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Speech: Going inside our prisons Matt Robson

Going inside our prisons

11TH APRIL 2000

Speech to the Regional Heads of Prisons Meeting (RHPM 2000)

Hawkes Bay

11th April 2000

Hon. Matt Robson, Minister of Corrections


Talofa Lava, Kia Orana, Ni sa Bula, Taloha Ni, Malo e Lelei, Faka'alofa lahi atu

Tena Koutou, Tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Thank you for inviting me here today. As Minister of Corrections and on behalf of the Labour/Alliance government in New Zealand, I would like to welcome all of you who are from the different countries of the Pacific to our piece of the Pacific - New Zealand, Aotearoa.

I was particularly keen to attend this conference, because those of us here today represent more than the prisons of our countries: in this room are represented the people, the cultures, the families and the communities of the Pacific.

It is up to us to face the problem of crime, to listen to our communities, and to work towards solutions.

It is also up to us to ensure that we get the best people for the job working in our prisons, and that we train and motivate them to achieve their personal best.

I am particularly encouraged to see that you are discussing better ways of training and professional development of prison staff. It is an area I am particularly interested in, and one we need to work on in New Zealand.

As the regional heads and managers of prison your country, you will be well aware that we all continue to face tough challenges in the area of crime.

You will also be aware that more and more young Pacific Island people are ending up in New Zealand jails.

We must work together therefore not just for the security of our own back yards, but for the security and future of the whole region.

Lifting the veil of secrecy

I want to look at the facts at what goes on in our jails and who ends up in them.

I believe the time has come to lift the veil of secrecy and mystery that covers our prison system.

We had the courage to do it with the old mental institutions of the past. Now we must let New Zealanders see and understand what it is our prisons do.

Most people have very little idea of what goes on inside a prison. They've seen the film Alcatraz and they've seen the slow-motion footage on the 6 o'clock news of the guilty disappearing behind concrete and bars.

Now we have to have the courage to show people what happens behind the concrete, what happens after the 6 o'clock news.

I want to make our prison system accountable to the New Zealand public.

If we're getting it right, I want the community to be involved. If we're getting it wrong, I want people to know that too.

The public has a right to know. That means getting the community more involved with our prison work; it means wherever possible and where appropriate allowing the media better access to prisons and those people within the prison system.

Because our security as a community depends on what we do inside our prisons.

Facts not myths

People must be equipped with information and facts, not fear and myths. Lack of information leads to fear.

Here are some of the facts: the tangata whenua of this country make up 15% of the population, but around 44% of the prison population.

38% of Maori offenders return to prison within a year of being released.

More Pacific Islanders are joining the prison population in this country every day.

The statistics are grim.

An average prison inmate in this country is poorly educated, maybe not even literate. He probably has no qualifications or specific job skills.

He comes from a dysfunctional background. Drugs, alcohol and violence have played a huge part in this life.

He's probably 27 years old.

And here’s another fact: New Zealand has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world.

The US has the highest. In that country there are more African Americans in jail than in higher education.

Only a few weeks ago, the US jailed its 2 millionth person. The headline in the papers read like a McDonalds sales goal: '2 million hamburgers sold in one hour!' Except two million in prison is not a badge of honour.

What has gone wrong here? That is the question we must ask ourselves. And what can we do about it?

92% of New Zealanders voted in a recent referendum for a review of the justice system, for victim compensation, for minimum sentencing and work for inmates.

I would argue that 100% of New Zealanders have lost faith in the justice system.

We have to give people a reason to believe that we can make our streets safe by resourcing and developing the best crime prevention programmes available.

Tikanga Maori

Maori are disproportionably represented in our prisons. Why is that? Are Maori more inherently violent and prone to crime? Of course not.

Maori are the least employed, the most poorly educated in our society.

There are many new initiatives from the government to begin to turn these statistics around. The Gaps Committee has been set up to specifically target the gap between Maori and Pakeha. The Ministry of Economic Development will pump assistance and venture capital into Maori areas of high unemployment.

But I convinced that the best solutions that will stand the test of time will come from Maori, from the community, from iwi, hapu and whanau.

My job as Minister of Corrections is to hustle as hard as I can for the resources to fund Maori run programmes in our prisons. I believe that is the most effective way to tackle Maori offending.

There is a very limited government budget, and I have to live with the fact that I won't get the funding to do everything that I want to do.

But I can tell you today that I am confident I will have extra funding to increase Tikanga Maori programmes within our prisons.

Is it appropriate that this conference is taking place at Hawkes Bay prison which pioneered the first Maori Focus Unit in the country in 1997.

Others have since opened. It is one of our success stories, and I congratulate all those involved.

The unit has built upon Maori programmes that seek to bring about changes in behaviour using Maori values and discipline.

That is why I pleased to tell you today, that further funding of Maori programmes is in the pipe line.

I would like to quote from a prison inmate who recently took part in a Mahi Tahi course.

Mahi Tahi is a particularly successful Maori programme, and a new initiative whose inspiration is older than any of us. It is a uniquely Maori approach to rehabilitation involving concentrated teams of Maori working with Maori inmates.

This is what the inmate said after taking part in the Mahi Tahi programme:

"The present system is not working for our people and you don't have to be a brain surgeon to work that out – because there are jails springing up all over the place.

"(The Mahi Tahi programme) was the first time I had ever enjoyed being in a school-type situation and I think I learnt more in four days than I ever did during my three years at high school. Five men, including myself, gave up smoking dope, and I can honestly say I have not touched the stuff since.

"Show me where smoking dope fits into our tikanga and I will start tomorrow."

That is the secret to programmes like this, and the new initiatives like the Bicultural Therapy Model which uses Maori leaders alongside prison psychologist: Maori offenders, for the first time, realise that their crimes are against their own lore, not just the law of the land.

Research carried out by the Department of Corrections indicates that Maori offenders are significantly less likely to seek psychological help.

If they did seek a prison psychologists, often Pakeha, they would use culture as a way of refusing to face up to their offending. An inmate might say "that's a cultural thing and I'm not going to talk about it."

Working alongside Maori service providers has started to break down those blocks.

Any initiative in our prison system must pass this simple test: does it make the offender truly confront the consequences of his or her offending? What does it do to turn criminal behaviour around? Will it deliver offenders back into the community as safe individuals?

As Minister I know that the Tikanga Maori programmes already in the prisons are our best bet of achieving results. I want to make sure we build on these initiatives.

Getting and keeping the best staff for the job

Rehabilitation programmes inside the prisons will only succeed if we have the best staff available on the job.

That means making sure that the time and resources are made available for the professional training of our staff.

It means finding ways to motivate and encourage staff every day.

Our Corrections staff in New Zealand must not see themselves simply as the guardian of keys. They are on the front line of community safety.

If our staff do their job, and if we in government do our job, then we stand a real chance of turning criminal behaviour around.

There will always be bad apples amongst the many. One staff member who breaks the code of conduct lets the side down for the hundreds of other staff who work hard.

But for each bad apple that falls from the tree we must ask ourselves, why has this happened? Are there aspects of prison culture that need to be changed in order to stop these incidents happening in the future?

Changing the working culture of the prison system for the better takes a long time.

It needs the passion and commitment not only of Corrections management and officials, but also the direct involvement of staff themselves.

I intend to work more closely with prison staff and their Union representatives to make sure that when we ask the question: 'how can we get the best staff for the job, and keep them?' that staff are involved in helping us find the answers.

There is another way in which we develop the commitment of our staff: by getting them directly involved in the best rehabilitation programs in our prisons.

I recently attended the graduation of the first team of prison and probation staff to take the new Integrated Offender Management programme into the prisons.

Their job is to target the reasons for offending by working directly with inmates. They must assess how each inmate thinks and acts, and then work to change not just the behaviour but the thinking that led to the behaviour.

Part of the programme is called Straight Thinking, and that's exactly what it sets out to achieve – straight thinking.

These techniques have proved successful in reducing the re-offending rate by up to 13% overseas. I want to see if we can do even better in New Zealand.

Staff support for these programmes is vital. Without that I have no doubt that we will fail. That is how important it is to work with staff and their Unions to ensure we work together to reduce crime.


We have a limited budget for Corrections. My challenge as Minister is to make sure that what we do fund in the coming years are successful pilots so that I can continue to push and push for funding in the areas that I know will ultimately reduce re-offending.

It's important to keep reminding ourselves why we are doing this work.

We do it because of one simple word: victims.

When a crime is committed there are many victims. There is the direct victim of the crime whose voice has long since been lost in the present justice system. This government intends to do something about that.

That voice represents us all and must be central in the system.

The families of victims suffer. The families of offenders suffer. The community losses it's mana and its confidence. Fear replaces hope.

We all become victims.

That is why I am pushing hard in budget discussions now, to increase funding for victim rights in the courts and compensation and for further Restorative Justice projects.

I want to see victims in our Court system better supported and better informed.

Restorative Justice

I want to see victim-focused justice, where victims needs whether emotional, material or financial are met. That is what Restorative Justice is all about.

Last month I launched New Zealand's first Restorative Justice Practice Manual which will be used as a working guide in the restorative justice pilot scheme in Waitakere District Court.

I hope to be in a position soon to announce further pilots in adult courts.

Community involvement

In conclusion, the thread that pulls all these strands together is this: community involvement in the justice system.

I want to keep the community informed about what goes on inside our prisons.

Where ever possible and appropriate I want New Zealanders to see inside our prisons.

Whether we like it or not, whether it's five years or ten years, one day most offenders return to our streets.

The public has a right to know that we're doing the best we can to turn criminal behaviour around.

I want to make sure our prison and probation staff are fully involved in the process of making New Zealand prisons the best that they can be.

I want to see programmes and tools used that place victims clearly in the centre of the justice system.

Victims must be empowered to put their lives back together and ultimately to leave the word 'victim' behind.

Finally I want to be part of a prison system in this country that believes in its mission to turn the high rates of re-offending around.

We don't have enough resources. What we do have is some very dedicated people both in the Department of Corrections and in community groups across New Zealand.

We have the will and the knowledge. Our enemy is fear. I believe together we can succeed where others have failed.


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