The $6 million men at Corrections

Corrections Minister Judith Collins has just announced that 4000 Corrections officers will wear new blue uniforms to replace the green ones that officers have been wearing since the 1970’s. The cost of each of the new uniforms is about $1,500. Do the maths – that’s $6 million – which Ms Collins says will be met from the Department’s existing budget.

What the money could be spent on

What that means is that there is $6 million less in Corrections’ budget for rehabilitation or reintegration. That’s a problem – because 90% of prisoners have alcohol and drug problems, but only 5% of the 20,000 in prison each year are able to attend addiction treatment. This is because Corrections spends only $3.4 million a year on it.

90% of prisoners also have problems with reading and writing and Ms Collins claims to be doing something about this too. In 2010, 1,496 prisoners attended classroom based literacy and numeracy education – but only 9% were assessed by their tutors as having reached a satisfactory level and actually completed the programme. Nine per cent of 1,496 is only 135 prisoners…!

Another systemic failing is the lack of supported accommodation Corrections provides for inmates when they get out of prison. In Canada, over 60% of federal prisoners are released into half way houses – and this makes a significant contribution to Canada’s low rate of recidivism. In New Zealand there are only two such houses – and less than 1% of ex-prisoners get into them. No wonder so many relapse to alcohol and drugs and then re-offend.

What’s the real priority?

Despite these poor results, Judith Collins frequently claims that: “Rehabilitation and reintegration are a key Government priority in its drive to reduce re-offending.” (See the Department’s Annual Reports).

Yeah right! The reality is that governments have never put much funding into assisting prisoners with reintegration. But demonstrating its true colours, National recently allocated $12 million to host foreign diplomats and cover VIP transport arrangements for the World Rugby Cup. This includes use of the 34 brand new BMW’s recently purchased by the Government for the discounted price of $4.7 million. Why? Because the real priority is PR and appearances – and the $6 million uniforms will no doubt look good. They may even be more comfortable, but they will not hide Corrections’ continuing failure to address New Zealand’s problems with recidivism.

When crime costs the country $11 billion a year – and most of it is alcohol and drug related; when there are 20,000 offenders circulating through New Zealand prisons each year; when recidivism is at an all time high – and Government spends more on new uniforms and on VIPs and BMWs than it does on drug treatment and critical support services – any claims that rehabilitation and reintegration are priorities are a joke. This is all part of Corrections’ continuing campaign of misinformation.

The Emperor’s new clothes

Real priorities require commitment and funding – at the moment, neither is available to rehabilitate criminal offenders. The current priority is all about looking good – for prison officers, and for Judith Collins. It all reminds me of the fairy tale about the emperor’s new clothes – that’s another saga of self-delusion.

$11 million wasted on cell phone blockers that don’t work

The first cell phone blocking technology in New Zealand prisons was installed in 2007 – primarily to prevent drug dealing. In April 2010, prisoners at Rimutaka told alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking they were still able to make cell phone calls. A Dominion Post journalist spent a night in Rimutaka Prison and reported that he had no problems using his cell phone – even from inside the prison.

Budget blowout to $11 million

A year later, another inmate told Mr Brooking that cell phones on all three networks were still being used in every unit in the prison. The Dominion Post ran a second story concluding that the technology is flawed and provides only partial coverage. It also said the system was budgeted to cost $6 million but repairs and upgrades have blown the budget to nearly $11 million. Apparently, it will cost another $2 million just ‘to fully jam Rimutaka’ prison alone. That’s $11 millions spent trying to stop drugs coming into prison, while the Department spends only $3.4 million on drug treatment in prison each year.

Dubious contracts require review

On top of this spectacular waste of the taxpayer’s money, the Dominion Post also queried the way in which the Department allocates contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to private sector consultants and contractors. Corrections apparently failed to advise Parliament’s law and order select committee that a multimillion-dollar contract had been awarded to Honeywell, an international security firm given the task of setting up the phone blocking technology.

The Dominion Post reported that at least two former Honeywell employees now work for Corrections and actually manage Corrections’ contract and approve payments to Honeywell. The Dominion Post was so concerned about the Department’s dubious contracting procedures, it ran an editorial calling for an inquiry. Judith Collins is the Minister responsible and no inquiry has taken place.

The legacy of former Chief Executive Barry Mathews

Perhaps the saddest part of this saga is that although the technology is ineffective and cost twice as much as budgeted, former chief executive Barry Mathews listed its implementation as one of his three greatest achievements. His other top achievements were better sentence compliance by the Probation Service and the establishment of the Professional Standards Unit – which investigates corruption by prison officers.

In other words, despite five years as chief executive, Mr Matthews was unable to list as an achievement anything to do with rehabilitation, reintegration or reducing re-offending – despite Ms Collins claiming that these are government priorities.