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.


The Norwegian prison where inmates are treated like people

The Guardian newspaper has published a couple of excellent articles by former prisoner Erwin James describing the huge differences between prisons in Britain and Norway.  James served 20 years of a life sentence in a British prison before his release in August 2004.

The two stories compare differences between the two prison systems.  The following is a summary and adaptation of the two Guardian stories to make the comparison more applicable to New Zealand.


Humane treatment of prisoners at Bastoy

An inmate sunbathes on the deck of his bungalow on Bastoy.

This is a prisoner sun- bathing outside his bungalow on Bastoy Island.

Bastoy is prison on a 2.6 sq km island a couple of miles off the coast in the Oslo fjord, 46 miles south-east of Norway’s capital.  Long term prisoners can apply for a transfer to Bastoy island, when they have five years left to serve on their sentence. All kinds of offenders, including murderers and rapists, are accepted as long as they have a determination to live a crime-free life on release.

Prisoners on Bastoy are treated very differently to the way prisoners in New Zealand are treated. They live in small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the island.  Each bungalow accommodates up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities.  Phones are available so prisoners can call family and friends.  There are private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed.

Prisoners on Bastoy all have to work. They tend sheep, cows and chickens, and grow fruit and vegetables. Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop, (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop.  The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance of around £70 a month to buy provisions from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket to cook their own breakfasts and evening meals. Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall.

Life for the prisoners is as normal as it is possible to be in a prison.  One inmate described life on the island like this:

“It’s like living in a village, a community. Everybody has to work. But we have free time so we can do some fishing, or in summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners but here we feel like people.”

In other words, despite the seriousness of their crimes, loss of liberty is the only punishment.

Staff attitudes and training

The 70 staff and officers on the island take a pride in their work. It takes three years to train to be a prison guard in Norway. In New Zealand, it takes only nine weeks; the main requirement for the job is a willingness “to follow orders and set procedures” and the only qualification required is a driver’s licence.  

Arne Kvernvik Nilsen

The attitude in Norway is summed up by former Bastoy manager, Arne Nilsen (photo right) who describes his prison philosophy like this:

“I run this prison like a small society. I give respect to the prisoners who come here and they respond by respecting themselves, each other and this community.

“It’s an arena of developing responsibility. (In other countries) we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. But in the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

It works

It is this humanitarian philosophy that Nilsen believes is responsible for the success of Bastoy.  But all Norwegian prisons work on the same principles – which have produced the lowest reoffending rates in Europe at less than 30%.  For prisoners coming out of Bastoy, the re-offending rate is even lower at 16%. Compare these figures with New Zealand where the re-offending rate is 70%.

There’s another significant point of difference. New Zealand locks up twice as many of its citizens. Both countries have a similar population but Norway has less than 4,000 prisoners compared with 8,500 in New Zealand.   This is expensive – each prisoner costs the New Zealand taxpayer $90,000 a year and Corrections total budget is over $1 billion a year. Erwin James says “this amounts to a huge investment in failure – and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners.”


Bastoy manager, Arne Nilsen is well aware of the impact of crime on victims but is doubtful that tough prison conditions provide much consolation. He notes that:

“In the UK, (NZ) and many other countries, we still think quite short-term, wanting to inflict revenge on criminals, wanting them to suffer for what they have done. But in most countries nearly all prisoners are going to be released. So what happens to them when they are in prison is very important.

“For victims, there will never be a prison that is tough, or hard, enough. But they need another type of help – support to deal with the experience, rather than the government simply punishing the offender in a way that the victim rarely understands and that does very little to help heal their wounds. Politicians should be strong enough to be honest about this issue.”

It’s hard to see these humanitarian attitudes to prisoners being adopted in New Zealand. The media are obsessed with murder and mayhem; politicians and the public alike have become victims of the vindictive penal populism promoted by Garth McVicar and the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust.  Compare this with public attitudes to prison issues in Norway. According to one prison officer at Bastoy 90% of the Norwegian public have no interest, “so long as people come out better”.  Now that sounds like a strategy for some truely sensible sentencing.

Howard League calls for 50% cut in prison population

The Howard League for Penal Reform is calling for a 50% reduction in the prison population. On Monday April 2nd the Wellington Branch of the League held its inaugural meeting at Parliament hosted by Labour’s Charles Chauvel.  Other speakers at the opening included the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Grant Robertson, VUW criminologist Dr Elizabeth Stanley and Peter Williams QC.

At the meeting spokesman Roger Brooking pointed out that New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment is about 200 people per 100,000 of population. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, this gives New Zealand the second highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world. On a population basis, we lock up more people than Britain which has an imprisonment rate of 155, Australia at 124 and Canada at 117.

New Zealand’s rate puts us in the company of Third World countries like Mexico and Libya – where thousands have died in a civil war and drug related violence – but which have similar rates of imprisonment to New Zealand. Our rate puts us ahead of South American countries like Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia and Honduras.

Mr Brooking pointed out that Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world with an average of 20 murders a day. Mr Brooking said: “In 2011 there were 39 murders in New Zealand, which is less than one murder a week. One a week is still too many – I know – but guess what. NZ locks up more people per capita than Honduras. Their rate is only 154 per 100,000.”

‘We like locking people up’

“There is no doubt that we are a very punitive society” said Mr Brooking. “We like locking people up”.

This is very strange when you consider that from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index – out of 149 countries.In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations out of 169 countries in terms of ‘human development’ – defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’.

Mr Brooking pointed out that altogether more than 20,000 New Zealanders spend time in prison each year. 80% are given short sentences and are in and out of prison in less than six months. Mr Brooking said: “Our prisons have become a revolving door for those who repeatedly commit relatively minor offending – usually under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Our prisons have become a holding tank for alcoholics and drug addicts. We use them to provide warehousing for the mentally ill and those with brain damage.  The majority of these people should be in treatment, or in supported accommodation, not in prison.”

The Government is planning to build a new prison at Wiri at a cost of $900 million. Mr Brooking said: “We don’t need another prison. According to the Corrections Department, there are currently 1,600 empty beds in New Zealand prisons already. If the government is willing to spend $900 million, let’s put that money into early intervention programs, drug courts, increased treatment facilities in the community, and supported halfway houses for prisoners on release.  Let’s put more fences at the top of the cliff instead of building yet another prison at the bottom.”

Time to decriminalise all drugs

See this excellent article by Gwynne Dyer about the need to decriminalise all drugs. Dyer is a London-based independent journalist, whose articles are published in 45 countries.

He quotes Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, and the most influential economist of the 20th century. Twenty years ago the right wing Friedman said: “If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel (in NZ, read ‘gang’ instead of ‘cartel’). It is only because the government makes the drugs illegal that the criminal cartel (gang) has a highly profitable monopoly on meeting the demand.”

Dyer also quotes former Mexican president Vicente Fox who supported the US-led war on drugs when he was in office in 2000-2006, but more recently he has condemned it as an unmitigated disaster. “We should consider legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs,” he wrote on his blog. “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.”

Prohibition has never worked in New Zealand either. All psychoactive drugs except alcohol are banned here; recreational users and addicts are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  And yet over 400,000 Kiwis smoke cannabis every year, 100,000 nearly every day. The number of prosecutions for cannabis offences is rising and in 2008, there were 9,500 convictions. Enforcement and social costs have gone up accordingly. In 2001, the black market for cannabis in New Zealand was estimated at $190 million; in 2006 the social costs, which includes the cost of police, the courts and Corrections to enforce cannabis laws, were estimated at $430 million.

ACT leader Don Brash says this approach is part of the failed strategy of prohibition condemned by the UN and is a huge waste of money and resources. Mr Brash believes police time could be better spent investigation more serious crimes – ones with victims.

Indeed, if cannabis was deregulated and taxed (like alcohol and cigarettes), and police no longer had to enforce prohitibition laws against cannabis users, the net benefit to society is estimated to be between $400 and $860 million.