Corrections should get rid of all 2,500 volunteers

NuiBlack power member, Ngapari Nui (right), has been working as a prison volunteer for the last five years trying to steer young gang members away from crime. By all accounts he’s been doing a great job.

But this week Mr Nui was given the boot after the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust made a complaint to Judith Collins claiming that gang members should not be allowed to volunteer in prison. Since then two other volunteers, who also used to be in gangs, have also been shut out.

This puts Collins at odds with her management team – because Corrections likes to use volunteers. On their website, the Department describes how important  the role is to them:

Volunteering within Corrections supports our goal of reducing re-offending, by assisting offenders to meet their rehabilitative needs and transition back into society (reintegration).”

Over 2,500 well-meaning Kiwis are currently authorised by Corrections to fill this role. Despite their good intentions, the reality is that these volunteers don’t make much difference.  About a quarter of ex-prisoners reoffend in the first 12 months of release and nearly 50% are back inside within four years.

Who you gonna call?

There’s a reason these volunteers are ineffective. It’s because reintegration is a job for professionals and those doing it should get paid. Look at it like this. What if police officers didn’t get paid? Suppose the police was a volunteer force – no skills or training required. Would you feel safe in your community? What would happen to the crime rate?

What if teachers didn’t get paid?  And only those who love working with kids could volunteer. What would happen to our kid’s education if we did that? What if doctors, nurses and social workers didn’t get paid?  What if prison officers didn’t get paid? Only volunteers with authoritarian tendencies required. How many would put themselves forward for that – especially if they were asked to volunteer at Paremoremo.  What if city councils relied exclusively on volunteers to collect the city’s rubbish? Man, what a mess that would make.

With the exception of rubbish collectors, the people who do these jobs are mostly professionals, with years of training and experience. No doubt there’s a bad apple here and there, but most of them are also dedicated – they believe in what they do and they make a valuable contribution to society.

At the heart of all this is the old fashioned principle that if what you do is worthwhile and makes a difference, then you should get paid for it; and the more specialist your skills are, the more you make.  This is how it works in a modern economy.

Rubbish bagPicking up the trash

So what does this say about the use of volunteers to reintegrate prisoners and reduce reoffending? It says that Corrections regards the resettlement of prisoners in the community as less important than rubbish collection – just chuck them out on the street and see if anyone volunteers to pick them up. It means that as a society, those coming out of prison are worth less to us than our garbage. And it means all the political posturing about reducing reoffending is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

These are human beings we’re talking about. If we treat them like rubbish, they go back to the dysfunctional environments they came from punctuated by poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and violence.

Carruthers.jpgJudge David Carruthers (left), current chairman of the IPCA and former chairman of the parole board, points out that in Canada, 60% of prisoners are released into halfway houses funded by the Canadian Correctional service; and that this has helped to cut reoffending rates dramatically. Canada now has over 250 halfway houses which provide counselling support and additional rehabilitation programs for ex-prisoners.

The staff in these houses are not volunteers; they’re paid professionals. Why? Because the Canadian Corrections service understands that this is not a job for volunteers, and those who do it make a valuable contribution to society, and should be paid accordingly.

In New Zealand, the Corrections Department provides funding for only two halfway houses in the whole country – Moana house in Dunedin, and Salisbury Trust in Christchurch. These two facilities provide beds for a grand total of 25 ex-prisoners at any one time – bearing in mind that about 20,000 people circulate through our prisons every year.

Prison cartoon.jpgThere are no halfway houses funded by Corrections in the North Island where the bulk of the prisoners are held; and there are no halfway houses for women anywhere in the country.

In addition to limited funding for half way houses, in 2013 the Government agreed to fund five agencies to provide Out of Gate reintegration services – to the tune of $10 million over two years. That’s $5 million a year – not much when you consider that crime costs the country at least $9 billion a year and the prison population is at an all-time high of 9,500.

Because these agencies are paid so little, they have no choice but to rely on volunteers. Perhaps it should be no surprise that New Zealand has one of the highest ratios of volunteers to prisoners of any country in the world. That says something about the compassion of the average New Zealander. But it doesn’t say much for the Corrections Department which treats those coming out of prison with less respect than the rubbish we put out on the street.

The reality is that even our rubbish is picked up and recycled by people who get paid – and I bet that costs a lot more $5 million a year.


11 thoughts on “Corrections should get rid of all 2,500 volunteers

  1. Ngapari Nui firing was a typical knee jerk reaction in response to bleatings from an uneducated pompous farmer and so long as idiots like Collins, Tolley, Adams, Bennett, et al inhabit the beehive nothing is likely to change. In modern economies businesses depend upon (and actively cultivate) repeat customers and Dept of Corrections is a big business dependent upon customers to survive. Reducing the prison muster is counter-productive to the McVicar kaupapa and whilst National remains in power McVicar dictates “Law and Order” policy.


  2. Some good points Roger. Their are some big holes in your argument that you yourself may not want to see being Anti National. Blaming current government for the present situation is not a solution either.


      1. I’m not against halfway houses but they have been around for decades and come and go with the different ideologies in power. What is obvious though is what is called rehab in our prisons is just tweaked programs that have failed for decades and then even if they are let out to halfway houses the rehab in those is hit and miss with a success rate less than placebo effect. We need to look at the current rehab as tweaking what never did work for 4 decades hasn’t work and won’t work even if we have halfway houses.


        1. Halfway houses don’t come and go. There are only two funded by Corrections – because the Department takes next to no responsibility for inmates once they leave the prison gate.


      2. Roger, I totally agree with you regarding Corrections responsibility to fund reintegration housing and other professional services such as counselling. However your assertion that the high rate of re-imprisonment proves that Volunteers are ineffective is faulty reasoning to say the least. As you will know, many inmates have huge trust issues. They don’t trust the system and many don’t trust professionals. The old adage applies; no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care’’. Volunteers bring values such as kindness, human caring and respect into an environment where these values are often in short supply. A positive relationship with a volunteer who genuinely cares can catalyse change and help a man or a woman then open up to other specialised inventions.

        Professionals don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, common sense and life experience, all things valued by men and women in prison. That is why pro-social volunteers who have previously experienced the darker side of life and have learned from their mistakes, can be such valuable role models and mentors.

        Prison inmates tend to be astute observers of human nature. Most can size up people very quickly. The know the authentic from the fake; those who genuinely care and have their best interest at heart. The banning of Ngapari Nui appears to be a counterproductive reaction which might deprive those most needing them of helpful, pro-social influences from the very kind of person that men in prison might listen to and be influenced by.


        1. You make a very good point. But it doesn’t alter mine – which is that by relying on volunteers, Corrections absolves itself for responsibility for what happens when inmates leave prison. Finding suitable accommodation is a major problem for ex-prisoners. If the Department paid for halfway houses, volunteers would find it much easier to support inmates in the community.


  3. A long time ago I used to work [unpaid] for probation volunteers in England. At various times I had staying with me 3 people just out of prison. None of these people committed another serious offence. A volunteer system can work up to a point even better are good professionals. There is a cost involved which is a good deal less than keeping a person in prison. Our over representation in matters relating to our prison population per head of population is no doubt caused by our reluctance to guide the prisoners after their sentence.

    Two other points are
    1) that some 70% of our prisoners have been in CYF “care” and
    2) the importance of rubbish collectors to our health and well being may be understated. In fact I would claim that rubbish collectors and sewage workers save more lives than all of the top doctors in this country put together. Maybe I would prefer a surgeon to operate on me but never underestimate the value of rubbish collectors in preventing disease, just remember the Black death. But that is another story.


    1. “1) that some 70% of our prisoners have been in CYF “care” and”

      Another prime example of a failed chance to rehab them early. The Current Psych Based Rehab just doesn’t work and never did. If it does work why are 70% of those in CYP’s Care ending up in prison?That certainly doesn’t yell success to me. The days when you could deliver a service that didn’t work and get paid for it without any kind of accountability are bygone days. My advice to anyone is find something that has some work ability with a success rate more than placebo effect. That would involve looking outside of the current monopolies as that’s all they can achieved, decades of failed attempts and tweaking has shown that.


  4. Thank you Kevin, it is not that 70% of those in CYF’s care end up in prison, it is rather that 70% of those in prison have been in CYF care. CYF care appears to be the single most important common factor in prisoners, more important than ethnicity or sociological status.


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