20 Apr 2019

Gang members in prisons 'create violence, fear', report finds

6:08 am on 20 April 2019

Newly released reports into three New Zealand prisons show the ongoing challenges of managing gang-affiliated inmates, staffing levels and keeping prisons clean.

prison generic, hands in prison cell

Gang members make up almost 40 percent of New Zealand's prison population. Photo: 123RF

The reports were completed by a team of independent inspectors and overseen by the chief inspector of Corrections Janis Adair.

Otago Corrections Facility was inspected in March 2018, Rimutaka Prison in October 2017 and Auckland South Corrections Facility in September 2017. The reports were made public this week.

Corrections Department's chief custodial officer Neil Beales.

Neil Beales Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales said, as a whole, the facilities were operating well and to a high standard.

However, concerns across all facilities were around managing gang member inmates, who make up 38 percent of the 10,000-strong prison population.

"The activities that a lot of gang members take part in, in prison cause violence, it creates hostility, it creates standovers, it causes fear among some other prisoners and it creates significant challenges for staff.

"Indeed, several of our staff have been hurt as a result of of gangs targeting them and sometimes that will be completely unprovoked and out of the blue and only for the purpose of somebody perhaps maybe getting patched up or because a senior gang member has told them to do it," Mr Beales said.

Corrections has a national gang strategy and staff were provided with body cameras, stab resistant body armour and pepper spray.

At Otago, inspectors noted some prisoners complained about the long transfer periods in the van if they were going between prisons and the arrangements around using toilets.

Mr Beales said transporting prisoners was a challenge.

"They are what they are. They are a cell inside a vehicle; they are designed that way. They have to be secure and of course, we're also challenged by the geography of New Zealand itself. It's not practical or possible for us just to pull over on the side of the road and open the doors to let people out to relieve themselves. We can't just pull into the local restaurant or McDonald's."

Inside Otago Prison near Milton

Prisoners have been transferred to the Otago Corrections Facility because other prisons have reached capacity, adding to the pressure on the facility's staff. Photo: DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

The Otago report also found staff members were struggling with an increase in prisoners being transferred down south as a result of other prisons becoming full.

Mr Beales said when the report was done the prison population was at its peak.

"The prison population peaked at just over 10,800 in March 2018. Every prison at that point - they were all full and every bed space was required."

"This was probably just before the prison population started to come down again. Over the last two or three years the prison population has been rising rapidly but from about March, April last year, we began to see it drop again."

Rimutaka Prison.

Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt near Wellington. Photo: RNZ

At Rimutaka some prisoners complained of mouldy mattresses and the report found some Corrections staff were "over-familiar" with inmates.

"Some did not challenge inappropriate behaviour, such as prisoners entering other prisoners' cells," the report said.

Mr Beales said all staff knew they needed to remain professional.

"We do require our staff to work hand in hand with prisoners day in and day out and you have to have some kind of rapport with the prisoners but you have to draw a line as well.

"Do your job, be friendly, but you can't be their friend... it's something that we have to continue to monitor."

He also said improvements had been made in ordering stock since the report was done and if mattresses or other bedding were seen to be no longer appropriate fresh stock was being swapped in.

"We advise prisoners to try and take proper hygienic measures and keep their keep their cells and areas clean and aired out but... some will take better care of their immediate surroundings than others."

Broken items take a long time to be fixed, inmates say

At Auckland South Corrections Facility, which is run by private company Serco, inspectors found some complaints around cleanliness, maintenance and a lack of hot water.

"Prisoners we spoke to were generally happy with the facilities, however, all prisoners interviewed advised that household items such as microwave ovens and vacuum cleaners in the units were frequently broken and that it took a long time to get them fixed.

"During our inspection we observed that one prisoner had no electrical power in his room. This fault had existed for four weeks, despite the prisoner notifying staff. The issue was fixed during our inspection," the report said.

"We spoke to one prisoner who had recently arrived. The prisoner advised he was placed in a cell that had not been cleaned before his arrival. The cell toilet was blocked and he had to urinate in the sink. We observed that his cell had no telephone or working computer, and there was extensive graffiti. A strong offensive odour was also noticeable in the cell."

Serco's response in the report stated an audit had since been undertaken to understand why these issues were present.

"In this instance, it was determined that the blocked toilet had been identified and reported, but the cell had not been placed out of order for this period. A process has since been implemented that identifies cells out of order."

Prisoners at the Serco facility also complained about inadequate unlock time.

"Four out of five prisoners interviewed were unhappy with the amount of unlock time. Of those, three said their unlock time was reduced when there were staffing shortages. Some prisoners said staff did not always unlock prisoners according to the rostered unlock times. In addition, some staff showed preferential treatment and gave certain prisoners extended unlock times," the report said.

Serco said it was working with Corrections to manage unlock time better.

"When unplanned absences result in unmet minimum staffing levels, the prison redeploys staff from non-essential posts to maintain regular unlock times and the activities schedule."

Prisoners complain of being underprepared for parole hearings

The reports also noted that some prisoners struggled to access rehabilitation, work experience or education programmes and some were underprepared going into a parole hearing, due to staffing levels and resourcing issues.

Mr Beales said it was an area that was continually being worked on.

"It's very important we keep ramping this up. It's our job to make sure that we're doing everything in our power to increase those opportunities."

Just Speak director Tanya Sawicki Mead said without those programmes running well, people were not equipped for a good life on the outside.

"The downstream effect is that more and more people end up cycling in and out of the criminal justice system and in and out of prison because they face great stigma in returning to the community, having been to prison but not having had any help and addressing the drivers of their offending."

She said now the overcrowding had eased, more thought and investment needed to go into rehabilitation and re-integration programmes.

Mr Beales said overall the facilities were performing well and the information collated by the inspectors was hugely valuable.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs