In October 2012 new figures were released showing serious assaults on prison guards have tripled in the past five years. During the year to the end of June, 18 staff were seriously assaulted – up from just six in 2007. And 235 cases of physical violence – which includes prisoners spitting or throwing water – were recorded in the past year, a rise of 190% on two years ago.
The rise in prison violence has led the Auditor General to express concern that the number of serious assaults and unnatural deaths in custody were much higher than expected. According to the Auditor General, assaults by remand prisoners on other prisoners in particular were 85% higher than expected and those by prisoners on staff were 160% higher than expected – expectations based on levels of violence in previous years.
The Auditor General, Lyn Provost, is also concerned that the rate of unnatural deaths (suicides) among prisoners is too high. So she should be. Twelve prisoners committed suicide in 2011 – which means the rate of suicide in prison is now eleven times higher than in the community.
The coroner’s report into the suicide of Kerry Joll released last month provides revealing insights into the Department’s thinking on this issue. The coroner recommended that Corrections should improve its information systems so that the computer file of any prisoner known to be a suicide risk brings up a warning flag. The Department responded by saying: “Improving our current information systems is regarded as not worth the benefits it would bring because of cost, complexity and proportionately few incidents it would benefit.” Clearly, Corrections is not too worried about a few prisoners bumping themselves off – perhaps because each dead prisoner saves the taxpayer $90,000 a year.
International panel appointed
But it is worried about assaults on prison officers. In November 2012, Corrections Minister Anne Tolley announced that former police commissioner Howard Broad will head an international panel to advise the Government on ways to improve the safety of prison staff. In addition, 4000 frontline prison staff are to receive Tactical Exit Training, to help them deal with potentially violent situations. And, for the first time, staff in all prisons will have access to pepper spray and are being trained to use the spray as a tactical option.
Kim Workman of Rethinking Crime & Punishment congratulated Ms Tolley saying: “The establishment of an expert advisory panel to improve the safety of prisons could lead to a more balanced prison management regime”.
Workman is absolutely right that the management of New Zealand prisons is out of balance. There is an obsessive focus on risk management and enhanced security at the expense of education, rehabilitation and work opportunities for prisoners. Workman quotes prison expert Professor Andrew Coyle, who visited New Zealand last week. Coyle talked about the three main aspects of prison management – security, safety and prisoner activity. He says increasing prisoner activity – meaning rehabilitation and employment opportunities – makes prisons safer, while excessive focus on security measures threatens prison and staff safety. Coyle says: ”The three responsibilities are like three legs of a stool. If they are not in balance, then the stool will become unstable and may well fall over.”
Vote of no confidence
The appointment of an international panel does not sound like it will lead to greater ‘prisoner activity’. It sounds more like a vote of no confidence in chief executive Ray Smith. Prison assaults and suicides have escalated dramatically since Smith took over – because of woefully inadequate health care for prisoners with mental health problems and tighter security measures implemented by his predecessor Barry Mathews.
The appointment of a panel to advise on safety issues suggests that Government is worried that the rates of violence and unnatural death in prison are out of control – and that, just like his predecessor, Ray Smith is not up to the job of turning the problem around.