Focus groups in prison

Sophia Walter
Acting Senior Adviser, Service Development, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Sophia has worked for Corrections for the past six years, starting as a probation officer in Wellington and joining Quality and Performance in 2015. She has an honours degree in psychology from Massey University and has previously worked with young people in social work roles.

Focus groups and prisoner councils internationally

Across the New Zealand prison system there are some opportunities for those in prison to contribute to prison policy and regimes, however the concept is relatively new. Two examples are the Māori Focus Units and other Special Treatment Units across the prison estate. In these units the men are able to discuss unit policies and concerns. Historically, there has not been a way to contribute their ideas about national policies and there has been no national collation of common themes. Comparatively, many Australian, English and American prisons incorporate prisoner councils, and Canadian and Danish prisons have established councils across their entire prison estates as part of the legislative requirements around prisoner participation. Research into the effectiveness of prisoner councils identified several benefits to such systems, including:

  • improved staff-prisoner relationships
  • prisoners taking more collective and individual responsibility for their behaviour
  • planned prison initiatives going more smoothly (Schmidt, 2013).

Prisons are traditionally coercive by design in order to achieve discipline and security, leaving little opportunity to exercise personal choice (Solomon & Edgar, 2004). Once imprisoned, individuals no longer have to take responsibility for their daily activities (which are planned for them), let alone any responsibilities they might have had to their families, friends and communities, effectively taking away their “citizenship” (Solomon, 2004). By obtaining their feedback on a range of issues that affect them, we give them back a voice, their sense of citizenship and the sentiment that they are an active participant within the prison system. By doing so, we are encouraging their continuing contribution to society as an active citizen upon release.

Establishing focus groups in New Zealand

In light of this research, the Department of Corrections’ Quality and Performance Team is leading the establishment of focus groups across the prison estate, beginning with a pilot in the three women’s prisons: Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, Christchurch Women’s Prison and Arohata Prison, and in the youth units at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison and Christchurch Men’s Prison. The focus groups are made up of eight to 12 prisoners and are facilitated by prison staff. The topics for discussion can be proposed by staff and participants. Focus groups in prison were established with the aim of consulting the men and women in prison on a wide range of issues, ranging from feedback on site processes and policies to initiatives driven from a national level.

Pre-pilot focus groups

Prior to embarking on Focus Groups in Prisons, the Quality and Performance Team collaborated with the Corrections Education Programmes Team to run focus groups across the three women’s prisons. The purpose of the groups was to gather the women’s feedback to inform “learning expos” planned for the women’s estate, and also to test how the idea of focus groups would be received. The goal of the learning expos was to provide an event that empowers, inspires and motivates women to seek out and engage in learning opportunities that create meaningful futures for themselves and their whānau. Some of the ideas the women had for the expos included:

  • Information about education opportunities: psychology, tikanga Mäori, property development, infrastructure, small businesses, early childhood education, catering, accounting, hairdressing and beauty, fashion design, fisheries, business administration, hospitality
  • Career advice and planning
  • Information on how to access life skills training: budgeting skills, literacy and numeracy, cooking courses, basic computer skills, self-confidence courses, job interview and CV writing courses, sustainable living, parenting courses including how to rebuild relationships with children upon release
  • Inspirational speakers.

Below are some comments made by the women:

We want to gain skills and acquire knowledge, things we can apply on the outside.”

“It’s about understanding what we can do on the outside with the skills we have. [We want] a list of things we can do [even though we have] convictions.”

The feedback contributed to the learning expo held at Arohata Women’s Prison on 28 July 2017, and future expos that will be held at the other two women’s prisons. The women were enthusiastic about having the opportunity to provide feedback on a new initiative and welcomed further opportunities to participate in focus groups.

The pilot

The establishment of focus groups in prisons began in the youth units in Hawkes Bay Regional Prison and Christchurch Men’s Prison in April 2017. Talking Trouble Aotearoa NZ (an organisation of speech-language therapists who specialise in speech, language and communication needs of young people involved in youth justice) was engaged to deliver training to custodial staff, education tutors and case managers in each of the units. The training provided an overview of common speech, language and communication needs commonly experienced by young people in our care, and how to identify and respond to these needs, ensuring the youth can effectively participate in the focus groups. The training also covered common issues that staff may face in the day-to-day running of the unit and how to deal with these situations effectively.

Quality and Performance have delivered focus group training for staff in the three women’s prisons, covering group development, and strategies for managing group dynamics and challenging behaviours. As part of the pilot, staff are completing evaluations and providing feedback on the effectiveness of the current framework, which will inform implementation of focus groups at all prison sites.

Focus group sessions and feedback

The youth units and Arohata Women’s Prison have held a number of focus groups, with sessions including:

  • a general focus group discussing what is working well and what is not working well in a particular
    unit, including support needed upon release
  • education opportunities
  • how kaupapa Māori values can inform the Hawkes Bay Youth Unit operating framework
  • young fathers’ experiences of parent-child engagement
  • the operating of the prison telephone system to inform the Prisoner Communication Project.

Feedback from the groups included:

Support upon release

A list was compiled by participants in the youth unit in Hawkes Bay, detailing what they need upon release to support them to remain out of prison. This included: support from family and social workers, structure, sports, employment, goals, a healthy environment, encouragement and motivation, as well as opportunities for release to work and temporary release to family prior to release. During the focus group, staff noted that the majority of the youth lacked confidence that their families would provide the support they need upon release and that they may need to access a positive role model outside of their family. The feedback further validated what we already know about young people, and supported the work we’re doing in this space. The feedback was shared with custodial, case management and probation teams at a national level.

One comment was:

Some of us are growing into adults here. Some of us don’t have parents to get us to the adult world; we need that.”


The education focus group canvassed the youths’ experiences of school and how Corrections can support them to improve their education outcomes. The youths in the group said that most of them left school around age 14, preferred practical subjects, and the majority dropped out of a course after school. They said they would like to engage in education opportunities which will aid their transition from prison back in to the community, including life skills, trades and vocational training, driver licences, social skills, literacy and numeracy and recognised qualifications. The feedback is in line with the practical approach to skills acquisition in our youth units and our national emphasis on helping young people acquire literacy and numeracy skills, driver licences and life skills.

Young fathers in prison

The youth units were asked to hold focus groups with the young fathers in the unit to inform a project on parent-child engagement in prison. At the time, the Hawkes Bay youth unit housed five youths who were fathers. The staff decided to interview them one on one instead of as a group due to the personal nature of the topic. Of the four young men who participated, none had contact visits with their children, three in part due to their relationship with the child’s mother, and one due to the child’s location. Only one youth had phone contact.

Other feedback included that only the youth who had contact with his child had a good relationship with his own father, and that the young men who don’t have contact with their children appeared to be more emotional about their ex-partners than about their children. Unit staff believe the young men would benefit from a programme that teaches them how to overcome a relationship break-up and still build a positive relationship with their child. The feedback was provided to the project group as well as staff at national office working in relevant areas.

Prisoner Communication Project

The Prisoner Communication Project is a nationally led project that is considering how prisoners communicate with friends and family and what changes could be implemented to build a sustainable communication system for the future. Focus groups were held at Arohata Women’s Prison, and the youth unit in Christchurch, ensuring that user voice is considered in any decisions made. The focus groups confirmed the importance of communication systems to prisoners. The project team appreciated the participants’ input, which identified issues that had not been considered and influenced the recommendations put forward. In particular, direct quotes from the participants’ added weight to the recommendations put forward and helped to capture “hearts and minds.”

Comments included:

My daughter sings and reads to me. It’s our connection [phone calls] to the outside world, our peace of mind. It makes my day.”

“[Communicating with whānau] is a crucial part of healing and re-integration.”

We can receive emails (printed out by prison staff) – that has made a huge difference to our families. That was really good.

Next steps

Focus groups in prisons are proving a success with both facilitators and participants across the pilot sites. The youth units have won a Communication Access Award from the New Zealand Speech-language Therapists’ Association for the establishment of focus groups and consideration of the participants’ communication needs. The award recognises the efforts made by the units to adapt communication for some young people when designing and facilitating focus groups in the youth units.

Sites are being asked to address site based issues as they are raised, and the women’s strategy will address some of the feedback from the women’s prisons. The feedback is also contributing to individual projects on a national level. While we have focused on two areas thus far – the two youth units, and the three women’s prisons – we are continuing to expand across the prison estate, beginning with Whanganui Prison in August 2017.

The department, alongside other government departments, is changing direction to ensure the voices of the people we manage are recognised and continue to be utilised on an increasing level. We expect that as sites take responsibility for the focus groups they will continue to provide feedback on a national level, ensuring increased opportunity for continuous improvement across the estate.


Solomon, E., & Edgar, K. (2004). Having Their Say: The Work of Prisoner Councils. Prison Reform Trust

Solomon, E. (2004). Criminals or citizens? Prisoner councils and Rehabilitation. Criminal Justice Matters, 56:1, 24-25, DOI: 10.1080/09627250408552941

Schmidt, B.E. (2013). User Voice and the Prison Council Model: A Summary of Key Findings from an Ethnographic Exploration of Participatory Governance in Three English Prisons