11 Apr 2024

Corrections defends pace of change: 'There is no reluctance'

6:30 pm on 11 April 2024
Corrections Chief Custodial Officer, Neil Beales

Deputy Commissioner for Prisons Neil Beales Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Corrections is pushing back against claims it has been too slow to make changes after Covid-19, saying staffing levels are improving - and there's no reluctance to improve.

Chief ombudsman Peter Boshier appeared at select committee on Thursday morning warning of a lack of change since the Covid-19 lockdowns, and pointing to a continued practice of having some prisoners in isolation for 23 hours a day.

He complained of a culture at Corrections focusing on containment and management rather than rehabilitation, and said there seemed little motivation to change.

Phoning in from Remutaka Prison on Thursday afternoon, deputy commissioner for prisons Neil Beales said he understood the ombudsman's view but he fundamentally disagreed.

"There is no reluctance to change here, we are wanting to get back to what we were doing prior to the Covid years - but that is going to take time in order to recruit people to these roles that we need to fill.

"Nobody wants things to stay as they are, everybody wants to see some improvement.

"We have had significant staff shortages, this has been reported on widely in the press over recent times and that has largely taken place from 2020 onwards and of course through the Covid period of time we were very much in a containment phase."

Beales was previously chief custodial officer at Corrections for 12 years, and said things were much improved at Auckland prison since the ombudsman's last visit there.

"Their staffing levels are much much healthier and things are now beginning to return to normal," he said.

This meant the prison was back to having lower and higher security prisoners typically out of their cells from 8am to 3.30pm every day, maximum security prisoners getting more than their minimum entitlements, and the return of visitation for low and high security prisoners.

The prison director and general manager also planned to resume maximum security prison visits very soon, he said.

"Things are getting better, I think everybody is of the same view that there is more work."

He said he fundamentally disagreed with Boshier's view the approach was being dumbed down.

"That's not what I see when I go out into prisons, when I engage with managers and their teams," he said. "Staff are eager to get back to what we used to do and they know the value of having good programmes and good engagement with prisoners because that's how you make prisons safe - and that's how people change."

Ombudsman Peter Boshier

Chief ombudsman Peter Boshier. Photo: RNZ / Phil Smith

He argued Corrections was a unique agency in New Zealand unlike those at other public sector agencies.

"I'd be interested in agencies that he would compare to what we do, because we are the only corrections agency in the country and what we do is quite unique and specific. We deal with thousands of people coming through our system every day, 9500 people in prison, about 30,000 people we manage in the community, we have about 10,000 staff to do all that ... we've had a significant shortfall of staff."

He said the South Island was now back to full visitation policies, and across most of the North Island as well although "there's still a couple of areas where there's a little bit more work to do".

He said staffing was "absolutely the key" to restoring those visitation rights.

Staffing concerns and a growing prison population

Beales said some prisons were still at 70 to 75 percent staffing, and running a prison like that made things more difficult, as they needed to be able to carry out their normal business safely.

"If you don't have the appropriate staffing it's dangerous, people are going to get hurt, we work with some difficult and dangerous people at some of our sites and to do so would be completely irresponsible.

"If we're going to open units with short staffing, then our staff are not safe, prisoners are not safe, and ultimately the public are not safe."

Recruitment was much improved, and staff retention had turned a corner, he said.

"We are seeing hundreds of applications coming through, thousands of applications ... it's easier to sometimes recruit when it's a more urbanised environment, little bit harder when you're in a little bit more rural environment, but we are working at ways in which to attract more people to us.

"We're now seeing more people coming in than are leaving us overall. I think obviously the current economic climate is having its own impact on that as well - just a year ago people had options, there was many many jobs that people could leave and walk into, that's not so much the case anymore.

"We've also been working really really hard on retaining our own staff for all the right reasons ... keep them engaged, give them a good pathway, give them a good career progression."

A correction officer

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

He said there was also a significant training period required, which also slowed things down. He would not put a time on when he expected to be back up to full staff, saying it also depended on location, but Auckland Prison was up to nearly full staff.

They were also dealing with an increasing prison population of about 9500 prisoners.

"That's about 1000-odd prisoners over the last year or so that's come in to an environment that was significantly short-staffed to begin with."

Prisoners needed to be moved around the country to ensure they got access to the appropriate rehabilitation programmes, and staffing levels made that more difficult, he said, and it all needed to be matched to the right levels of security.

Part of the problem was a large increase in the number of remand prisoners.

"We are now seeing a much higher portion of our prisoners who are on remand than ever before .. these are prisoners who have not yet been convicted or sentenced for the crime which they've been accused of. There's actually very little we can do right now with those people."

He said there was no option to put them on rehabilitation programmes because they had not yet been convicted, and uncertainty over how long those prisoners would need to be held made it more complicated.

Minister Mark Mitchell had asked them to look at what could be done on that, he said.

He said the department had been restructured - a process started more than a year ago, before the election - which he said had been specifically designed to increase the ability for Corrections to work closer with other agencies, the community, and understanding who could do what when.

He expected that would stand them in good stead amid the government's cuts to public services.

"Are there going to be challenges going ahead? Absolutely there will be. Are we ready to face those challenges? We are, we are doing really well in many areas - particularly as the ombudsman has pointed out in places like Tongariro where we have low, medium and minimum prisoners.

"But we are facing challenges in that remand space, and that is having an impact on our high-security space."

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