Making a difference for young people in prison

Kathy Foster

Education Tutor, Youth Unit, Christchurch Men’s Prison, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Kathy Foster has been employed by the Department of Corrections since 2006 as an education tutor for the Youth Unit at Christchurch Men’s Prison. Kathy spent two years prior to this working for an education contractor in the main prison with adult prisoners. For the 10 years before entering the world of corrections Kathy was employed by a private education training establishment educating at-risk youth.

The Corrections gold ‘Make a Difference’ award

The gold ‘Make a Difference’ award is the highest level of recognition presented within the Department of Corrections. It is presented to employees or teams who have made a significant contribution to one of our four key priorities – community support, working prisons, modern infrastructure, and visible leadership.

On 8 October 2014 Kathy Foster was the Southern region recipient of the gold ‘Make a Difference’ award.

Kathy was nominated by Gary Smallridge, the Principal Corrections Officer at Christchurch Youth Unit for contributing to the mission and vision of the Youth Unit. In Gary’s nomination he wrote: “Kathy is more than a tutor to the youth offenders, regularly keeping in touch with them to ensure they are surviving the rigors of prison life, keeping in touch with their families, seeking education and/or work opportunities whilst also keeping them on the right track with their behaviour and compliance within the unit.”

Kathy’s Manager, Paula Friend, wrote: “The Christchurch Youth Unit was recently recognised as a ‘Centre of Excellence’…The reputation of the unit is unequalled, and in large part is a direct result of Kathy’s efforts. Kathy’s ‘make it happen’ approach is a model for all staff – she works to the direct needs of the prisoner, going over and above her role as set out in her job description. Kathy balances substantial classroom teaching time with organising many of the unit-based programmes and supporting colleagues at unit and Right Track meetings.”

Congratulations, Kathy, on your award and your continued efforts to support these young people to make positive change.

Young people in New Zealand’s custodial system

As a group, young people are nearly twice as likely to re-offend as their adult counterparts. Effectively reducing the risk of re-offending and re-imprisonment with this cohort is an important area of work. The work we do with young people is shaped by the Department’s Youth Strategy. The Youth Strategy’s vision is “the potential of young people is unlocked and realised. They leave us educated or employed, and with a strong sense of identity”. In New Zealand at any given time there are approximately 350 young people under the age of 20 years in the custodial system. While a very small percentage of the total population (approximately 4%), they are a high priority cohort for the Department of Corrections. In New Zealand we have two specialist units for young people, which offer places for up to 70 young men between them.

The aim of the Youth Units in the New Zealand corrections system is to house young, vulnerable, male prisoners in a safe and secure environment, in order to reduce the number of youth suicides and self-harm attempts while in custody. Alongside this sits the aim of reducing re-offending through various educational, vocational, psychological and recreational activities designed to build a young person’s knowledge and skill base.

My role at the Christchurch Youth Unit

The Christchurch Youth Unit has 40 beds for young people. I have worked in the Youth Unit at Christchurch Men’s Prison since 2006. The kaupapa (approach or philosophy) of the unit is ‘Kia toa ki te tuturutaka o te takata,’ meaning, ‘Be brave about your true identity for it will bring you dignity and prestige’. During my time with the unit, I have developed a wide range of proven training programmes, qualifications, workshops and educational and personal-development experiences for the young men. These activities all directly support the vision of the Youth Strategy and the kaupapa of the Youth Unit.

I am an avid supporter of life skills and believe the young men need to know how to look after themselves when they are released. Some of the courses offered to develop life-skills are cooking, budgeting, flatting/renting rights and responsibilities, understanding relationships, self-awareness, communication skills, hepatitis C workshops and fire safety in the home.

Some things we do that I believe ‘make a difference’

The everyday basics in our classes include numeracy, literacy, e-learning, NCEA and peer tutoring. We offer preparation for employment by educating young people on employment rights and responsibilities, career planning, presentation of self, interview skills and compiling a curriculum vitae.

In addition to this, we offer opportunities from adventure-based learning to Bible studies; from art to tikanga Maori; from personal fitness to problem-solving from a Christian perspective.

A significant part of the education role is enrolling young people with Te Kura Correspondence School. We have regular contact with the Te Kura relationship co-ordinator to ensure everything is running smoothly. A record sheet is compiled for each young person to record the unit standards they achieve through vocational trades and Te Kura. The young men become very motivated as they see the number of unit standards they have accomplished grow; and rightly so, they experience a great sense of achievement and pride in their learning.

An initiative which has proved successful is our partnership with the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT). CPIT offers five four-week introductory trade modules to ten of our young men at a time. Training is given five days a week for three hours plus five hours self directed. Over the four weeks this amounts to a total of 80 hours. The modules are drain laying, automotive, painting, and construction. All modules have a practical and theory component and are NZQA based. A certificate of completion is awarded to all who finish the course.

It is very rewarding to see the young people’s self esteem and confidence grow as they make progress, start to recognise their abilities and believe in themselves. Every day their personal developments such as positive attitudes toward learning, respect for themselves and others, and renewed optimism and hope, shine through. I believe that important personal developments such as these should always be considered legitimate outcomes of an educational programme, despite them not being easy to objectively measure.

Three case studies

*all young people’s names have been changed

No 1: Robert* (aged 18) spent 15 weeks in the Youth Unit in early 2013. Robert was unemployed and on a benefit, having never worked. During his time in the unit Robert obtained a comprehensive first aid certificate and OSH forklift licence. He also successfully passed the self awareness course; relationship course; technology course; fire safety in the home; flatting/renting rights and responsibilities; budgeting and AVAILLL (Audio Visual Achievement in Literacy Language & Learning). He attended a problem solving from a Christian perspective group once a week and was in the fitness class. He regularly attended numeracy and literacy classes.

In December 2014 I had the pleasure of a chance meeting with Robert while I was in town shopping. I was greeted by Robert and Josh*, who had been released from prison a week prior. Robert was extremely proud to tell me he had been working since his release, driving a forklift. He thanked me and said it was his forklift licence and comprehensive first-aid training that he achieved whilst in prison that enabled him to get this opportunity and get his life on track.

Robert did not know Josh had been in prison until he asked Josh how he knew me. He then asked Josh if he had his forklift licence and first-aid, assuring Josh he would get work with these qualifications and Robert then offered to help him seek work.

It was fantastic to see Robert holding his head high and getting on with his life in a positive manner.

No. 2: Ryan* presented in the Youth Unit in 2011 as a very highly-strung, hostile young man. He was disruptive in groups and always at the centre of any trouble-making. It took Ryan a good three months to settle down and be given more opportunities than the basic education classes. As Ryan settled he was given the opportunity to achieve his OSH forklift licence but did not succeed the first time. He was also enrolled on the automotive course run by New Zealand Career College and attended the tikanga Maori course. Ryan continued to exhibit anti-social behaviour on these courses. In January 2012 Ryan told me he really wanted to change his behaviour; he appeared to have matured immensely over the Christmas break. Ryan worked hard from then on, and successfully achieved his OSH forklift licence, comprehensive first-aid; AVAILLL course; relationships course; fire safety in the home; career services workshop; fitness classes; art; understanding addictions workshop and making changes workshop. I persuaded Ryan to do the farming courses, which he really enjoyed, and he achieved both a certificate in rural machinery and a certificate in land-based skills.

Ryan was released in April 2012 and moved to Wellington where he secured employment as a forklift driver. After several months he decided he wanted a change; he saw an advertisement for a farm hand in Taranaki. He phoned the farmer and was completely honest with him, explaining he had been in prison and that he had the qualifications but no experience; he assured the farmer he was an excellent worker. Ryan secured the position and really enjoyed his work. He phoned me last year to say he had just secured the position of assistant herd manager on another farm. Ryan told me he has not touched alcohol or drugs since his release from prison. He tells me he is so happy and just loves his life. He said, “Prison will never see me again”.

No. 3: Trevor* came to the Youth Unit in September 2013 and was released one year later. Trevor initially presented as an aggressive and unmotivated young man who was disrespectful and disruptive in groups. Once he realised the unit was a safe and stable environment we were able to build a positive tutor/student relationship. Trevor changed his attitude and proved to be a model student.

Prior to his incarceration Trevor had achieved his NCEA Level 1. During his time in the unit, Trevor worked consistently and diligently and particularly enjoyed working on legal studies through Te Kura, passing three of his unit standards with merit. Trevor successfully achieved the following through his education classes:


  • NCEA level 2
  • NCEA level 3
  • OSH forklift licence
  • Comprehensive first aid
  • Site safe certification (building construction passport)
  • Learner licence
  • Certificate in land based skills
  • CPIT: construction planter boxes; construction playhouse; automotive; painting and drain laying

In addition to the above Trevor attended and completed training programmes in self-awareness; fire safety in the home, hepatitis C and adventure-based learning. He peer – tutored young people in the unit with low literacy levels in the AVAILLL course. He attended a job club where we looked at career decision-making, interview skills, relationships, flatting/renting rights and responsibilities and data-gathering for his curriculum vitae which was then put together in the computer class. Trevor also completed the young ofenders programme and both the brief and intermediate alcohol and drug programmes.

Trevor was released on parole towards the end of last year. He was on home detention and completed a drug and alcohol course through probation. I spoke with Trevor a couple of months ago and he has been registered with a labour employment agency and attained full-time work. He has worked on fishing boats, farms, a furniture warehouse and building sites. He told me the supervisor at the agency said he would not have any problem getting work as he was very well set up with qualifications; with forklift, first-aid, site-safe, farming and construction named as key certificates.

Trevor was waiting for confirmation of acceptance into Aoraki Polytechnic’s Level 2 engineering course. He said if he was not accepted he would continue to work, save money and go to CPIT in 2016. He is very focused on gaining more qualifications and an apprenticeship in the engineering field.


It is the journeys and stories of young men like Robert, Ryan and Trevor which give me the inspiration for my work in the Youth Unit. How pleasing it is to see young men grow in their knowledge, mature in their attitudes and gain practical learning and qualifications that enable them to find meaningful work upon their release. I thank the staff, management and education workers in the Youth Unit at Christchurch Men’s Prison for their hard work in making this happen. And I thank them for the continued support and encouragement they offer me both personally and professionally, as we work together to teach, guide and restore the young men with whom we work.