Bill English admits his Government is a moral & fiscal failure

Prisons are a moral and fiscal failure

In 2011, Bill English claimed that prisons were “a moral and fiscal failure” and New Zealand should never build another one. Well said – and achievable – but only if Governments stop pandering to the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust and the moral panic manufactured by the media whenever a violent crime occurs.

Later that year, the Government set the Corrections Department a goal – to reduce reoffending by 25% (by 2017).  Perhaps Mr English thought that if reoffending declined, so would the prison population – or at least it wouldn’t go up.

In October this year, Mr English and the Government had to admit total defeat on both counts. Reoffending has been reduced a little (by about 8%) – but only in the first 12 months after completion of a rehabilitation programme.  After that, the reoffending rate is back to normal – which means 52% of prisoners return to prison within five years. The long-term reoffending rate has not changed in years.

In the meantime, the prison population has hit an all-time high and the government says it is going to build yet another prison. This increase in prison capacity is going to cost you and me, the taxpayer, an additional $1 billion. Imagine what the education sector could do with another billion dollars – more teachers, better pay, smaller class sizes, with staff satisfaction and retention improved. Imagine what the health sector could do with another billion dollars – reduced waiting lists, better access to mental health care and addiction treatment, better support for those on low incomes and a reduction in New Zealand’s escalating poverty statistics – all of which would likely lead to less crime.

We have to provide the capacity – yeah right!

Announcing his Government’s moral and fiscal failure, Finance Minister Bill English contradicted his 2011 statement about no more prisons saying: “This is something that has to be done. We have to provide the capacity.”

Phil Goff.jpgNo – we don’t. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this increase in our prison population.  It is entirely the result of penal policies passed by both Labour and National governments in the last few years – policies which have been getting more and more draconian. In a press release in 2002, Tougher laws driving up prison population, Justice Minister Phil Goff said tougher sentencing and parole laws enacted by the Labour government would increase the prison population by over 20% in the next seven years.

This year Judith Collins said the continuing increase was due to tougher laws passed by National. She said criminals are getting longer sentences but that the muster blowout since 2014 has mostly been driven by a 40% increase in the number of prisoners on remand. That blowout stems from changes to the Bail, Sentencing and Victim’s Rights Acts.

There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this. Prof John Pratt of Victoria University would say it is entirely due to political populism – whereby politicians follow the dubious wisdom of victims groups and the media instead of taking advice from criminologists and justice sector experts.

How Finland cut its prison population

Finland is an example of what can happen when politicians listen to academics. In 2006 in Little done to break cycle of offending, Simon Collins wrote:

“Finland has cut its imprisonment rate by two-thirds in the past 50 years, with no apparent effect on the crime rate.”

He quotes Tapio Lappi-Seppala of the Finnish Institute of Legal Policy who said Finnish judges, lawyers and politicians were ashamed of their high rate of imprisonment compared with other Nordic countries which had quite low rates.

In the 1960s, on their own initiative, judges in Finland started imposing shorter sentences on a variety of offenders. In the 1970s, politicians backed up the judges with two key law changes: imprisonment for theft and drink driving were abolished and replaced by fines and ‘conditional imprisonment’ – offenders stayed out of jail as long as they did not reoffend. Then in 1994, a new sentence of community service was introduced to replace short jail terms.

The result was a dramatic drop in the rate of imprisonment from 195 down to 66 inmates per 100,000 of the population. This proves it can be done. During this same period (1960 to now) New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment has gone up and up. In 2016, it topped 200 people per 100,000 – four times higher than Finland’s. This puts us on a par with Mexico (204) and way above Australia (152), the United Kingdom (146), China (118) and Canada (114). Altogether New Zealand locks up more people per head of population than 150 other countries.

Liam Martin
Dr Liam Martin: “Its time to start making different choices.”

Attempts have even been made in New Zealand to turn this around. In Lessons from youth justice for our prison policy, VUW criminology lecturer Dr Liam Martin notes:

“It’s time to start making different choices. Our history of youth justice is a reminder we have changed paths before: in less than a decade between 1988 and 1996, we cut the number of children in state institutions from 2000 to fewer than 100.”

If we can reduce the number of children in state institutions (and the number of psychiatric patients in state care), surely we reduce the number of adults in our prison system. Spending $1 billion to increase prison capacity is an irresponsible and appalling waste of taxpayers’ money. It would be much better spent in the education and health sectors – where it would actually contribute to reduced offending.

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.

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.

Corrections stats show more prison officers smoking dope than prisoners

CannabisTVNZ journalist, Ryan Boswell, wrote to the Corrections Department recently asking how many prisoners and how many officers were tested for drug use in the last two years – and how many returned positive tests.   Corrections released information to TVOne which appears to show that more prison officers are now smoking dope than prisoners.

In 2014, Corrections conducted 10,971 tests on prisoners, of which 708 were positive for drugs.  In other words, 6.4% of all prisoners tested were positive, mostly for cannabis.  In the same period, Corrections tested only 26 prison officers, of which two returned positive results. In other words, 7.7% of prison officers tested positive.

600 prison staff smoking dope?

Let’s put this into context. There are approximately 8,500 prisoners. If 6.4% out of the 8,500 are smoking dope, that’s 544 prisoners.  Corrections has a similar number of employees, about 8,000, although they don’t all work in prisons. 7.7% of 8000 is 616.  So it looks like there’s slightly more Corrections staff smoking dope than prisoners.

When TVOne ran their story, Corrections crackdown on drugs paying dividends, they didn’t mention this. They focussed on the fact that the number of prisoners returning positive drug tests has dropped dramatically.  In 1998 when random testing was introduced, 30% of prisoners were caught using. Now it’s only 6%. That’s definitely progress – of sorts. Now prisoners are using at the same rate as prison officers.

Here’s a bit more context. The 26 officers drug tested in the last 12 months were at 13 different prisons. In other words, Corrections selected only two officers at each of those 13 prisons to submit to a random test. That’s too small a sample to provide meaningful results.  If 500 tests were conducted on prison officers every year, that would provide more certainty about the percentage of staff smoking dope.   It may well confirm that about 600 officers are druggies.

Reluctance to test own staff

Chief custodial officer, Neil Beales, told TVOne that Corrections has zero tolerance for its staff using drugs – the two who returned positive drug tests either resigned or were dismissed.  If the reality is that 600 officers are smoking dope, it would be more accurate to say that Corrections has almost zero tolerance for testing its own staff.


Instead of getting rid of staff by drug testing them, the Government has announced that hundreds of prison staff will lose their jobs when older units in Waikeria, Tongariro-Rangipo and Rimutaka Prisons are shut down in the next few months. These units will be closed because prisoners will be transferred to  a brand new 960 bed prison in South Auckland which is about to open. The Wiri prison will be run by private company Serco, and of course they need to make a profit. So Corrections is laying off its staff so that a British company can profit at Kiwis expense – a company with a reputation for  defrauding the British government, and that prison reformers want banned from bidding for Government contracts.

Corrections Association industrial officer Bevan Hanlon said moving prisoners to Wiri and closing down prison wings was, put simply, the privatisation of Corrections jobs. He was right. Labour MP, Kelvin Davis pointed out the Wiri prison cost the taxpayer $900 million and said: Private prison operator Serco will be “laughing all the way to the bank“. He was right too.

Myths about rehabilitation

New Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga said:

“Prisoners have a much better chance of successful rehabilitation in modern facilities where they have access to education, training and employment opportunities.”

There’s a lot to be said about whats wrong with the Department’s rehabilitation programmes, but one thing’s for certain – rehabilitation has little to do with buildings old or new. It has to do with turning peoples live around – something that can only done by compassionate skilled staff – not prison officers who are stoned on the job.

Corrections cuts crime with the selective use of statistics

In July 2014 the NZ Herald revealed the police have been cooking the crime stats in Papakura. Now The Daily Blog is asking the question: Has the Government manipulated Corrections statistics as well? The answer is yes.  But this is not being done by a few rogue Corrections officers. This is a systemic practice conducted in Corrections head office.

The Department claims it is focused on reducing reoffending and the diagram below taken from its website suggests that in April 2013, re-offending was down by 9.3% over the previous two years. The Department says it is on target to reduce reoffending by 25% by 2017.
When the government announced the goal of 25%, they said: “This will mean 600 fewer prisoners re-imprisoned one year after release, and 4,000 fewer offenders reconvicted within a year of beginning their community-based sentence.”

But the latest Corrections report (2013) on Trends in the Offender Population, effectively contradicts most of the Government’s claims about reduced reoffending.

Prison numbers

The report shows there has been no drop whatsoever in the number of people in prison (see graph).  In fact the number of sentenced prisoners has gone up dramatically – by 166% since 1983.Prison numbers

The best that Corrections could claim about this graph was that “From 2010 there has been a flattening in the sentenced prisoner population.”

Looking at it more closely reveals that the rate of increase also ‘flattened’ between 1983 and 1987; between 1992 and 1995; and between 1999 and 2003. After each of these ‘flatlines’, the muster continued its inexorable rise.

Offenders in the community

In regard to offenders on community-based sentences, the increase has been even more dramatic. The report says: “The number of offenders starting a new community sentence during 1983 was 14,407. This increased by 219 percent, to 48,379, in 2010.”  As with prison numbers, the overall trend is up, not down.Community numbers

But Corrections claims that: “The number of offenders starting a community sentence each year has decreased markedly since 2010. Between December 2011 and December 2013, re-offending has reduced, equating to 11.7% progress towards the target of reduced re-offending by 25 percent by 2017.” (See graph)

Sure, there has been a small drop in the last two years, but it is far too soon to determine whether this is anything other than a temporary dip in the upward trend. The report shows there was a similar drop between 1994 and 2000 – followed by a rapid rise to a new peak in 2010. Corrections’ exaggerated claims about the dip in the last two years are premature; they ignore the long-term upward trend in which the dip may be just a natural variation.

Selective statistics

In fact the dip is not natural. It’s entirely manufactured – by the selective use of flawed statistics.  To make it look like reoffending (by those on community based sentences) is down, Corrections only includes statistics of those who reoffend within 12 months from the start of their sentence, rather than within 12 months from the end of their sentence.  That’s ridiculous.  It’s like measuring the reoffending rate of prisoners while they are still in prison, with almost no capacity to commit further crime. No wonder the reoffending stats are down.

A more useful analogy is to compare reoffending rates with the survival rate of cancer victims. Measuring  survival from the start of chemotherapy or radiation treatment would not tell us much.  It’s only after treatment is complete, assuming the patient survives, that its effectiveness can be evaluated. This is done by measuring survival rates five or even ten years later. 

Short term snapshots

The same applies to criminal reoffending.  The reality that the longer a recidivist offender is at large in the community, the greater the chance he will eventually reoffend. A more detailed analysis conducted by Corrections (Reconviction patterns of released prisoners: A 60-months follow-up analysis) shows that approximately 26% of prisoners reoffend and are re-imprisoned within 12 months of release. But after five years – 52% are back in prison.  In other words, approximately half of all ex-prisoners who subsequently reoffend manage to survive in the community for more than 12 months before they commit another crime and go back to prison. But Corrections is not counting these crimes.

What this means is that the statistical data that Corrections is using to prove it’s on track towards the 25% goal comes from short term snapshots and is therefore incomplete and misleading.  For those on community based sentences the snapshot is so short, it begins at the start of the sentence while the offender may still be on home detention. This is a cynical and deceptive use of statistics which fails to provide an accurate or realistic picture of criminal behaviour in New Zealand.

Judith Collins’ staff censoring wikipedia articles on justice issues in NZ?

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon. This was in response to revelations in the NZ Herald that the police have seized nearly $150 million worth of homes, cars, boats, cash, jewellery and other valuables under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act.  When the legislation was passed in December 2009, the Government said the seizures would be used to fund additional alcohol and drug treatment for criminal offenders. Four years later, no money has been made available.

RadioNZ wanted to interview the Minister of Justice,  Judith Collins, to ask her why none of the money had been passed on. She wasn’t available so they interviewed me instead. After the interview, the producer came up to me and said that someone from Judith Collins’ office had made it very clear to them that, even though she was not available, Collins did not want them to talk to me. When the producer asked her why, Collins said it was because she didn’t approve of articles I had edited on wikipedia about the New Zealand justice system.

Banned from editing Wikipedia

I found it hard to believe that Judith Collins would really be concerned about anything on wikipedia – until I found edits being made by someone calling herself JC press sec. Most editors on wikipedia use pseudonyms – but ‘JC press sec’ – that was just too obvious. Then there’s Clarke43. Whoever he (or she) is, Clarke43 has also done a lot of editing on the Judith Collins page on wikipedia and has systematically deleted much of the material I contributed to other articles. On a personal discussion page (known as a Talk page) Clarke43 wrote: “I don’t feel for the sake of anyone who uses wikipedia that we can leave some of these pages in the state they are in now.” Is Judith Collins using taxpayers’ money to get her staff to edit wikipedia articles to her liking?

Then I got banned from editing wikipedia altogether. Shortly after that most of the pages that I had contributed to were shredded. An article I wrote on Legal Aid in New Zealand was shortened from this comprehensive version to this short stub. A detailed article on the Sensible Sentencing Trust and its links with National and the Act Party was shortened from this to this.  Substantial cuts have also been made to articles about the New Zealand Police, the Department of Corrections, the Independent Police Conduct Authority, the Government Communication Security Bureau, Crime in New Zealand, Corruption in New Zealand, the Ministry of Justice, the Accident Compensation Corporation and David Bain. For obvious reasons, these are all articles that Judith Collins might have an interest in.

Banned by prison manager

It looks like someone is trying to shut me up.  Even the manager at Rimutaka prison is having a go. Here’s the story.  I’ve been going into Rimutaka prison for 15 years. Normally when I have to see an inmate, I make an appointment and then show my driver’s licence at the gatehouse. About three months ago, one of the officers on duty commented that because I was a regular visitor, I should apply for a Special Visitor’s pass. So I did.

This should have been a routine matter. But to my surprise, about six weeks later I received a letter from Chris Burns, the Prison Manager. He said my application for the Special Visitors ID was declined because of a story which appeared in the Upper Hutt Leader in which I criticized the Department for wasting $13 million on cell phone blocking technology. The article pointed out that the number of cell phones confiscated from prisoners had more than doubled since the technology was installed. It contained this brief quote: “Drug and alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking, who helps inmates at Wellington prisons, said jamming technology had not stopped prisoners from using cellphones in prison and described the project as a ‘failed strategy’.”

I thought New Zealanders had freedom of speech – according to the Bill of Rights we do.  But Judith Collins and Chris Burns don’t seem to think so. Mr Burns declined my application for being “critical of the way the Department operates in regard to stopping prisoners using cell phones in prison”.  How bizarre. But guess what. Information about the failure of the cell phone blocking technology was then deleted from the wikipedia page about the Corrections Department. This is called censorship!

But what I really want to know is – how does Judith Collins know what I’m doing on wikipedia? I don’t use my real name – I use a pseudonym. Does that mean the GCSB is watching me? No that’s illegal – and surely the GCSB would never break the law. Yeah right!

Read more at  Suppressing free speech and editing Wikipedia. Is that why we pay taxes, Mrs Collins?

Join the discussion at The Standard: Collins sanitising wikipedia

Untested substances – Dunne to death by refusal to spend $5,000

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has adopted a tough approach towards ‘untested substances’ found in synthetic cannabis, but a hands-off approach towards more dangerous Class B drugs found in alcohol. On October 3rd, he banned three synthetic cannabis substances and instructed health officials to investigate and test these new products.

This means 19 different substances are now banned under Temporary Class Drug Notices which became law in August – with 43 products containing these substances already removed from the market. Mr Dunne issued this staunch statement:

“If testing shows that they contain substances already banned, they will be gone. If it shows they contain new untested substances, I will put in place the necessary Temporary Class Drug Notices to deal with it. I have removed 43 products already; if I have to remove another 43, so be it.”

“If the industry thinks they can get around the law by changing a couple of ingredients, repackaging, re-branding and back to business the way they always have, then they have seriously misread the scope and potency of this law. We are not letting them make their profit by plying young New Zealanders with substances that are unproven and potentially unsafe. The game is over. It is just that it has not clicked for some of them yet”.

Wine also contains ‘untested substances’

In the same week, Professor Doug Sellman and Dr Geoffrey Robinson announced that medical research undertaken in the UK has come to light showing that alcoholic drinks made through the fermentation of white and red grapes contain small amounts of a drug known as Fantasy. Fantasy is the street name for gamma-hydroxybutric acid (GHB) and related substances. It is scheduled as a Class B prohibited drug – considered to be of high risk to public health.

“The UK finding that wine contains Fantasy raises the intriguing situation that New Zealand wines contain a prohibited Class B drug” said Dr Geoff Robinson, who is one of the authors of New Zealand research which equates the risk that alcohol poses to society as similar to the risk posed by GHB.

Prof Sellman concurs: “Given that there are no specific data on wine sold in New Zealand, it would be appropriate for the Government to sponsor such research. Little is known about the specific synergistic effect of ethanol mixed with Fantasy and at what doses the mixing of these drugs is important. The situation we are facing with the existence of two Class B drugs in wine – one legal and sold in supermarkets, the other illegal and associated with severe legal sanctions – highlights the irrational and inconsistent drug laws we have in New Zealand”.

Testing only costs $5,000  

Given his staunch attitude towards the risks of ‘plying New Zealanders with substances that are unproven and potentially unsafe’, theoretically Mr Dunne has little choice but to ban wine immediately and have it tested. Of course that’s not going to happen; wine will never be banned.

But if it contains GHB and no testing is done, this makes a mockery of Mr Dunne’s tough talk. Alcohol kills over 1,000 New Zealanders a year and Mr Dunne refuses to even get it tested to see if it contains an illegal Class B drug. Meanwhile he bans these synthetic cannabis products which have yet to kill anyone.
At the very least, the testing needs to be done. It only costs $5,000 – a cost the Government is prepared to bear to test synthetic cannabis.

Suppose that wine was tested and found to contain GHB. Would Mr Dunne be true to his word and prevent wine growers from supplying ‘New Zealanders with substances that are unproven and potentially unsafe.’ Of course not. The Government doesn’t to spend $5,000 to test wine because it doesn’t want to know the answer. It would all be too embarrassing and so this research will never be Dunne.