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.


Victoria university criminologists highly critical of Probation Service

Liam Martin.jpgLast week, I attended a lecture at Victoria University by Dr Liam Martin (right) titled ‘Rough Passages – Prisoner Re-entry and the Role of Probation’. We were told about the substantial difficulties that ex-prisoners face when they attempt to ‘resettle’ in the community: the most basic problem is finding somewhere to live.  Imagine trying to arrange accommodation in a flat or a boarding house while you’re still in prison. That’s practically impossible. Corrections could help – and has hired ‘reintegration officers’ for this purpose.  The lecturer told us about one particular prisoner whose reintegration officer didn’t even get around to talking to him until the day before he was due to be released. By then it was too late to arrange anything.

In Canada, 60% of prisoners are released into half-way houses funded by the Canadian Corrections Department. But not in New Zealand. Because Corrections can’t be bothered organising accommodation for those coming out of prison, they give each prisoner a cheque for $350 to help cover rent and food in the first week out.   For some strange reason, this cheque is referred to as Steps to Freedom.  It’s not enough for a bond on a flat, and certainly won’t last until they get on the benefit, so it’s often used as a first step to getting drunk or stoned.

The second basic need for most ex-prisoners is finding a job. Try that with a criminal record; it’s almost impossible. Even if an employer is willing to overlook the guy’s criminal history, if the offender has to report to Probation three or four times a week (during work hours), that’s certainly not going to help his chances of getting a job. The lecturer told us that…

“for ex-prisoners, re-entry into the community is a transition from a secure bed and three meals a day – into poverty”.

Under such circumstances, robbing a dairy or a supermarket for some food may look like a viable option. The ex-prisoner will probably end up back in prison with three square meals a day – problem solved.  In other words, Corrections sets them up to fail.

‘What Works’ doesn’t workRobertson3

The Department claims on its website that its unhelpful approach is based on the “What Works paradigm”.  The lecturer told us that the underlying assumption of this model is that those who end up in the justice system are all potentially dangerous and the probation officer’s role is solely to reduce their risk of re-offending.

Officers are taught to use a standardised risk assessment questionnaire to measure this risk. If the offender gets above a certain cut-off score on this assessment, then the officer is required to take certain actions such as reporting the risky prisoner to his manager and increasing the number of times he has to check in with probation.

Under the What Works paradigm, those on probation are also required to attend rehabilitation programmes – because Corrections believes these programmes work. Mostly they don’t – but attendance is compulsory and enforcement action is taken against offenders who don’t comply.

In other words, the intention of the What Works paradigm is to enable the Probation Service to impose control and compliance on ex-prisoners and other offenders in the community.  This approach does not encourage the probation officer to show any personal interest in the offender or inquire about their needs or their problems; and it doesn’t encourage the development of collaboration or joint problem solving between the offender and the officer.

In her book, From Outlaw to Citizen: Making the Transition from Prison in New ZealandVUW researcher Anne Opie, says offenders report that this dynamic does not engender trust or respect for probation officers.  Offenders are reluctant to tell their Probation Officer the truth about their personal circumstances or any problems they may be experiencing, as this can lead to additional reporting requirements and further sanctions.

According to Opie, offenders believe this is little more than a box ticking exercise. It enables the Corrections Department to say they followed the rules and did everything according to the book. This is exactly what Corrections said after Tony Robertson raped and killed Blessie Gotingco while being supervised by Probation. They may have followed the rules. The problem is, they’re following the wrong rules.  As Dr Elizabeth Stanley from VUW puts it:

“Corrections is led by attention to limited, increasingly meaningless, sets of data that focus on process and quantity rather than outcomes or the quality of (the prisoners’) experiences… The ticking of boxes trumps any strong probation service interest in work, education, finance or the re-building of relationships … (and officers are) driven by the need to ensure that their organisation could not be blamed when things go wrong.”

There’s another set of rules that criminologists say is more helpful – rules based on a paradigm called ‘desistance’ (meaning ‘to stop or discontinue’).  Instead of focussing on controlling ex-prisoners, the desistance model is more about encouraging them to do better.  Offenders are seen as human beings with strengths and potential that needs to be developed. This approach allows probation officers to befriend offenders, show a personal interest in their particular circumstances, and define tasks the offender needs to carry out in a collaborative process – rather than one dictated by an arbitrary, alienating set of rules.

In summary there are two broad approaches to the management of offenders on supervision in the community – the ‘What Works’ mantra and the more humane desistance approach. ‘What Works’ was used in the management of murderers like Graeme Burton, William Bell and Tony Robertson; it clearly doesn’t work. Its time Corrections found a new paradigm, preferably one that doesn’t just rely on ticking boxes.

What does Tony Robertson have in common with Graeme Burton, William Bell & the Beast of Blenheim?

BlessieTony Robertson was sentenced to eight years in prison for indecently assaulting a five year old girl in 2005. He was considered a high risk prisoner and the parole board declined to release him on four separate occasions.  He was eventually released in December 2013 at the end of his sentence. Although he was not on parole, he was subject to ‘release conditions’ which means he was on an electronic bracelet for six months.

After five months of relative freedom, he ran over Blessie Gotingco (left) in his BMW, raped her and then stabbed her to death. Former Ombudsman, Mel Smith (below left), was asked to conduct an enquiry to find out what went wrong. His report concluded:

“Robertson, and only Robertson, can be held responsible for what happened to Mrs Gotingco”.

Mel smithAt the same time, Smith made 27 recommendations identifying those areas where the management of high risk offenders such as Mr Robertson could be improved. That’s weird. Corrections did nothing wrong – but here’s 27 things they could have done better. That doesn’t add up does it?

A few of those 27 recommendations related to the pathetic attempts made by Corrections to rehabilitate Robertson. Apparently, he was involved in more than 50 incidents during his time in prison and was classified as a high-risk prisoner. But as Smith points out in his report, high-risk prisoners are not permitted to attend rehabilitation programmes. Robertson also denied he was a sex offender. Smith says Corrections refuses to place such offenders into treatment until they accept that they have accepted their guilt. He came to the conclusion that…

“Robertson… entered prison a high-risk offender and left a high-risk offender and received practically no help, albeit of his own choosing, throughout his incarceration.”

Of his own choosing? That’s weird. His sentence planner reported in 2010:Robertson2

“Robertson stated he is willing to participate (in psychological counselling), saying ‘I just want to get out of here. I think this will help me with my board hearing’.”

As for taking part in child sex offender treatment, he stated: “I’m willing to participate because of the board.”He went on: “I don’t even need to do it. I’m not like that [not a child sex offender].”

On drug and alcohol treatment, he is recorded as saying: “I don’t need it, but I’m willing to do it to stay out of jail. I’d climb Mt Everest to stay out.” And of participating in violence treatment, he said: “I would do it because I’ve got a bit of an anger problem. A programme would help because I’ve never had anything [any programmes] before, and nothing else helps.”

Despite this apparent willingness, Corrections did not let him see a psychologist until June 2012, more than 14 months later. They had seven sessions together. Mel Smith wrote:

“The psychologist reported that Robertson was enthusiastic about getting treatment and eager to participate in the sessions. He completed all the activities asked of him between sessions (and) found he had tried to implement suggested behavioural strategies in daily prison life.”

So Robertson wanted help and was ‘enthusiastic about getting treatment’. But after the seventh session, the psychologist recommended a break of three to four months so that Robertson could demonstrate he was able to practice these strategies before scheduling further sessions. Smith then wrote:

“The inquiry could find no record the psychologist or anyone else from Corrections’ psychological services followed up on whether he had succeeded or failed in putting these new skills into practice, or whether he wanted to participate in additional sessions with the same eagerness previously demonstrated. Robertson had no more sessions while in prison.”

So instead of concluding it was Corrections fault that Robertson received so little help, Smith got out a bucket of whitewash and claimed that…

“Corrections made reasonable efforts to … provide him with suitable rehabilitation.”

Based on the information in his own report, that statement is simply not true. Robertson was in prison for eight years and had a grand total of seven counselling sessions.  Seven sessions in eight years. That doesn’t add up either, does it?

Other high risk offenders

WilsonRobertson is not the only high-risk offender who has not been allowed to attend rehabilitation in prison. Stewart Murray Wilson (referred to by the media as the beast of Blenheim) was a prolific sex offender and was in prison for 17 years before he was released in 2015. He saw a psychologist only four times and Corrections also failed to put him into a sex offender’s programme because he denied his offending.

BurtonGraeme Burton (right), a known drug addict, was in prison for 13 years, but was never required to attend drug treatment, either in prison or on release. Six months after he was released in 2006, he killed Karl Kuchenbecker. The then chief executive of Corrections, Barry Matthews had the gall to declare “There’s no blood on my hands”.

BellWilliam Bell (left) is another drug addict and high-risk offender who never attended any rehabilitation. A few months after he was released in 2001, he murdered three people and left Susan Couch with permanent injuries. Corrections tried to avoid taking any responsibility for anything, but ten years later accepted that they had failed to monitor Bell properly in the community and paid Susan Couch $300,000.

Blessie’s husband, Antonio Gotingco, seems to be following in Susan Couch’s footsteps. He wants to sue Corrections for its poor management of Tony Robertson and has started a Givealittle page asking for donations. Maybe that will add up to something (currently $144,000). If nothing else, perhaps it will highlight the need for Corrections to take more responsibility and accept that high risk offenders like Tony Robertson, Graeme Burton, William Bell and Stewart Wilson need to attend rehabilitation in prison.

The prison population is out of control – this is why

LightfootIn April 2016, the prison population reached a record high of 9436 and justice sector forecasts are for it to reach 10,000 by 2017. Trying to explain this, Department of Corrections national commissioner, Jeremy Lightfoot (right) said:

“The current increase is due to more people being held in prison on remand than was forecast; legislative changes have also meant prisoners serve more of their sentence in prison; and there has been an increase in people serving longer sentences for more serious crimes.”

BouchierCriminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier (left) disagrees. He says the lack of mental health institutions is a major cause of the rise in prisoner numbers. He says:

“One of the main reasons the prison muster is so high is that our prisons are our proxy for our mental health institutions which we no longer have. “

He also blames the three-strikes law, which is starting to take effect.

“We have got quite a number of people who are on their second strike now and the problem with that third strike is that there is no parole, so what we are going to be looking at is not only an increased prison muster, but a lot more prisoners serving long-term sentences, so that will increase the muster.”

Bouchier also believes the growing number of Australians being deported to New Zealand is contributing to the problem.

“These are people who are coming back to a completely foreign land, they’ve got no family or support… there is only so much that the probation service can do with these people. They are strangers in a strange land.”

Bouchier correctly points out that the underlying, root cause of the problem is actually penal populism:

“The (prison) population is going to continue to grow, simply because politicians see votes in getting tough on crime and they can’t be any more creative when they are addressing the crime issue in New Zealand.  Our prison rates are an embarrassment to us.”

Flying BlindNew Zealand vs Finland

In Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime, the point was made that New Zealand could learn a thing or two from Finland about rates of imprisonment. In 1950, the Finns incarcerated 187 people in prison per 100,000 of population.  New Zealand’s rate that year was 56 inmates per 100,000, less than a third of the Finnish rate.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Finns became concerned that they were out of line with their more civilised Scandinavian neighbours, which had low rates of imprisonment. This led to some dramatic changes in penal policy, as a result of which the number of people in prison began to drop. By 2001, the rate was down to only 40 people per 100,000 – an extraordinary reduction of 78% in the prison population.

During the same 50 years, the New Zealand rate began to skyrocket. In 2001, instead of being three times less, our rate of imprisonment was three times higher than Finland’s – at 150 inmates per 100,000.  Since then, more and more ‘tough on crime’ policies have been implemented and in April 2016, our prison population reached an all-time high of 202 per 100,000.  We now lock up almost four times as many people as Finland per head of population.

How did Finland do it?

According to About Time, a Corrections Department report published in 2001, three key factors contributed to Finland’s success. The first was widespread political agreement that a reduction in the prison population was necessary. The second was an understanding both in government and the public service that policies had to be based on evidence and ‘expert understanding’. The third factor was that the public in Finland actually supported measures to reduce the prison population.

Pratt2Professor John Pratt (left), a criminologist at Victoria University, put it this way:

“Key people in that society – people who actually knew something about penal policy and the consequences of imprisonment: academics, judges and senior civil servants – felt that the high prison population was shameful”.

This wry observation refers to Finland’s use of academics and justice professionals to formulate penal policy – whereas in New Zealand, penal policy has mostly been driven by knee-jerk political responses to public opinion. And public opinion on law and order issues has largely been driven by Garth McVicar, a farmer who has no qualifications in law, sociology, psychology, criminology or anything else that is remotely relevant to issues of justice or sentencing.

Why should we care? Because prisons are expensive and the cost to the taxpayer for Police, Courts, and Corrections is now estimated at over $3.7 billion a year – and rising. And because it makes no sense to keep building new prisons and locking up more and more people when the crime rate is actually declining. Unfortunately, the only hope that a New Zealand Government might be persuaded to try a new approach to penal policy is the growing financial burden these tough on crime policies impose. As the wonderfully wise Bill English said in 2011:

“Prisons are a fiscal and moral failure… It’s the fastest rising cost in government in the last decade… and my view is we shouldn’t build any more of them.”

Corrections pays consultant to whitewash failure of rehabilitation programme

CareNZ former CEO, Kathryn Leafe

Earlier this month, Radio New Zealand reported that the Corrections Department was paying for alcohol and drug counsellors that don’t exist. The reason they don’t exist is because CareNZ, the alcohol and drug agency contracted by Corrections to provide these counsellors, has been unable to find sufficient qualified staff. Care NZ Chairman, Michael Bird, told RNZ that:

 “Prisons are tough places for people to work in and there was a lot of churn amongst his staff”. 

“I fully admit that there are problems within the staffing of our organisation.”

There are nine Drug Treatment Units (DTUs) in prisons up and down the country, eight of them run by CareNZ. Diane Robinson used to work as a counsellor in the DTU at Springhill prison. She told the NZ Herald that because of understaffing, she sometimes worked alone with 30 male inmates.

Diane robinson
Diane Robinson, former AOD counsellor at Springhill prison

Ms Robinson said that CareNZ was supposed to supply 4.5 full-time counsellors at Springhill but in the two years she was there, they were almost never fully staffed. After Ms Robinson left, two other counsellors at Springhill felt so unsafe they resigned. The CareNZ culture is so toxic that the chief executive, Kathryn Leafe (pictured above) and three regional managers were ‘let go’ shortly thereafter.

Altogether, CareNZ employs about 18 AOD counsellors in the DTUs and Corrections pays the agency around $150,000 for each one (although CareNZ only pays the counsellor about $50,000).  If they don’t fill these vacancies, CareNZ doesn’t have to pay the money back.

So where does the money go? It seems much of it is spent hiring expensive lawyers and making massive payouts after its employees take personal grievances against the agency because of the shabby way they have been treated.

julian king
Julian King

Because of these staffing problems, the DTUs are ineffective; the Department’s annual report for 2015 said they reduced reoffending by only 4.8%. To find out what the problem was Corrections contracted Julian King and Associates, an Auckland-based consultancy firm to evaluate how well the DTUs were working.  In February 2015, Julian King produced a 54 page report. It said:

“DTUs generally reflect most of the identified features of good practice, in full or with minor exceptions.” 

In regard to staffing, it said: All DTU’s meet the review criteria for qualified, competent and supervised provider staff. Provider staff have qualifications such as bachelor’s degrees and/or diplomas in counselling, addictions, psychology, social sciences, social services and/or social work. They are members, or registered practitioners, of the Addiction Practitioners Association Aotearoa and the New Zealand Association for Counsellors.”

The fact that CareNZ has consistently operated these programs with insufficient staff, or that there has been ‘a lot of churn’, was not mentioned in Julian King’s report.  That’s a serious omission, but what was mentioned raises other concerns: a diploma is not an adequate qualification for someone working with prisoners who have serious addictions; nor is a graduate qualification in social sciences of much help. Counsellors working with addicts in prison need a specific qualification – one in the assessment and treatment of alcohol and drug dependence – plus about five years of experience in the field.

I wrote to Corrections asking a number of questions about these issues:

If all DTU’s meet the review criteria for qualified, competent and supervised provider staff…

1) What were the review criteria for assessing whether or not provider staff were qualified, competent and supervised?

Corrections answer: The DTU review was not an audit activity so staff and participant files were not reviewed to assess compliance.

2) Did the review include questions about CareNZ staff shortages or staff turnover?

Corrections answer: The review did not include questions about CareNZ staff shortages or staff turnover.

3) What was the minimum level of qualification considered appropriate (for the purposes of the review) to be working as an alcohol and drug clinician in a DTU. Was a minimum level established?

Corrections answer: There were no minimum qualifications levels established.

 4) According to the review, how many and what percentage of CareNZ staff working in DTU’s have a graduate level qualification (specifically) in alcohol and drug studies/addictions?

Corrections answer: The information was not specifically recorded.

5) According to the review, how many and what percentage of CareNZ staff working in the DTU’s are registered as competent practitioners with DAPAANZ (the addiction counsellors’ professional body)?

Corrections answer: This information was not specifically recorded.

 6) According to the review, what is the minimum number of years of prior experience working as an alcohol and drug clinician considered appropriate by CareNZ prior to working in a DTU?

Corrections answer: This information was out of scope of the review.

7) According to the review, what is the average number of years’ experience (as alcohol and drug clinicians) of CareNZ staff working in the DTUs? 

Corrections answer: This information was out of scope of the review.

What this shows is that Julian King never asked any meaningful questions about staffing – mind you, Corrections probably didn’t want him to ask – and so his report was a total white wash. King appears to have been entirely unaware that CareNZ was taking money off Corrections for counsellors it had never employed; or that many of the counsellors CareNZ does employ do not have qualifications in addiction treatment and/or have little or no experience.  King’s report is so superficial, it failed to reveal that Corrections is paying CareNZ $5 million a year to provide a programme it is unable to deliver- at least not effectively.

What’s going on in the DTUs is damaging to all concerned. It’s totally demoralising to place inexperienced, underqualified counsellors into a potentially hostile environment which requires years of experience to deal with; it is also dangerous for the counsellors, especially females, to be in units on their own with 30 men. No wonder counsellors resign and CareNZ has so many personal grievance cases to deal with.

On the other side of the coin, it is equally unfair for the prisoners to be given second-rate addiction treatment in programs which are permanently short staffed. Ultimately, it is the taxpayer who is being ripped off by all of this.

Mind you, what’s going on in the DTUs is just the tip of the iceberg. See: 11 out of 12 rehabilitation programmes in prison not working – at a cost of $159 million a year.

No wonder reoffending continues unabated and the prison population is at an all-time high.


How the justice system perpetuates crime

Flying BlindFlying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.

By Roger Brooking.

Flying Blind was first published in hard cover in 2011. It was a strictly limited edition made available for free to journalists and members of parliament. It is now available to everyone online.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former Prime Minister and former head of the Law Commission provided an endorsement. He said:

“New Zealand has serious problems resulting from the abuse of alcohol and drugs. These problems end up in the criminal justice system. The problem is that the criminal justice system as it is configured at present fails to provide the treatment and rehabilitation that would ameliorate the impact of the abuse and prevent its re-occurrence. In consequence, these problems get worse and the level of offending goes up, not down.

 “The evidence about the problem is overwhelming. What is lacking is the will to do what is necessary to make things better. Roger Brooking makes the case for change and there can be no doubt that he is correct.”

Dr Ganesh Nana, Chief Economist, Business & Economic Research Ltd (BERL) says:

“The choice is simple: a fence at the top of the cliff, or an ambulance at the bottom? Roger Brooking favours the fence at the top. And he has compiled formidable evidence that this is not only common sense, but also makes economic sense. 

 “With the call for heightened accountability in today’s fiscally constrained environment, we hear many claims of the waste of taxpayers’ funds in numerous areas.  But, few of these claims are as well documented as in ‘Flying Blind’.  It provides a clear argument that spending more and more to cope with increasing incarceration rates is an obvious misuse of our taxes.

 “ A compulsory read for officials, policy advisors, politicians and taxpayers alike.”

Nicky Hagar, author of Hollow Men and Dirty Politics says:

 “For 10 years, Garth McVicar has argued that the answer to violence and crime in New Zealand was longer and more prison sentences. This so-called ‘sensible sentencing’ has been tried and has failed. If anything, it has made matters worse. We have more and more people in prison while violent crime continues unabated – 80% of it driven by alcohol and drugs. The country is badly in need of some new ideas.

‘Flying Blind’ contains the sort of new thinking that is needed. It is clear, logical and thoroughly compelling. It makes the case for practical and attainable change which, unlike the punitive approach, could actually work. This is a ‘must-read’ for anyone with even a passing interest in crime and justice issues.”

Now available online.

Rise in reoffence rates ‘puzzling’ – especially to Judith Collins


According to this New Zealand Herald story, Rise in reoffence rates ‘puzzling’, the Corrections Department has told Judith Collins it is struggling to understand why reoffending continues to rise in New Zealand.

The background is that in 2011 the Government set Corrections a target – to reduce reoffending by 25% by 2017. In 2014, the Department claimed it had achieved a 12% reduction and was halfway to its target. Its progress has now fallen to 8%. The Herald says:

Corrections officials said the reversal of progress towards the target was “puzzling” because rehabilitation programmes had been producing “excellent” results… “

This is simply not true. In fact it is a blatant lie, contradicted by a statement in Appendix Two of the Department’s 2015 annual report (p 134) where it admits:

“The rates of some programmes reported are small and below the level of statistical significance…”

The reality is that eleven of the twelve rehabilitation programmes run by Corrections are producing small, statistically insignificant, results.

Corrections officials in denial

One of the basic tenets of rehabilitation involves learning to take responsibility for one’s mistakes; this requires some degree of insight and personal honesty. It is ironic that Ray Smith and his management team expect criminals to front up and take responsibility for their behaviour when he and his team are not capable of it. They are lying to the Minister and to the public.

Not surprisingly, Judith Collins has swallowed what Ray Smith and his officials are telling her hook, line and sinker. Collins said there were a number of reasons why progress had slowed…

“In particular, Corrections was now dealing with a more challenging group of offenders. This was a result of police increasingly diverting less serious cases out of the justice system. Corrections had been left with fewer first-time and low-risk criminals, and a larger proportion of people who were more likely to reoffend.”

This is also not true. The Department has always focused its rehabilitation programmes on high-risk offenders who are more likely to offend. It is only in the last few years that first-time offenders and low-risk criminals have even become eligible to attend these programmes – allowing Collins to claim that the number of offenders engaged in rehabilitation programmes is now at a three-year high. So is the prison population which, in November last year, reached an all-time high of 9171 inmates.

The fact that these rehabilitation programmes are not working should come as no surprise. Virtually the same story hit the headlines in 2006  when Corrections revealed that the Straight Thinking programme actually increased the likelihood of reoffending instead of reducing it. Simon Power was the Opposition spokesman for Corrections at the time; for months on end, he kept calling for an inquiry into the way Corrections was being run.

As a result of all the publicity, Corrections scrapped most of its programmes and designed brand new ones. One of those is called the Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme or MIRP.  I predicted this would make no difference in a blog in March 2012 – see The MIRP doesn’t work.  Four years later, the Department’s Annual Report shows that none of these new programmes are working.

The two broken legs analogy

one broken.jpgThe reason is obvious. Those who end up in prison tend to come from backgrounds of deprivation and abuse, and suffer from mental health problems and addictions. A useful analogy is that are emotionally and socially crippled – the psychological equivalent of having two broken legs. Rehabilitation in prison is akin to placing a plaster cast on one leg. The other leg only gets a plaster cast when the prisoner is released – in the process of reintegration.

Unfortunately, the Corrections Department doesn’t have a reintegration service. It spends $160 million a year on rehabilitation programmes but only $10 million on reintegration services – which are farmed out to non-governmental organisations. The reintegration of prisoners is generally left in the hands of volunteers.

The reality is that placing a plaster cast on one broken leg when both of them are broken is not going to help. The prisoner still can’t stand up, let alone walk on the straight and narrow path that society expects. Given the lack of resources put into reintegration, it is no wonder that the Department’s rehabilitation programmes don’t work and prisoners continue to reoffend. What is really strange is that Ray Smith and Judith Collins find this puzzling – when, in fact, it’s totally predictable.

11 out of 12 rehabilitation programmes in prison not working – at a cost of $159 million a year

PrisonEleven of the twelve prison rehabilitation programmes currently offered by Corrections have almost no impact on reoffending rates according to the Department’s own figures.  As a result, the Department has little hope of achieving its stated goal to reduce reoffending by 25% by the year 2017.

Eighty per cent of prisoners in New Zealand commit their offences under the influence of alcohol and drugs. In response, successive governments have slowly increased the availability of addiction treatment in prison by setting up drug treatment units (DTUs). In 2009, there were six  such units.

Evaluation process

That year, the Department evaluated the effectiveness of the DTU programme and claimed they reduced an inmate’s risk of reoffending by about 13%. At the time, that made drug treatment the most effective rehabilitation programme in the entire prison system. There are now nine DTUs but since then, their effectiveness has declined dramatically. The Department’s Annual Report for 2015, shows they now reduce reoffending by only 5%.

Even that figure is optimistic – for a number of reasons. First the 5% reduction only applies to the first 12 months after the prisoner is released.  The Department is too embarrassed to publish figures which would no doubt show that two years after release, there is no reduction at all, at least not one that is statistically significant.

Statistical significance means the outcome is caused by attendance at the rehabilitation programme rather than being the result of random variation. However, reductions of 5% or less are unlikely to be significant – and hidden in the Appendix at the end of the Annual report, the Department acknowledges:

“The rates of some rehabilitation programmes reported are small and below the level of statistical significance.”

In fact the rates for 11 of the Department’s 12 prison programmes are small – averaging between 4 and 6%. In 2015, only one programme (the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation programme for violent offenders) made any significant difference – reducing reoffending by 17% (see chart below). That appears to be a statistically significant result.

Prisoner interventions Reimprisonment

(12 month follow)


(12 month follow)

Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation programme -9.2% -17.1%
Special Treatment Unit – Child Sex Offender prog -2.2 % -4.1%
Medium Intensity Rehabilitation programme -5.2% -4.2%
Young Offenders programme -10.6% -6.7%
Drug Treatment Unit programme (3 months) -5.3% -5.0%
Drug Treatment Unit programme (6 months) -5.4% -4.8%
Short Motivational programme -2.6% -5.7%
Trade & technical training -5.2 % -5.0%
Employment-related training -4.4% -4.9%
Short gains -0.7% -3.8%
Release to Work -4.4% -4.2%
Out of Gate -6.2% -5.2%

Improper matching

These poor results are partly the result of dodgy methodology used by Corrections. In order to measure whether a particular programme made any difference, prisoners who attended that programme need to be compared with a control group that didn’t. As the Department notes:

“Outcomes are measured by… comparing the rates of reconviction and reimprisonment for offenders who completed a rehabilitative intervention with the rates of a matched group who did not complete that intervention.”

‘Matching’ means the group of offenders who completed a particular intervention had the same, or very similar, characteristics to a group of inmates who did not.  People in the two groups need to be roughly the same age, the same sex, have the same length of sentence, the same risk of reoffending, the same support on release and so on. Otherwise they are not ‘matched’ and any apparent improvement by prisoners in the group undergoing rehabilitation is random rather than statistically significant.

When it comes to matching prisoners who receive drug treatment, prisoners in the group that don’t receive treatment (the control group) need to have equally serious addictions as those who do receive treatment (the intervention group).

Of course it would be pretty stupid, not to mention unethical, for Corrections to refuse treatment to a group of offenders with severe addictions just so they could use them as a control group. So what the Department does is compare a group of prisoners with addictions with a group of offenders that don’t have addictions, but have a similar risk of reoffending (according to a mathematical formula called the RoC*RoI). But if addicts are ‘matched’ with offenders who are not addicts, the two groups are not matched at all. In fact they could hardly be more different.

This means the Department’s claim that drug treatment in prison reduces reoffending by 5% in comparison with a group of offenders who did not attend treatment is fabricated nonsense .

Reintegration strategy missing

But that’s still only half the story.  In 2011, in Flying Blind, I made the case that more rehabilitation programmes were needed in prison. But I also said that Corrections does not have a reintegration strategy; and that providing rehabilitation in prison is a waste of taxpayer’s money if inmates have no accommodation or are not supported when they get out.

This is especially true of offenders with addictions. If they attend treatment in prison but are then released into the same impoverished, binge drinking, drug taking environment that helped create or cause the problem in the first place, guess what happens. They relapse – and then they reoffend.

In 2015, Corrections spent $169 million on rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, but only about $10 million of this went into reintegration.  That means $159 million was spent on rehabilitation. This is almost a total waste of taxpayer’s money if the Department does not have a realistic, financially supported reintegration strategy. It didn’t have one in 2011. Five years later, it still doesn’t have one.

It was also 2011 when the Government introduced the goal of reducing reoffending by 25% – which was supposed to reduce the total number of people in prison by about 600. But in June 2016, Police Minister Judith Collins was forced to admit that, after five years, it had been reduced by only 6.7%, and the prison population was at an all-time high of 9,400 inmates. Clearly, the Department’s rehabilitation programmes in prison are not working.

Prison is where society sends its mistakes

“Prison is where societPrisonery sends its mistakes. Everyone inside is there because society has failed them.”

This is the key  statement by Paul Little in a column in the New Zealand Herald today. Little was commenting on the recent reports of gang violence in Mt Eden prison; he goes on to describe the tragic backgrounds of so many of the people we send to prison in this country. For instance…

“The case of the 13-year-old boy who endured the most squalid of upbringings before stabbing dairy owner Arun Kumar is extreme but not unique.

“He is just one of hundreds of people who grow up knowing nothing but violence and cruelty where there should be love and nurturing. Plenty more such children live on our streets, forging lives of desperation, their ultimate incarceration only a matter of time.

“Another considerable proportion of the prison population is made up of people who are there because we no longer have hospitals to cater for the mentally ill. Those who can’t find a place in the community are locked up where they won’t be a bother – to us, at least.

“That number also includes those who committed crimes under the influence of drugs, including alcohol. Drug addiction is a mental illness that should be treated as such….”

Little comes to the conclusion that…

“A prison is not a pound for humans, where we abandon animals we can’t control any more. We are all responsible for them being there as long as we support the system that puts them there.”

It’s encouraging to see prisoners described in the media as human beings instead of losers or ‘psychos’ (Patrick Gower, TV3 News, 10 November.) Its even more encouraging to see responsibility for their failure placed where it lies – on society, on you and me.

Don’t get sick in the Otago prison – cause no one gives a shit

Being sent to prison in Otago is hazardous to your health. If you get sick, you may well die because you won’t get much help from the prison nurses or doctors.

In 2010, Richard Barriball committed suicide in the Otago prison after he was unable to access the painkilling medication he had been receiving in the community for an injury to his arm. The coroner, David Crerar, criticised Corrections for providing Mr Barriball with ‘sub optimal treatment’.

In 2011, Jai Davis died when prison nurses refused to call a doctor even though Mr Davis was admitted to the prison with internally concealed drugs (codeine and benzodiazepines).  Davis was responsible for swallowing the drugs, but David Crerar was critical that half a dozen nurses on duty that weekend ignored his deteriorating condition and none of them called the doctor.

CuttanceThe same coroner has just revealed that in 2012 Boyd Cuttance spent 48 days in Otago prison. He developed an invasive fungal infection in the brain and sought help for severe headaches 30 times during those 48 days. He was only transferred to hospital after his mother who happens to be a nurse went to see him, discovered he was ‘extremely unwell’ and demanded he be sent to hospital. He died two months later.

The coroner, Mr David Crerar, cleared Dunedin Hospital staff of any wrongdoing but found prison management, doctors and nurses were totally wrong in thinking the actions they had taken constituted ”appropriate health care”.  All they did was take a blood test and give him some panadol. Mr Crerar said Mr Cuttance’s symptoms ought to have indicated to an experienced nurse or GP that something was seriously wrong with him.

Today, the Otago daily Times reports that yet another prisoner has committed suicide in the Otago prison. It will be interesting to see what involvement he had with the prison health service before he decided to take his own life. Given the speed at which the coroner works, it’ll be another three years before we know the answer to that.

But the real question is how many more people have to die before David Crerar gets sick of molly-coddling Corrections and demands an official inquiry into the Otago prison health service. If he doesn’t, the Health & Disability Commissioner or the Ombudsman certainly should. But that’s not going to happen is it. Why? Because they’re prisoners, not human beings, and no one gives a shit. Except their families.

If you don’t call the doctor when someone is dying of a drug overdose, is that murder, manslaughter or ‘failing to provide the necessaries of life’? According to police, it’s not even a crime.

I’m sick of writing about jai Davis and how he died. I wrote to the Health and Disability Commissioner about the appalling medical treatment he received in Otago prison.  I wrote to the IPCA about the woeful police investigation.  I wrote to the IPCA a second time arguing that the police had a double standard when the victim of poor treatment was a prisoner. I wrote a third time alleging they had misinterpreted the so-called evidential test for prosecution.

David CrerarI’ve written to the media and I’ve done numerous blogs about Jai Davis. In one of them I argued there were at least 20 different staff members at the Otago prison who could have been prosecuted.  The coroner, David Crerar (left), also criticised the Corrections Department and labeled the police investigation into Davis’ death in 2011 as flawed.

Personally I didn’t think any of these people would be charged with murder or manslaughter. But I thought, at the very least, one or more of them would be charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life. Afterall, if you sit around and watch someone die when you’ve been told that person is suspected of ‘internally concealing’ drugs;  if you do nothing when it becomes totally obvious this person is sick and actually under the influence of drugs, all of which is documented in the coroners findings; if you don’t call the doctor or the ambulance and then the person dies, surely that’s a crime of some sort.

Not according to the police. When they finished their investigation, which took four years, the police decided no crime had been committed. Even after the coroner went through all the evidence in a lengthy inquest, and criticised prison managers, officers and nurses, the police stuck to their guns. No one would be prosecuted for anything.

As far as I was concerned, there wasn’t much more I could do. I’d written to everyone I could think of but as far as I could see, justice had not been done. I was about to give up.

The Police emails

But unbeknown to me, an intrepid TV3 journalist, Thomas Mead, had written to the police asking for copies of all emails between Detective Inspector Colin Blackie, who was in charge of the investigation, and his boss, Stephen McGregor.  It took the police six months to respond. But when they did, those emails were a revelation.

It turns out that after conducting a wide-ranging investigation and interviewing over 60 current and former Corrections employees, Colin Blackie (below) ran out of steam. He was supposed to write a comprehensive report on the case to help the police lawyer decide what charges should be laid. Instead, he went on leave and delegated the task to another police officer – who seems to have been totally incompetent.

BlackieSo incompetent that in one of the emails, Stephen McGregor said he was ‘gobsmacked’ by the inadequacies of the report which he described as ‘substandard’ and ‘significantly short of all the necessary documentation.’  In another email he said:

“The report is lacking on a variety of fronts and is structured as a bullet point repeat of what witnesses have said with no clear link back to the key issues or in any form of clear chronology… There is no reference to the legal issues that are on the table, (or) a focus of those issues back to the evidence established from the investigation.”

“The report should follow the chronology, from the first Intel around the intercepted phone conversation through to Davis’s death, with reference to the various Corrections and nursing staff along the way as to what they said and did (or didn’t do) and what the evidence supports… Currently there is no clear path in the reporting so this would need to be rectified.”

Anna TuttonStephen McGregor told Inspector Blackie he needed to ‘redo’ the entire report. But Blackie remained on leave and never got around to it. Making matters worse, the report was supposed to be reviewed by an experienced police lawyer, Anna Tutton, (left) who was familiar with the case. But she went on leave as well and delegated the job to a contracted lawyer who was entirely unfamiliar with it. Not surprisingly, the new lawyer struggled to understand the nuances of the case. Stephen McGregor wrote:

“The legal advisor beavered away trying to work through it and from time to time had to call on (name redacted) to provide further documentation or follow-up on an issue. As the weeks have gone by, more problems arose to the point where I got a call from (name redacted) frustrated at the lack of appropriate support from (name redacted).”

Davis was already dead

Apparently this contract lawyer was unable to figure out from the report who did or didn’t do what; the emails indicate the only charge she even considered was the possibility of manslaughter against one prison officer, Fred Matenga. He was on night duty the day Davis died and started his shift at 11.00pm. But Davis’ last bodily movement on the videotape recording was an hour earlier, at 10.01 pm.  In other words, by the time Fred Matenga came on duty, Davis was already dead so there is no way he could be charged with anything. The police explanation for this was that the evidential test (for manslaughter) had not been met. In fact there is no evidential test, but that’s another story.

Failing to provide the necessaries of life’ is a less serious charge than manslaughter with a lower ‘evidential test’.  How come the police lawyer didn’t consider charging any of the nurses or prison managers with that?  The answer, it seems, is that the police report was so substandard and so much information was missing that the lawyer couldn’t figure out what had happened. She failed to realise that the nurses and managers who refused to call the doctor for two whole days were committing a crime. Instead, she thought that was part of a ‘systemic issue’ within the prison for which no one was responsible.

So was a crime committed? Not according to the police. We’ll see what the IPCA has to say about that. Damn! I guess I’ll have to write another letter.

How hard can it be to kill yourself? Just try that in prison.

Suicide montageMost people have thought about suicide, perhaps fleetingly, at some point in the lives.  Quite a few actually try. But killing yourself is not easy – even when you’re depressed and desperate.  Research suggests that between 10 and 20 people make an attempt for every one that succeeds.

A ‘successful’ suicide takes a lot of thought. You need a well thought out plan and the means to actually do it, such as access to a gun or a cliff to jump off. If you’re serious, you also need to choose a place carefully, one where no one will try and stop you.

Private vs public suicide

Private suicide spotVery little research has been done on where suicides usually take place.  One British study found that most people commit suicide in private where no one is likely to intervene.  It found that only about 30% of suicides occurred in public places, but nearly half of those occurred in isolated rural locations where intervention was also unlikely.  This suggests about 85% of suicides occur in ‘private’.

However, this particular study also classified suicides in prison as ‘private’.  They’re not.  Prisoners have almost no privacy, especially those who have to share a cell. There are cameras monitoring common areas and officers are supposed to check on prisoners in their cells at regular intervals.

Common means to kill yourself

Considerably more research has been conducted on the means people use to kill themselves.  The most common methods include  shooting yourself (especially in the US),  drug overdose, drinking poison, jumping from a height,  drowning, hanging,  throwing yourself in front of a moving object, carbon monoxide poisoning (car exhaust) and suffocation with a plastic bag.  Some of these are done in public places, but the majority occur in private.

hangingMost of these means are not available to prisoners which leaves hanging as the only viable option. But even that can be difficult – modern prisons are designed to ensure there are no obvious ligature or hanging points.  It’s also hard for prisoners to find something to make a noose. In New Zealand prisons, inmates who are known to be depressed are placed in the At Risk cells with no clothes, sheets or blankets.  All they get is a canvas tunic which is almost impossible to rip up.  And there is a camera in the cell 24/7.

Despite such difficulties, Antonie Dixon hung himself by covering up the camera with wet toilet paper for five hours while he slowly ripped up the canvas tunic – and no one intervened.  Another inmate with an injured arm hung himself with his sling. The reality is that 91% of prisoners who commit suicide in New Zealand do so by hanging.

Prison suicide rate

According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand’s suicide rate among the general population is 10.6 per 100,000 people.  The suicide rate in prison varies from year to year but on average is five to ten times higher than the rate in the community.  In 2011, 11 prisoners committed suicide giving a rate of 129 per 100,000. This means that in 2011, 12 times as many prisoners killed themselves (per head of population) than  depressed individuals in the community – despite the fact that inmates who commit suicide are doing it in an environment where there is very little privacy and hanging is virtually the only means available.

Despite these difficulties, in the last five years about 30 prisoners have managed to commit suicide in New Zealand.  But there’s more to this suffering than meets the eye.  After Liberty Charles Baker killed himself in Mt Eden prison last week, Corrections Department Northern Regional Commissioner, Jeanette Burns, said:

jeanette burns“Our staff have saved the lives of approximately 100 prisoners over the last five years. These prisoners were involved in self-harm incidents where the individual would have been unlikely to survive without staff intervention.”

This level of intervention shows that prison is a very ‘public’ place as far as suicide is concerned.  If Corrections officers hadn’t intervened, the suicide rate would have averaged 26 a year – that’s 305 dead prisoners per 100,000 – 28 times the rate in the community. This doesn’t show how compassionate prison officers are; what it shows is how desperate people become when they end up in prison. The situation is so bad that 20% of inmates are actively thinking about suicide at any one time.

Corrections Department spin

Spokesmen (or women) for the Corrections Department absolve the Department of any responsibility and generally blame the prisoners when one of them commits suicide.  By way of explanation for Mr Baker’s death, Jeanette Burns said:

“Inmates are often suffering from extremely poor mental health when they arrive in prison and the care they receive in prison often far exceeds what they were accessing in the community”.

That’s typical spin from one of the Department’s leading spinsters.  It is contradicted by every study done on prison suicide including a recent report, Mental Health Treatment and Services in NZ Prisons are Inadequate which says:

“The Department of Corrections does not provide therapeutic services such as counselling to those with mild to moderate mental health conditions as it retains the view that they have a custodial role, not a therapeutic one… prisoners with mild to moderate illnesses are left to languish and to receive mental health treatment in prison, you must be intensely ill.”

A Sunday Star Times investigation in 2011 came to a similar conclusion. It found that:

“In order to get treatment in prison, you have to go really mad”.

According to a National Health Committee report only about 5% of prisoners get mental health treatment while in prison. Considering how difficult it is to kill yourself in prison, if you start going crazy but no treatment is available, hanging yourself might seem like a viable option.  According to Jeanette Burns, around 26 prisoners a year make that choice. When life is so miserable and you are that distressed, imagine how you feel if you don’t succeed.

Isoated prisonerThen you get sent to the At Risk unit where you’re not allowed visitors, there’s no TV, no radio, no books, no clothes, no blankets and the lights are turned on every 15 minutes at night so the officers can check that you’re still alive.

Now, in addition to being suicidal, you can’t get to sleep.  If you weren’t already crazy, that should drive you completely bonkers. But that’s alright – go ‘really mad’. Then you’ll be one of the 5% that’s eligible for psychiatric treatment.

Serco falsified performance figures 252 times in six months

Serco is a corrupt company with a well established history of fraud. It repeatedly falsifies performance data in order to meet its contracts with Governments.

Two days ago I posted this blog: How Serco pulled the wool over Corrections and Mt Eden was rated as ‘exceptional’. It pointed out that Serco appeared to be under-reporting the number of serious assaults at the Mt Eden prison leaving prisoners to suffer instead of taking them to hospital.

The article mentions that in 2013, Serco was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office after they were found to have overcharged the British Government for the monitoring of offenders in the community who were subsequently found to be dead, back in prison or overseas.

Corrections SamIt seems Serco also has a history of manipulating data in its contracts with the British National Health Service. See the following articles from the Guardian. I have provided the main points from each.

The Guardian 25 May 2012: Serco investigated over claims of ‘unsafe’ out-of-hours GP service

Serco, which runs a large range of outsourced services for the government and local authorities, was subject to an unannounced inspection by NHS watchdogs in Cornwall last month in response to whistleblowers who claim that it:

  • allowed queues of up to 90 patients at a time to build up at its telephone helpline;
  • met its targets, in part, by adjusting figures to blame delays on patients;
  • repeatedly took visiting doctors off roving duties in order to operate clinics and hotlines because it had too few staff on duty to cover the county.

Correspondence seen by the Guardian reveals that senior clinicians have repeatedly expressed concern to Serco management about staff shortages jeopardising the safety of the service.”

The Guardian 7 March 2013: Private contractor fiddled data when reporting to NHS, says watchdog

Serco, the leading private contractor of government services, falsified performance figures 252 times when reporting to the NHS on targets it had failed to meet, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).  The independent watchdog’s investigation into Serco’s out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall comes after the Guardian revealed last May that whistleblowers had concerns that the privatised service was regularly so short-staffed as to be unsafe and that its performance data was being manipulated.”

The Guardian 23 April 2013: Who will hold NHS contractors like Serco to account?

“The powerful parliamentary public accounts committee summoned Serco and the NHS body responsible for commissioning them, the Cornwall primary care trust, and gave them the roasting they deserved for a culture of “lying and cheating” and for “shocking” inadequacies in writing and monitoring the contract.

Neither Serco’s company systems nor the trust’s audits had managed to find the repeated shortages of staffing and falsifying of performance data that whistleblowers said had been putting patients at risk as far back as 2010. But then, as the committee’s formidable chair, former Labour minister Margaret Hodge, said, ‘they didn’t seem to want to look in the right place’.”

This is almost exactly what I said about the Corrections monitors in Mt Eden prison: “The monitors are incentivised to look the other way.”

Serco cartoo

How Serco pulled the wool over Corrections and Mt Eden was rated as ‘exceptional’

In 2012, the Corrections Department began comparing the effectiveness of its 17 prisons. Since then each prison has been ranked under one of four categories: ‘Needs Improvement’, ‘Effective’, ‘Exceeding’ or ‘Exceptional’ and the results are published every three months in the Prison Performance Tables.

Serc0Reports about fight clubs in Mt Eden prison, run by Serco, also go back to 2012. In September that year, TV3 reported on a former inmate who claimed that prisoners were running a ‘fight club’.  At the time, the Corrections Department said complaints about violence were “easy to make but difficult to investigate”.  So they didn’t bother – even though section 199F(2) of the Corrections Act was amended to enable  the Department to appoint monitors in contracted prisons who shall have…

free and unfettered access at all times to every part of the contract prison managed by that contractor; and all prisoners in that prison.”

KelvinThen in June this year, prisoners themselves confirmed on-going violence by posting video clips of fight clubs on social media. Labour MP, Kelvin Davis (left), joined in claiming that prisoners were being ‘dropped’ off balconies and had died from their injuries. In July it was reported that a prisoner committed suicide after being subjected to violent bullying.

Mt Eden rises to the top

Unbelievably, while all this mayhem was going on, the Mt Eden prison managed by Serco was climbing up the prison performance tables. It hit the number one spot in December 2013 and in that quarter, Serco’s performance was rated as ‘exceeding’.  Three months later, it was bumped up to ‘exceptional’ and has maintained this rating ever since.


In response to the violent video clips, Corrections claimed it had no idea that prisoners were routinely taking drugs and fighting.  The monitors must have been asleep. But there’s more to this cover-up. Under the contract, Serco is responsible for providing the Department with regular statistics on a variety of key performance indicators including ‘serious assaults’.  During all of 2014, Serco reported that these were all within acceptable limits; because the monitors never raised any concerns, chief executive Ray Smith just accepted whatever Serco said.

Serco operates at a loss

Serco is also responsible for advising Corrections how much it should be fined if it breaches performance standards in the contract. Every time Serco reports a prisoner has been seriously assaulted, it is supposed to penalise itself $35,000. Expecting a multi-national corporation like Serco to fine itself is a ludicrous contractual concept.  It’s just not going to happen.

These reporting clauses simply incentivise Serco to fiddle the figures – a practice for which the company has a well-established history. In 2013, a Guardian investigation into Serco found the company had

“falsified performance figures 252 times between January and June 2012 when reporting to the NHS on targets it had failed to meet…and data manipulation went back four years or more and was much worse before 2012.”

Also in 2013 Serco (and G4S) were investigated by the Serious Fraud Office after they were found to have been overcharging the British Government  since 2005 for the monitoring of offenders in the community. The two companies had to pay back $180 million after charging for the monitoring of offenders who were subsequently found to be dead, back in prison or overseas. In Britain, Serco is now operating at a loss.

It does not want to lose money in New Zealand as well. To avoid doing so, Serco is able to hide the serious assault statistics at Mt Eden using loopholes in its contract with Corrections.  The contract defines a ‘serious assault’ as one involving..

‘overnight hospitalisation in a medical facility’ or ‘bodily harm requiring extended periods of ongoing medical  intervention’.

On this issue, Kelvin Davis said: “There’s one way to keep those statistics down and that’s not send people to hospital.”

Fiddling the figures at Mt Eden

Injured prisonerSerco can avoid reporting serious assaults because the contract does not define ‘extended periods’.  So if an inmate is kept in prison for a week (or even a month) after an assault, Serco can avoid reporting this as a serious assault by pretending that one week (or one month) does not constitute ‘extended’ treatment. Occasionally, Serco has also transferred seriously injured prisoners to another prison – leaving the other prison to ensure the prisoner was hospitalised.

The monitors appointed by Corrections seem to have little incentive to bring this fraud (and inadequate medical treatment) to the attention of the chief executive, Ray Smith.  One difficulty in this regard is that although the monitors are supposed to have ‘free and unfettered access to all parts of the prison’, section 199F(3) of the Corrections Act provides an ‘out’.

It says: “a monitor must not be given access to the medical records of any person unless that person consents to that access.”

Unless the monitors know which prisoner has been injured, they can’t even ask for consent – making it next to impossible to ascertain the severity of any prisoner’s injuries.

The inquiry

As a result of the furore caused by video clips from the smuggled cell phones, the Corrections Minister is to conduct an inquiry.  It will examine whether violent incidents have been “under-reported”.  Hopefully it will also examine whether Serco has enough staff on duty to intervene when fights occur – to counter reports that understaffing leaves officers afraid to intervene.

You can bet there’s one thing the inquiry won’t examine – whether private companies like Serco, whose sole incentive is to make a profit, should be running prisons at all. And it won’t examine why the Government agreed to use a company like Serco with such a dubious track record overseas.

Cartoon corrections

Being sent to prison more dangerous than working in forestry

OCFIn June the coroner released the longest report ever written about the death of a prisoner. Jai Davis died in Otago prison (right) in 2011 after smuggling about 60 pills (codeine and benzodiazepines) into Otago prison in his rectum.

Three prison nurses who were on duty over the weekend were well aware Davis was under the influence of drugs but none of them called the doctor. Instead, they tried to manage the situation by telling the officers on duty to speak to Davis every 15 minutes, to make sure he responded and was still conscious.

During the night, the officer on duty checked on him but didn’t try to wake him. By the time the officer realised Davis wasn’t breathing, he had been dead for six or seven hours and rigor mortis had set in. The coroner was critical of everyone involved: prison management, prison nurses and officers – and Davis himself.

Death rates

Dozens of inmates have died in prison. This chart (below) is taken from the Corrections Department Annual Report for 2006.  It describes ‘unnatural deaths’ in prison (usually by violence or suicide) and shows that over a five-year period, the rate of unnatural deaths was around 0.11 per 100 prisoners.  With an average prison population of 8, 500 this represents about nine unnatural deaths a year.

Suicide chartThings have improved, somewhat. Since 2008, only 34 inmates have died so-called unnatural deaths – representing approximately four deaths per year.  About the same number, 32 to be exact, have also died while working in New Zealand forests in the same period. In other words, in the last few years the death rate in prison has dropped by around 100% and is now the same as the death rate in the forestry industry. The problem is the forestry sector has the worst safety record of any industry in the country – 15 times higher than the death rate for all other work sectors in NZ combined.


WorkSafe, the agency responsible for monitoring safety standards, calls these statistics ‘alarming’ and recently closed down 23 forestry sites. In 2014, the 140 page Independent Forestry Safety Review said the death rate in the forestry sector was still ‘scary’.  Following this review the government introduced the Health and Safety Reform Bill designed to “improve workplace health and safety across all sectors in New Zealand — especially in high risk areas like forestry.”

In addition to closing down sites, since 2009, WorkSafe has initiated 20 prosecutions under the Health & Safety in Employment Act, under which the maximum fine is $500,000 and the maximum prison sentence is two years.  For the first time last year, the police also got involved laying manslaughter charges over the death of 20 year old, Lincoln Kidd. They charged Foxton contractor Paul Burr, who felled the tree that killed Mr Kidd effectively accusing him of gross negligence.

Police also considered laying manslaughter charges against nurses and prison officers involved in Jai Davis’ death. But at the end of a three year investigation, they claimed there was insufficient evidence.  So far, the Police have never prosecuted anyone over the death of a prisoner.  But neither has WorkSafe. Here’s the reason WorkSafe gave for not prosecuting anyone over the death of Jai Davis:

“The reason for this decision is because WorkSafe has not undertaken an investigation into this matter hence it has no evidence that there were any breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992”.[1]

There is a total lack of logic in this sentence. How could WorkSafe possibly know whether there were breaches of the HSE act if they don’t conduct an investigation? That’s the purpose of an investigation – to investigate and see if there is any evidence!

Does the Act apply to suicides?

Clearly there are significant differences between deaths which occur in the workplace and the deaths of prison inmates. The former are mostly accidents (which may or may not involve negligence) while the latter are mostly the result of suicides or violent attacks by one prisoner on another. In this sense, they are not accidents. However, the HSE Act is not just about accidents. It requires employers to provide a safe working environment for employees. Section 15 of the Act says it also covers ‘any other person’ at the place of employment, which would include prisoners.

Let’s see how the HSE Act might apply to suicides. Hanging is the most common means by which prisoners commit suicide. They find something to hang from – referred to by coroners as ‘ligature points’. Following the suicide of a prisoner in Mt Eden Men’s Prison (MEMP), a report was released which identified  ten suicides at MEMP between 1996 and 2011 where prisoners used the bars inside the cell window as the hanging point.

“In six separate findings between 1998 and 2005, a coroner recommended that the Department take steps immediately to modify the window(s)… The coroner expressed concern that over a period of almost fifteen years the Department of Corrections did not address the clearly identified and recognised risk of the window bars in cells.”

In other words, Corrections were well aware of the risk posed by the bars in the cell windows but refused to do anything about it. This appears to be a deliberate and reckless breach of the Act.

Here’s another disturbing case. Kerry Joll hung himself in Rimutaka in 2011. He had made two previous suicide attempts. There were 11 other suicides in prison that year. 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 to the coroner 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.”

That also looks like a deliberate breach of the Act

In Jai Davis’ case, the coroner ruled that it wasn’t a suicide. Nor was he attacked by other prisoners. His death would therefore appear to be an accident – one caused by the negligence of prison management and nurses who, knowing he had ingested drugs, refused to call a doctor.

Prison protocol requires a doctor to be called.  When health and safety protocols are ignored, WorkSafe is supposed to investigate.  Until it does, being sent to prison is more dangerous than taking a job as a forestry worker – an industry with ‘alarming’ statistics and the ‘scariest death rate’ in New Zealand.

[1]   Email from Iona Cameron, Senior Business Advisor to Chief Inspector, Worksafe, to Roger Brooking dated 10 June 2015.