16 Aug 2019

Cabinet to discuss ability of inmates to send letters

5:39 pm on 16 August 2019

As Corrections' letter-sending regulations come under scrutiny, lawyers warn it will be difficult to completely stop correspondence from prisoners with extremist views.

A hand holds onto the wire in prison

Photo: RNZ/ Aaron Smale

It comes two days after Corrections admitted the man accused of the Christchurch mosque attacks sent letters to supporters that should have been blocked - and after accusations today that self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi Philip Arps sent letters of a violent nature from his prison cell.

Arps was jailed in June for distributing the objectionable live-streamed video of the 15 March attacks and the letters were flagged in the Christchurch High Court this morning, where Arps was appealing his prison sentence.

Crown prosecutor Shivani Dayal said Crown had not obtained the letters, but she was concerned they could cause further damage by spreading a message of hate.

John Milne, whose 14-year-old son died in the mosque attacks, said he was disappointed to hear about the letters and worried it could encourage people to carry out a copy cat crime.

"I would say [to Corrections] - don't let anything in or out, without extreme perusal ... I don't think he should be allowed to send any more letters out, actually," he said.

Corrections have promised a crackdown in their processes in the wake of Tarrant's letters slipping through, including a team of analysts looking at letters from people identified as holding extreme ideologies.

Chief executive Christine Stevenson told Morning Report she wasn't ruling out employment ramifications for those responsible for letting the terror suspect send letters and from now, she would be handling letters to and from him personally.

Wellington based barrister Graeme Edgeler says he focuses on electoral law.

Graeme Edgeler Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

But Wellington barrister Graeme Edgeler said Tarrant's letters simply got out because the content was deemed lawful.

He said Corrections staff examine letters on a case-by-case basis - and letters will always need to conflict with certain criteria in order to be stopped.

"Does it threaten or intimidate someone? Does it endanger someone's safety? Does it pose a threat to the security of the prison? Does it encourage someone to break the law? There's half a dozen quite explicit things that you are not allowed to in a letter to or from a prisoner. If it does one of those things, they can withhold it. And if it doesn't, they can't," he said.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis at the announcement.

Kelvin Davis Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Corrections officials are advising Minister Kelvin Davis on possible law changes to prevent another slip-up, and that has prompted concern from Brenton Tarrant's mother.

Sharon Tarrant told the New Zealand Herald she was worried her only contact with her son might be stopped and it broke her heart to see the prison system being hammered "when they've never had to deal with anything like this before."

However, Massey University law professor Chris Gallavin said any suggestion prisoners ought not to be able to send letters is "inappropriate".

"There's always going to be a human element of this unless we come up with some algorithm that can be written by somebody, in an app that these leaders can be reviewed by, then they're going to have to be looked at by a human being," he said.

Mr Edgeler also thought Tarrant's mother didn't need to worry about correspondence with her son being blocked.

"There can be restrictions on other things that might be privileges, so they might be able to stop her making a physical visit if they think he's particularly dangerous," he said.

"But prisoners get to make phone calls - though the phone calls can be monitored. Prisoners get to send letters - though the leaders can be monitored. So she will still be able to send letters his to her son, and her son will still be able to send letters to her, as long as he doesn't do the types of things that Corrections can withhold a letter over."

Mr Davis said Cabinet would discuss on Monday whether the law around the ability of inmates to send letters is fit for purpose.

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