Evaluation of the counsellors and social workers services

Jill Bowman
Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Author biography
Jill joined the Department of Corrections’ Research and Analysis Team in 2010. She manages a variety of research and evaluation projects and has a particular interest in the outcomes of released prisoners, issues relating to alcohol and drugs, and the needs of female offenders. As well as working for Corrections, she volunteers at Arohata Prison, teaching quilting to the women undertaking the drug treatment programme.


Counsellors and social workers started working in the three women’s prisons in November 2016. The three prisons are Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF), Arohata Prison (Arohata), and Christchurch Women’s Prison (CWP). As well as providing practical assistance to their clients while they are in prison, counsellors and social workers are expected to help them build resilience, enabling them to engage in rehabilitation programmes while in prison, and to reintegrate more effectively on their release.

Priority groups for social workers are mothers who have children in the community, mothers who have, or wish to have, babies with them in prison, pregnant women, women under the age of 20 years, and men or women who identify as transgender. The focus of counsellors is on women who have experienced trauma, either recently or historically, including those who are unable to engage in rehabilitative treatment as a result, and women who are generally struggling to cope in prison.

The services were evaluated in late 2017, nine months after their introduction, to understand how well they were operating and to assess progress towards achieving the expected benefits of the services. The evaluation comprised a qualitative evaluation of the two services conducted by Malatest International, a review of the files of women receiving the services, and analysis of administrative data.

The qualitative evaluation findings were based on interviews with three social workers and three counsellors at two of the women’s prisons, as well as with corrections officers and health staff. Five women who had received support from the social workers and eight women who had received counselling were also interviewed.

File information for the social workers service was sourced from Corrections’ offender management system (IOMS) for 10 randomly selected women at each of the three prisons who had seen a social worker. File information for the counselling service was derived from 17 anonymised summaries from Corrections medical records database. These files were also evenly spread from across the three prisons.

The administrative data was extracted from reporting spreadsheets maintained by the social workers and counsellors themselves.  In a small scale study such as this, findings should be interpreted as provisional only, especially given the early stage of implementation, and the relatively small number of cases examined.

Evaluation findings

Social workers

Two social workers at ARWCF, and one each at Arohata and CWP, commenced taking referrals on 24 November 2016. Between the commencement of the service and 24 October 2017, when the evaluation was completed, there had been 449 referrals to social workers across the three prisons. Although a few had been referred more than once, the majority were initial referrals. More than half (59%) of the women referred were Māori, which is consistent with the proportion of Māori in the total women’s prison population (58%). Women in the 25-29 year age group comprised just under a third of total referrals (30%), although they comprise 19% of the prison population. Just under half (49%) were prisoners on remand; of the sentenced women referred, 55% were serving their first sentence.

While most referrals (79%) resulted in the social worker engaging with the woman and having at least an initial one-on-one session, this did not always occur: some referrals were passed on immediately to other services (e.g. the Health team), while others did not proceed, probably for a variety of reasons (e.g. the woman may have been released before an appointment could be arranged).

The evaluation established that referrals to the social workers were mostly consistent with the intention of the service: for general issues relating to children, care and protection concerns, and pregnancy. Care and protection issues accounted for a significant proportion of cases: 30% of the 449 cases referred. Other issues relating to children comprised 26% of referrals, and pregnancy 17%.

The file reviews regularly produced evidence of social workers assisting mothers in practical ways to keep in touch with their children.  This might be through arranging phone calls and letters, or negotiating with Oranga Tamariki social workers in cases where they were already involved. Family court proceedings were another focus of activity: social workers arranged for women to participate in the hearings, liaised with lawyers, explained the meaning of court documents, and facilitated the signing and exchange of documents. When Oranga Tamariki was involved, women typically sought help on care arrangements for children; the social workers frequently noted having explained the role of Oranga Tamariki, clarified processes, reviewed with the women reasons for previous decisions, and made arrangements for future key meetings or hearings. Other support that social workers provided related to facilitating contact with a child where there had been no contact for (sometimes, several) years, contacting schools to check on the child’s progress, arranging counselling for a child, and facilitating prison visits from children.

With women in prison who were pregnant, social workers were found to be devoting their efforts primarily into preparing for the birth, such as by contacting midwives and making necessary arrangements. They also provided relevant advice and support throughout the pregnancy.  Social workers were occasionally concerned about the safety of a baby, and accordingly had notified Oranga Tamariki about the pregnancy.  In one case Oranga Tamariki advised of their intention to uplift the baby immediately after birth and place the child with a foster family; the social worker supported the mother through these processes.  In other cases, assistance was given on application for placement in the Mothers with Babies unit, or helping women already in one of these units with their parenting.  Arranging parenting support in the community post-release was also noted in a number of files.

Women approached the social workers for help with a range of other issues also. Lack of accommodation on release was common, especially for those who were pregnant or had children, or who had been in a recent relationship with an abusive partner. Social workers record having investigated housing options, often drawing on the knowledge and networks of other personnel, such as the Department’s Out of Gate service. Social workers also assisted with completing enrolment forms for a medical centre (often to ensure prescription meds could be obtained after release), applying for a benefit, and organising assessments for possible entry to rehabilitation services in the community. Women also sought help with a wide range of practical needs such as contacting lawyers, drafting letters, applying for a baby’s birth certificate, and obtaining banking and other financial information. The evaluation noted that most requests appeared to fit within the parameters of what the social worker service was intended for, although some requests appeared to be the kind of thing that other staff, such as corrections officers, could equally well assist with.

Transgender prisoners featured amongst the prisoners referred: their needs included being put in touch with support networks, and issues relating to double-bunking; one preferred to share with a non-trans woman, another wanted help with clothing, and another in relation to her children.

At the time of the evaluation 59 % of the referrals had been actioned and the file closed. Of these closed files, the women had had, on average, four sessions over five weeks. However, social workers tended to leave files open until women were released from prison or transferred given that the problems for which they sought help often required follow-up actions.

For women who transferred between prisons, the social workers appeared to be liaising well with each in terms of case handover. Support to transition from prison into the community was generally more challenging, as release could occur (for some women) unexpectedly due to Parole Board decisions, or release on bail.  Wherever possible, social workers sought to organise a range of supports in the community that could pick up where their own efforts had left off. However, funding was occasionally a challenge for some who required specialised types of assistance.


Two counsellors at ARWCF and one each at Arohata and CWP started work at the end of November 2016.  Between this start date and the end of October 2017, 562 referrals had been made to these counsellors. More than half (57%) of the 429 prisoners involved in these referrals (some were referred more than once) were Māori women. Women in the 25-29 year age group comprised just under a quarter (23%) of referrals and those in the 30-39 age group comprised a third (33%). Just over half (53%) of the referrals were for sentenced prisoners and, of these, 55% were serving their first sentence.

Only about half of the referrals made resulted in the counsellor engaging with the woman concerned. Some were deferred to a later date, some were referred on to other services, and some were judged not to be appropriate referrals.

Historical abuse (including sexual abuse) was the most common reason (39%) given for a referral across all prisons, confirming the known high prevalence of such issues in this population.  The review of anonymised files elaborated on the specific issues that women discussed with counsellors:  historical sexual abuse or other trauma accounted for a number of the referrals, and psychological, sexual and physical abuse/family violence were other common reasons for referral.

Current stress concerns accounted for the next most significant type of referral, including struggling to adapt to prison life. Mental health – especially anxiety – issues also featured.

Sometimes the reason for the referral was not specifically a counselling need, but the counsellors would nevertheless provide what was sought.  For example, one woman wanted help to “understand family violence”; the counsellor responded by providing what might best be described as psycho-education around this issue.  Sometimes an issue related to settling into prison also called for simple education about how things worked there.  All prisoners receive a unit induction interview within 72 hours of arrival, but the requests for more education about prison life raised some questions about whether there might be other more efficient ways of providing this kind of support: for example, group sessions for new arrivals could be facilitated by a corrections officer*, and counsellors might provide group sessions on issues such as healthy relationships**.

The qualitative evaluation noted that the counsellors appreciated having flexibility about how they worked with the women they were seeing, and were providing counselling in a range of ways that made best use of their professional backgrounds and skills. Interventions in use included cognitive-behavioural therapy, mindfulness training, narrative therapy, art therapy, and approaches using techniques involving letter writing and even a “dream diary”.

At the time of evaluation around half of the referred cases at ARWCF had been closed, with a higher proportion from Arohata and CWP. Like social workers, counsellors also tended to leave files open to avoid the need for preparation of new referrals when the need arose.  Of the closed referrals, however, about a fifth comprised one session, and a further third had two or three sessions. Another fifth (17%) had received more than 10 sessions; the majority of these at ARWCF (the maximum number of counselling sessions with any referred woman was 41). Counsellors advocated that the maximum number of sessions should remain flexible, given the difficult issues for which they were seeing many of the women.

Counselling usually ceased when women were judged as having achieved their goals. Other cases were closed when women decided they no longer wanted to continue, had been referred and commenced counselling with an ACC-funded counsellor, were transferred to another prison, or were released.

Counsellors described their work as “equipping women with the tools and coping strategies they would need” on release. They spoke in terms of gradually moving women towards independence, including by extending the time between sessions, or by terminating a course of counselling but letting the woman know she could re-engage if needed.

Progress towards outcomes across the two services

Overall, the social workers and counsellors services appeared to be operating successfully at all three women’s prisons. Referral processes were operating successfully, and women receiving the new services, in the main, appeared to be very positive about the quality of help received, and its benefits to them.

A few issues were identified by the evaluation for improvement. These included the need for better access to private spaces where sessions could be conducted, and a perceived need for better information sharing between the two teams (at time of the evaluation a significant number of women - 177 - had seen both a counsellor and a social worker). However, good collaboration was evident in other ways, such as the extent to which counsellors and social workers referred women to the other service if they identified a relevant need.

Another issue identified by both counsellors and social workers, perhaps a sign of the success of the service, was heavy caseloads.  This, combined with the complexity of the cases they were working with, necessitated the introduction of waiting lists, ranging from a couple of days for priority cases to up to nine weeks for non-priority cases.  This problem has been addressed to an extent through employment of an additional social worker and counsellor at both ARWCF and Arohata since the evaluation was conducted.

The services had resulted in positive impacts on the mental health of the women receiving the services as well as on the wider prison environment. The anxiety of women who had received help from social workers to resolve issues around their children’s circumstances was reported to have reduced significantly. In addition, the assistance provided by the social workers reduced the time demands on other staff, particularly case managers, in dealing with issues that the latter would previously have been called upon for. The role also provided a vital point of contact for Oranga Tamariki social workers, who not infrequently were still involved with women who were pregnant or had children. This contact point applied to other agencies and individuals with whom the women were engaged.

Positive outcomes reported for women who received counselling included increased self-esteem and improved ability to trust.  Behaviour changes were noted following the development of understanding about personal trauma and its influence on their actions.  Women reported feeling able to “let go” of things that had caused their trauma; some felt more able to connect and engage with others, including family/whānau. A common response also was increased ability to cope with and manage emotions.

Counselling also had a beneficial impact on the prison environment, with women better able to self-manage, and to maintain positive relationships with other prisoners and staff. Corrections officers also reported seeing benefits from the service – notwithstanding initial lack of understanding of counselling when the service was introduced. One staff member stated that a raised awareness of the impacts of trauma encouraged her to modify the way she responded to the women being managed.

Overall, the positive outcomes observed confirm the value of having introduced social workers and counsellors services into women’s prisons. Further evaluation of these services is scheduled to occur in the future once the services are well and truly bedded in to these prisons.

* Corrections’ new induction programme for women in prison, Kia Rite, is intended to provide information needed by new arrivals.

** Group programmes covering healthy relationships are being introduced into women’s prison.