Letter and the law: Prisoner correspondence law change 'not appropriate'

11:09 am on 16 August 2019

The law governing prisoners' letters should not change, a law professor is warning, after the Christchurch mosque shootings accused sent two letters that should have been blocked.

No caption.

Photo: 123RF

Corrections is imposing unprecedented restrictions on any further letters written by the accused shooter, after an inflammatory letter he sent from prison was posted to the 4chan website, and another letter was revealed to have been sent when it should not have been.

Not only will his letters now have to be scrutinised by intelligence experts and psychologists, but only the head of Corrections will be able to approve any being sent.

Tighter controls are also being imposed on other inmates with extremist views, after a white nationalist prisoner sent another problematic letter to Newshub.

Corrections chief executive Christine Stevenson has apologised and taken responsibility over the breach, and confirmed to Morning Report today about 100 such prisoners had been identified.

"We work with partner agencies, police and others. We have our own intelligence function and we collect intelligence through a variety of means," she said.

Partner organisations also included the GCSB and NZSIS, she said.

"We have always worked with those partner agencies, as part of the increased surveillance of mail going out we are seeking expert advice from a number of quarters, that includes people who work in this area ... academics who study in this area.

"We've been working with a range of people with expertise since March."

Both the intelligence officer and the prison director who signed off on the Christchurch accused's letter were still in their jobs, she said, but she was not sure yet if that would change.

"I will turn my mind to the employment matters next week.

"I am certain I do not have a sympathiser on my hands ... we've had failure of judgement on the part of our staff and I am extremely disappointed as are they - they are distraught about this - and I think I've taken the right steps by inserting more steps into the process with more eyes on," she said.

Massey University law professor Chris Gallavin said Ms Stevenson's apology was appropriate, and he was reassured that in the short term enough would now be done to safeguard the public from the harmful ideologies of the accused.

Chris Gallavin

Chris Gallavin Photo: supplied

However, he warned that this was a special case and should be a short term fix.

"And that the processes will be corrected and there won't, long term, need to be such a vast array of people and resources needed in order to monitor the letters of 100 individuals and that actually the hundreds if not thousands of letters that are sent by prisoners every day will be better checked as a general rule in future."

He said Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis' calls for the laws governing prisoners' letters to be reviewed were not necessary, however.

Kelvin Davis, Minister for Crown/Māori Relations, Corrections, and Tourism

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

"I don't think on this point there's anything wrong with the legal framework, this is a breakdown of the process of the application of what is a very simple and straightforward legal framework," he said.

"If the suggestion of the legal framework not being appropriate is actually alluding the fact that prisoners ought not to be able to send letters, then I don't think that's appropriate."

"Almost in every circumstance you could imagine in open society, law is not black and white. It is always going to be open to interpretation and this is no different.

"There's always going to be a human element in this unless we can come up with some algorithm ... they're going to have to be looked at by a human being and that's going to involve an element of discretion and in this circumstance I think that's entirely appropriate."

He said he was generally confident in the ability and training of the intelligence officers checking the mail.

"They are very highly-trained. I have great faith in our systems and processes generally as far as the training that is given to our officers who are in the front line in all sorts of different areas to be able to administer these things."

He agreed with Ms Stevenson that many groups had been consulted about how to handle the prisoner in question.

"My understanding is we brought quite an extensive team over from Norway who were in charge of the prison and looking after the legal framework where Anders Breivik is concerned.

"We also have some academics in New Zealand that I know personally who are working with Corrections who are world leaders as far as the extreme alt right is concerned."

One of the experts the Royal Commission into the attacks has consulted, University of Oslo's centre for research on extremism director Tore Bjørgo, was involved with the Anders Breivik case and told Morning Report Breivik's ability to communicate is strictly controlled.

"He was under strict conditions of no visitors and no communication but after a while that was lightened a bit so he was able until the main trial to have some communication with outsiders including some correspondence," he said.

"After he was convicted he was put under some very strict conditions in prison and he is totally cut off from any kind of communication with the outside. He has been able to send some letters to public figures and the police and so on but not to outsiders."

He said the man accused of the Christchurch attacks had drawn inspiration from Breivik and was now serving as an inspiration for others.

"What happened in Norway with 77 people killed was kind of seen as a kind of outlier, an exception in the general patterns of right-wing terrorism. Now it seems to be the new standard against which new wannabe terrorists measure their success against."

Anders Behring Breivik is pictured on the last day of the appeal case in Borgarting Court of Appeal at Telemark prison in Skien, Norway in 2017.

Anders Breivik on the last day of the appeal case in Borgarting Court of Appeal at Telemark prison in Skien, Norway in 2017. Photo: Lise AASERUD / NTB Scanpix via AFP

He said the trial of Christchurch attacks trial should emulate the Norway example by being very transparent, and said that was what he and a colleague had told the Royal Commission.

"The trial of Breivik was I think a trial for democracy and the rule of law, and that's something we take pride in. It was a very transparent trial where the accused was given time and space to present his case but he was also confronted very powerfully by the prosecutors.

"We gave our description of what had happened in Norway and the responses, what was good and what was not so good. I think we highlighted the need for using the trial as an opportunity to defeat these kinds of violence - the kind of anti-democratic terrorist orientation of the perpetrator - using the full force of the rule of law in a very open and transparent way."

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