22 Sep 2022

Corrections plans: Last chance for feedback on wide-ranging prison reforms

7:37 am on 22 September 2022
A corrections officer

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Submissions on proposed changes to the prison system which will help decide everything from how people are assigned to a jail to how they are treated close tomorrow.

The Department of Corrections is seeking final feedback on a discussion document, which outlines Options to achieve improved outcomes in the Corrections system.

The document discusses seven areas of proposed change, which Corrections said would improve rehabilitation, reintegration and safety.

These included: increasing digital monitoring, allowing people on remand to mix with people who have been sentenced, and continuing to use the body temperature scanners brought in for Covid-19.

Corrections said it wanted to increase monitoring of prisoners' communication because of changing technology and criminal patterns.

While it can currently monitor mail and phone calls, it wanted to extend this to video calling, internet-based communication, and in-person visits. It also wanted the legislation to be updated so that this would be done by artificial intelligence instead of staff.

The department said the Corrections Act should also specify how any information it collected should be used, stored and shared.

It said people should be assigned to male and female prisons after a range of factors had been considered, because current regulations required people to be placed solely based on the sex listed on their birth certificate.

The current legislation also prohibited light switches and screens around toilets for people in isolation - whether they were there for punishment or because of poor mental health - even when it was safe to have these.

Corrections said giving people in prison more privacy supported their wellbeing. It also acknowledged that limiting access to privacy and light switches routinely attracted criticism from the Chief Ombudsman, who considered it degrading treatment.

The agency said there was no coherent statement of how Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Corrections and Public Service Acts worked together. It was asking for feedback on improving rehabilitation and reintegration outcomes for Māori, as part of wider systemic change in the justice sector.

Body temperature scanners have been used on prisoners and staff during the pandemic to reduce the chance of Covid-19 being transmitted within prison walls. This is only allowed in emergency situations, but the department wanted the option of using them any time, and to extend their use to prison visitors.

It also wanted to use imaging technology to replace strip searches. Corrections said while this was the intention of previous amendments to the Act, the clauses have caused "operational uncertainty", meaning that in many situations, strip searches have not been replaced.

The department was proposing to formally share information with the Inland Revenue Department, which it said the Privacy Commissioner supported.

It said Inland Revenue used information from Corrections to pause prisoners' child support payments, and to detect fraud and organised crime. The agencies were already sharing the information through a loophole in the Tax Administration Act.

Corrections said it will analyse feedback on the proposed changes before providing the Corrections Minister with its final recommendations.

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