediate safety needs to be such a key focus within our organisation. As we move forward with implementing the recommendations made by the Chief Ombudsman, we will centre our work around all forms of safety and wellbeing – of our staff, prisoners and the public.