Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has released a damning report urging the Department of Corrections to urgently fix a number of workplace culture and leadership problems.
Boshier says his investigation into how Corrections responded to repeated calls for improvements in the way prisoners are treated has revealed a divided organisation with systemic issues.
In releasing the Kia Whaitake|Making a Difference report he initiated following the 2020/2021 riots at Waikeria Prison, Boshier said he had identified a senior leadership team at the department that was "failing to address a risk-averse and reactive culture".
"I was concerned to find that people I interviewed during the course of my investigation consistently described a divided organisation and a pattern of disconnection at all levels, mainly between front-line prison staff and head office," he said.
He saw limited evidence that the department's senior leadership had paid serious attention to the feedback from staff surveys, he added.
And he had heard concerns about the department's lack of openness and accountability.
"I found that the department's senior leaders should have known about many of the culture and leadership issues identified in this investigation."
Boshier said he had also been surprised to find that "prisoners' rights were not at the heart of decisions made at every level of the organisation".
"Most prisoners will go back into society," he said. "It's important they are treated with dignity and respect to minimise their chances of reoffending."
Boshier said he had launched his investigation after becoming concerned at issues he saw coming up at Waikeria and other prisons "again and again" despite "countless recommendations for change by both me and other oversight agencies".
"Those issues included unreasonable lock up hours, a lack of privacy in toilet and shower areas and, in the case of Waikeria, decrepit conditions in its high security areas," he said.
"The department accepted most of the recommendations yet the riots occurred."
Boshier said Corrections had legal obligations to treat prisoners fairly, safely and humanely, and to make sure their living conditions met an acceptable standard, but the department's approach to its governing legislation was too narrow.
"That is why I am recommending that the Corrections Act 2004 and the Corrections Regulations 2005 are reviewed to make sure Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and relevant international human rights obligations such as the Mandela Rules, are given greater emphasis."
Boshier said there needed to be better governance, accountability and reporting, along with comprehensive strategies to improve Corrections' workplace culture and planning.
He accepted the department was trying to overhaul its approach but progress had been too slow and "the fair treatment and rights of prisoners have, unfortunately, been the collateral damage".
"I am aware that the current chief executive is making efforts to transform the way the department operates. However, the culture that is deeply rooted within the department has impeded the efforts of successive chief executives from making progress."
Other areas of concern identified in the report included a lack of cultural competency and capability across the department to work in partnership with Māori, and the department's tendency to explain away the concerns and recommendations of oversight bodies.
Boshier told Checkpoint he had repeatedly made recommendations to Corrections but changes have occurred at a "glacial" pace.
He said he made 32 prison inspections and made numerous recommendations since his appointment in 2015.
Corrections was being defensive, risk averse and believed it had made changes when there was no evidence of it on the ground, he said.
"I would never have embarked on this project if I wasn't utterly frustrated ...at the lack of traction and it's equally frustrating when I'm told publicly and otherwise that what I'm saying is being attended to when it's plainly not."
It also concerned him about "the lack of dignity" for prisoners as they went about activities such as taking a shower.
Boshier has recommended an independent advisory board or even a board of directors to oversee Corrections and audit its processes and activities.
Recommendations accepted - Corrections Minister
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told reporters the department had accepted all the report's recommendations, while also defending its record.
"I just want to push back on any sort of notion that Corrections has ignored the recommendations that these groups have made," he said.
"We have to realise that since 2017, Corrections has received from all of the monitoring groups close to 3000 recommendations, of which over 80 percent have been completed.
"There needs to be recognition of the work that Corrections has done."
Corrections was already subject to six monitoring groups, and senior leaders had done the best job they could, he said.
"If you look at the reduction in reoffending, the answer is yes. If you look at the fact that previously there wasn't even a Māori strategy let alone the Māori strategy now being Corrections' full strategy, I think yes there has been a number of improvements," he said.
"It's a very complex organisation, there are comments about it being risk averse and if you look at the nature of the work that they do, they do have to consider all the risks and if things do go wrong they go badly wrong and there is a big public reaction. So it's really important that the safety of the public is looked after.
"That's not to say Corrections can't do a lot better. I do share the frustration that often the speed of change is slow and I have expressed my concerns about that to the leadership team.
"I think it's essential given that over half of the prison population is Māori that we have tangata whenua involved in those monitoring functions."
Corrections said it accepted the conclusions of the report by the Chief Ombudsman, and independent scrutiny helped it improve.
It was already making some of the recommended changes, but it could not transform overnight, Corrections said in a statement.
It said it was improving staff capability and systems, and getting better at learning from failure.
It had already got better at responding to criticism from the agencies that monitor it, it said.