Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Barry Matthews: Help unlock our future potential

Herald readers could hardly have failed to notice Simon Collins' in-depth analysis of the issues around the prison system activities of the Corrections Department (see link to series of articles below).

Collins' considered discussion comes when the prisons are coping with high "musters" and are in the spotlight from media and politicians.

Of course, there is more to Corrections, which, in addition to managing 7500 prisoners each day, runs the Community Probation Service and looks after more than 65,000 sentences and orders a year.

In a just and humane society, this kind of debate is timely as prison "musters" run at all-time highs and are poised to get larger. Prisons are the managers of last resort of what is too often a long line of social failure. Losing your freedom to come and go is not a pleasant experience - you are not sent to prison to be punished, the fact you are there is the punishment.

It goes almost without saying that the efforts made to prepare and assist prisoners before and when they leave prison can improve their capacity to become successful citizens.

Having a job to go to can make a big difference, but this may be a test for communities, as was the case in Hawkes Bay when prisoners gained meaningful activity and filled a local labour shortage by picking apples. It would be fair to say that opinion on this seemed reasonably divided.

While much has been said about Corrections closing gardens and depriving prisoners of work, the reality is that as some work activities have ceased, many new ones better meet Corrections' objective of providing training and education in a more sustainable environment.

In fact, the number of hours worked by prisoners is much the same as it was three or four years ago, and more prisoners are getting qualifications that are relevant for their release. However, it is true that more work opportunities have yet to be provided for the surge in prisoner numbers, and that needs to be done.

Corrections has also been taken to task for not doing enough to rehabilitate people with substance dependencies and those with mental health issues. Prisoners are generally entitled to the same health care as other members of the community, and that includes addiction treatment. Corrections provides a lot of support and assistance for prisoners suffering from mental illnesses.

With a limit on resources, we have to prioritise rehabilitation and treatment towards those prisoners whose substance dependencies are giving rise to offending and those prisoners who are motivated to change.

Corrections does not limit its interventions to any one model and we do not think we can succeed in preventing reoffending without close partnerships with other organisations within and outside government.

We know a one-size rehabilitation programme does not fit all and the best solution must be tailored to the individual's risks and needs.

As around 50 per cent of offenders are Maori, focus units that aim to give Maori offenders an appreciation of their cultural roots are a feature in some prisons. As violence is a growing concern, more initiatives that help offenders to understand and manage their propensity for violence are also being offered.

Initiatives include the provision of $100,000 to the Books In Prison Trust to set up libraries in four women's prisons and this is being repeated this year.

Corrections is also providing $200,000 for temporary flats for newly released prisoners in Auckland in a partnership with Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Society (Pars) and Housing New Zealand. Other initiatives are taking place with organisations as diverse as the Prison Fellowship New Zealand and Pars, which runs the Montgomery House violence prevention programme.

Prison Fellowship New Zealand is working with us to provide programmes in the faith-based unit at Rimutaka Prison and to foster restorative justice through the Sycamore Tree programme and prisoner reintegration through mentoring of Operation Jericho.

Other activities aimed at reducing reoffending by improving the likelihood of a successful return to the community include a growing number of self-care units where prisoners close to release live in a flatting environment and are responsible for managing their household, including budgeting and buying food.

Work and Income has workbrokers and case managers in all prisons who undertake pre-release skills assessments and match the prisoners to employment opportunities in their regions.

In the context of funding, locking offenders up is expensive. Again, Corrections has been in the news for the cost of new prisons. Last year, we added 700 beds on time and on budget. But the cost of another three prisons in the building programme will be higher than anticipated, largely because of a doubling in the number of additional beds to nearly 1300, and the inevitable cost increases associated with a buoyant economy.

Anyone who has visited a prison will be aware of the effort that goes into preventing escapes and stopping prohibited items getting in. It is much harder to get contraband into prisons and this is showing up in a reduced rate of positive random drug tests.

All but a handful of the worst prisoners will return to the community at some time. If this is the case, logic suggests that everything reasonable should be done to ensure they make the most successful return possible.

Corrections has a role to ensure time in prison is spent constructively. But it is also up to communities and business to provide support and employment to prisoners who really want to change their behaviour.

It will be important that we work through the competing themes that prisons are too soft, they are too hard; prisoners don't get enough work in the community, the public is endangered by them working in the community; and not enough is done to rehabilitate or make prisoners well.

We would like to give them more activities, and that includes work. We are trying to reform, but we need the community's support. We can't be ambivalent or confused about our objectives.

Now is the time for New Zealanders to decide how our prison system can best meet the interests of us all, and that should include offenders.

* Barry Matthews is chief executive of the Department of Corrections.

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