Drawing on collective strengths to improve outcomes for youth in Corrections' youth units

Ashley Shearar

Principal Adviser – Youth Strategy, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Ashley has held various roles with the Department, and managed the Youth Policy team at the Ministry of Social Development. Before coming to New Zealand she spent several years providing community based mental health support to communities affected by armed conflict, and supporting youth justice reforms in South Africa. Ashley completed her PhD at Victoria University comparing youth justice transformation between New Zealand and South Africa.

E hara taku toa i te toa takitahi, he toa takitini.
My strength is not as an individual, but comes from many.


Corrections’ youth units are an example of the Department’s efforts to consider the unique needs of youth in custody and to protect them from the influences of older people in prison. Maintaining harmony among complex, developing young men with an unpredictable, highly dynamic population is not without its challenges.

This article outlines some key considerations when working with youth in custody and shares lessons from the youth units on promising strategies which accentuate strengths and promote mutual respect and support, which can also contribute towards our goal of reducing re-offending.

Understanding adolescent brain development is critical to success

Over the past two decades, neuroscientific research has generated a bounty of evidence demonstrating that, on average, the human brain continues to develop into the mid-20s (Sowell, Thompson, Holmes, Jernigan & Toga 1999; Reyna & Farley, 2006; Steinberg et al, 2018). This research has provided salient insight into the length of time it takes for the brain’s frontal lobe (responsible for self-regulation, understanding consequences, and decision-making), to fully mature. Equally significant is the evidence that, along with early childhood, adolescence is the period when the brain has the most neuroplasticity, and goes through major rewiring as it strengthens identity formation. While adolescents seek autonomy and independence to explore their place in the world, they still require caring adults to scaffold them with positive reinforcement and guidance to enable a safe transition to adulthood.

There are a number of factors which affect the healthy brain development of youth who enter the Corrections system. These factors include experiences of family violence, neglect and abuse resulting in being removed from parents, learning difficulties and stand-downs or expulsions from school. Recent Corrections statistics show that:

  • Over 70% of youth in Corrections have a care and protection or youth justice history[1]
  • Of a recent sample of 147 youth under 20 in custody, 68% have no recorded education qualifications[2]
  • 17 to 24 year old males in prison have the highest rates of diagnosis of current substance use disorder (55%)[3]
  • The majority of males in custody have sustained a head injury – one in five before the age of 15 years (Mitchell, Theadom & Du Preez, 2017).

In June 2016, the United States National Institute of Justice published an environmental scan of responses to youth aged 18 – 25 in their justice system. The study identified that staff knowledge of adolescent brain development across disciplines resulted in them becoming more responsive to the needs and circumstances of the youth they worked with. This change in staff behaviour was found to be one of the most significant approaches to reducing re-offending among this population (Hayek, 2016).

Corrections provides youth champion training to staff from across all frontline roles, both in custody and in the community. This training places emphasis on understanding adolescent brain development and provides information on techniques to better engage and work more effectively with youth.

About Corrections youth units

Currently, the adult jurisdiction in New Zealand commences from the age of 17 years.[4] On average, there are around 350 youth under the age of 20 years old in prison at any time. Around 90% of youth in prison under the age of 20 are male and half are subject to custodial remand – around 20% higher than the current average.

New Zealand’s obligations under the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) require Corrections to keep people under the age of 18 separate from adults. For this reason, the Department has two dedicated youth units located at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison and Christchurch Men’s Prison. Together the youth units can accommodate up to 70 young men at any time.

The small number of young women under the age of 18 in prison at any time makes it difficult to establish a separate unit for them. However, in order to uphold our UNCROC obligations, Corrections still keeps women under the age of 18 separate from older women in custody, while at the same time providing support and interventions in order to prevent their potential isolation.

Youth units prioritise the placement of young men under the age of 18 years, followed by a small number of 18 and 19 year olds assessed as vulnerable in the mainstream prison, and who do not present a risk to people under the age of 18 in the units.[5]

Youth units therefore include a mix of youth from across the country, remanded in custody as well as serving both long and short term prison sentences. This creates a challenging environment, with little ability for staff to predict movements of young people in and out of the units.

The right staff are important

Staff working in the units are identified for their natural abilities, qualities or experience in working effectively with youth. This includes the custodial staff, education tutors, case managers, psychologists, programme facilitators and newly appointed youth activities coordinators. As well as staff working in the youth units, staff from external agencies and forensic staff help to provide a holistic overview of the needs of the young men and how to respond. A key asset for the youth units is the team approach of the staff working there. Both youth units operate from the belief in the young people’s ability to improve their behaviour and future outcomes.

A staff priority is developing rapport and trust with the young men and helping them settle in the unit. As noted, given the likely scepticism and hypervigilance of youth entering prison, coupled with their potentially heightened fear and anxiety, this can take a lot of time, patience and understanding, particularly to prevent escalating aggressive behaviour. To assist, staff in the youth units received training to understand the speech and comprehension difficulties youth in our system are likely to face and strategies to better communicate with them. They have also received mental health training to help them better recognise, relate and respond to mental health needs. This training also provided staff with self-care strategies to be able to recognise and manage their own escalating stress to prevent any impact on their interactions with youth.

Regular multi-disciplinary team meetings provide an opportunity for staff to identify positive experiences with individuals, and consider approaches and interventions that can either help to overcome barriers or support further improvements. Staff aim to collectively take a strength-based approach throughout their interactions with youth, and will seek out every glimmer of hope to build on, including with youth who demonstrate the most challenges. As one staff member noted recently, sometimes this can mean taking one hour at a time, looking for every opportunity for praise and reinforcement, both directly to the young men as well as to their colleagues, to ensure that everyone can work consistently and contribute to progress.

Trialling an incentives scheme in the youth units

Accommodating a young population with an ever-changing mix of strengths, talents, needs and potential risks requires the youth units to establish a formula that enables everyone to feel safe and able to build on their potential.

In mid-2016 a more formal approach to supporting positive behavioural outcomes, the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (the scheme), was developed and piloted in the youth units. According to the evaluation report (Bevan, Morrison and Bowman, 2017) “The Youth Incentives Scheme is a formal scheme, based on international models, used to encourage pro-social behaviour amongst prisoners by incentivising good behaviour”. The intention was to develop an approach that would support individual progress and achievement, acknowledging the different needs and stages of each of the young men.

Four main objectives were identified for the scheme:

  • To improve and maintain the safety of the unit
  • To motivate young people to progress through their sentence plans, educational goals and life skills development
  • To encourage, improve and maintain relations within the unit
  • To improve and maintain the ethos and physical environment of the unit.

The scheme aimed to foster positive interaction between youth and staff. Case officers assigned to individual young men worked with them weekly to identify three goals they wanted to progress. Goals identified would focus on pro-social development tailored to each person’s unique circumstances rather than necessarily focusing on reducing anti-social behaviours (although for some young men this would be identified as a goal). For example, some goals may have helped instil good hygiene habits, whereas for others, goal-setting may have been around their attendance in a rehabilitation or education programme. Incentives for achieving goals included items that could be used in the cells, such as radios, DVDs with DVD players, magazines or art supplies (Bevan et al., 2017).

Both staff and the young men understood the purpose of the scheme and according to the evaluation findings: “…when the incentives were perceived as meaningful, and when they were at the right point in their sentence, the scheme helped the young men to build motivation, achieve goals and behave well” (Bevan et al., 2017). However, on the whole, the scheme was seen to add limited value to activities and approaches that were already working well in the unit. This was reiterated in the feedback which found that social reinforcement of improved behaviours was seen as more beneficial than the rewards provided by the token economy (such as providing DVDs).

Emphasising a values-based approach in the youth units

During the evaluation of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, staff and the young men described activities which helped to create a positive atmosphere for all, even though they were not explicitly operating in accordance with any specific models or frameworks. Examples staff gave that they believed were already working well included:

  • Small rewards, such as Milo, for noticeable efforts such as working hard or helping staff
  • Informal activities, generally organised by staff (e.g. cooking and gardening) the young men attend as a reward for good behaviour
  • Fitness activities such as 6am runs with the principal corrections officer in Christchurch and the CACTUS (Combined Adolescent Challenge Training Unit Support) fitness training done in Hawkes Bay which also brought additional benefits such as developing work routines
  • Long-term activity-based rewards for good behaviour, such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme
  • Whole of unit rewards: unit barbeques or sports games, earlier unlock, or later unlock for good behaviour. For example in Christchurch young men get “night rec” (an hour of additional time outside your cell from 7 – 8pm) if they attend all education activities.

(Bevan et al, 2017).

The multi-disciplinary team approach was also considered effective, as well as activities that brought youth together in a positive and fun way, such as barbecues, sporting activities and talent shows. For the most part these types of activities related to the way both staff and young people worked together to improve day to day operations in the youth units. They also supported the youth to develop positive rapport with staff and other young men, and both staff and the young men learned to communicate effectively with each other to create an environment of respect, cooperation and collaboration.

More recently the youth units have been more deliberate in identifying the values that underpin their functioning, and describing and agreeing on how these values would manifest in the unit. Initially, the Hawkes Bay youth unit drew on the knowledge and leadership of staff who had come from the Te Tirohanga unit[6]. These staff brought with them their inherent understanding of tikanga and te āo Māori, as well as their experience of working in an environment that drew on kaupapa Māori values. The values that guide the Te Tirohanga units were first identified by Dr Pita Sharples in the establishment of the Whare Oranga Ake units in 2011[7]. These values are wairua (spirituality), whānau (family), manaaki (care and respect), kaitiaki (guardianship) and rangatira (leadership).

Irrespective of whether staff or the young men identified as Māori, when they worked through the meanings of the values and how these values related to them individually and collectively, the values resonated with most of the young men and the staff. The youth units ran joint sessions with staff and the young men together, supported by the Department’s regional Māori area advisers, to learn more about the values and to discuss how these values would be evident and reinforced by everyone in the units.

The values are intended to create an inclusive environment emphasising strengths and ongoing contribution. While this approach is still developing, the youth units are creating environments that enable positive youth development (as best as possible within the constraints of prison), by identifying opportunities for all youth to discover and showcase their talents, and providing encouragement for positive behaviours. Youth unit staff also understand the importance of being good role models for the young men, (many of whom have had limited exposure to pro-social supports in the past) by participating with them in a range of activities, including sport, music, and games. This helps to build relationships of trust, strength and mutual respect.

Youth in the youth units also serve as tuakana teina[8], whereby individuals who demonstrate the spirit of the values support both newcomers and other young men to understand the ethos and expectations in the youth unit. This approach helps to develop leadership and responsibility for the young men, and heightens positive peer influence. For example, young people who have previously participated in rehabilitation programmes meet with new programme participants to share their experiences and help to prepare them for their rehabilitation journey.

So far, this values-based framework coupled with pro-social role modelling and a positive youth development approach, including tuakana teina, is proving to work well for youth in the units. The emphasis is on personal discovery and growth, by providing ongoing guidance with several opportunities to demonstrate pro-social behaviours and to feel proud. Rather than taking a linear approach to progression with limited experiences to draw on to demonstrate positive behaviours in order to progress, the approach acknowledges that the young men are still learning, are likely to stumble along the way, and that stumbles do not mean failure.

While both youth units agree that embedding a fully-functioning values-based approach is a work in progress, incorporating this approach into the units has had a positive impact on the relationships between staff and youth as well as between peers, and, when operating well, provides a calm and uplifting atmosphere in the units. The values-based approach also helps to facilitate the induction and settling of newcomers.

Involving youth in decision-making

While staff capability and consistency play a significant role in managing the day to day running of the youth units, the inclusion of youth in decision-making has been cornerstone to increasing youth participation in unit activities.

This includes decision-making around the types of activities and interventions that would benefit them most, as well as meaningful responses to reinforce positive behaviours. It also includes decisions around developing a values-based approach to the units.

The young men in the youth units are consulted to determine what types of activities would be most useful for them, such as life-skills and education activities. They also decide who will lead the kapa haka at events such as programme graduations, to farewell young men and staff leaving the unit, and when visitors come to the unit. They have also selected charities to contribute to, for example the Women’s Refuge which both youth units have grown vegetables and raised funds for. The young men have also had input into art pieces and the garden spaces within their environment, and developing programmes such as the current 2018 Young Enterprise Scheme “anti bullying campaign” underway at the Hawkes Bay youth unit. In some instances, the young men are consulted on what would be suitable consequences for disruptive behaviour, which has included extra cleaning tasks, for example.

Next steps: extending opportunities to work effectively with youth in mainstream

Given the majority of youth who are over 18 and under 20 years are placed in the mainstream, there is increasing recognition of the need to better respond to this population, acknowledging their stage of development and need for tailored understanding, support and guidance. Lessons from the youth units provide examples of practice which other sites can draw on to help improve youth behaviour while in custody in a way which supports positive future outcomes.

There are already several examples across the prison estate of staff who are taking a more age-appropriate approach to the youngest people on their sites. This can be the efforts taken by individual staff, such as custodial case officers or case managers, or where staff come together to take a multi-disciplinary approach to providing more focused attention and guidance similar to that provided in the youth units. This tends to be most effective with staff who have expressed a particular interest in working with youth and have attended the youth champion training.

Strong stewardship for working more effectively with youth from site leadership helps to give staff the confidence to draw on their toolkit and to take a more youth focused approach, and an ability to demonstrate the advantages to their colleagues over time.

As part of the Corrections youth strategy, we will continue to build on the lessons learned from the youth units, other sites, and other jurisdictions to provide the best support and guidance to improve outcomes for an emerging adult population in our custody. This includes ensuring that all prison sites have a core team of youth champion multi-disciplinary staff who work together to provide age-appropriate support and interventions for young men and women, including by involving young people in decision-making and peer support.

[1] Corrections’ Research and Analysis Team (2016).

[2] Snapshot extracted from Corrections’ Education Team in April 2018.

[3] Information for Corrections bid for Budget 2017.

[4] As of July 2019, the New Zealand youth justice jurisdiction will include young people up to the age of 18 years, although there will still be some provisions for youth under 18 years to be placed in Corrections facilities, outlined in the Oranga Tamariki Act of 1989.

[5] Placement is established through the Revised Test of Best Interest assessment developed by the Department’s Psychological Services. The assessment is undertaken by trained custodial officers within 72 hours of arrival in prison, or two weeks prior to turning 18 for youth already in youth units. The assessment can be reviewed if there are concerns about escalating risk following a youth unit placement.

[6] Te Tirohanga is a group-based, phased programme for täne (men) with a range of offending needs within a therapeutic community delivered in five units (whare) around the country.

[7] Whare Oranga Ake use a kaupapa Mäori environment to help prisoners train for employment, find work, find accommodation on release and form supportive networks with iwi, hapü and community organisations while strengthening their cultural identity.

[8] The teaching relationship between an older person and a younger person


Bevan, M., Morrison, B., & Bowman, J. (2017). Youth Incentives Scheme Evaluation. Department of Correction (unpublished)

Hayek, C. (2016). Environmental Scan of Developmentally Appropriate Criminal Justice Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults. United States National Institute of Justice

Mitchell, T., Theadom, A., & Du Preez, E. (2017) Prevalence of Traumatic Brain Injury in a Male Adult Prison Population and Its Association with the Offence Type; Neuroepidemiology;48:164-170. doi.org/10.1159/000479520.

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