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O’Connor: Opening of reintegration unit, Rimutaka

Hon Damien O’Connor
Minister of Corrections,
Minister of Tourism,
Minister for Rural Affairs,
Associate Minister of Health

30 October, 2006 Speech
Speech to open reintegration unit, Rimutaka Prison

Kia Ora,

Welcome and thank you for joining me today to open Rimutaka Prison’s reintegration unit – the first of its kind in New Zealand.

I would like to acknowledge my colleagues Parekura Horomia, Paul Swain … and representatives from Upper Hutt City and Hutt City Councils.

Let me start by saying something I’m sure you all know, New Zealand’s prison population is too high.

In October 1999 there were approximately 5700 prisoners. Today there are over 7700 and within five years it could be nearing 9000. In the developed world, only the United States lock up more people per capita than we do.

To accommodate the increasing prison population the Government has invested nearly $1 billion in new facilities in Northland, north Waikato, Otago and Manukau, and in upgrading existing prisons.

While community safety is our absolute priority, we cannot continue to let prison numbers increase on this scale and we cannot afford to build further prisons.

That is why it is an important that we remain focused on reducing re-offending. Over a quarter of all male prisoners are re-imprisoned within 12 months of their release. A quarter of all re-imprisonment occurs within three months of release.

Our goal is to reduce this rate, and this unit will make an important contribution to that aim.

Being imprisoned can have significant consequences for a prisoner. They lose their job and their accommodation. They are probably no longer able to support their families, and their relationships can be adversely affected in other ways.

All this can lead offenders into a cycle of institutionalisation and puts added financial pressure on the state.

In August, the Government announced the Effective Interventions package, which includes a number of strategies to get our criminal justice system working better. It means we will be able to more effectively punish offenders and make better use of our prisons.

These strategies include a sentencing council and sentencing guidelines, the reform of parole and the introduction of new community-based sentences. It also incorporates proposals for expanding rehabilitation and restorative justice and, most importantly in this context, the Government is committed to improving the reintegration of prisoners into the community.

A number of important steps have already been undertaken.

Reintegration caseworkers are working to prepare high-needs prisoners for release into the community, with the goal of reducing the risk of re-offending.

Common reintegrative needs include accommodation, employment, managing relationships, community support, and managing finances. Reintegration caseworkers are expected to work with up to 40 percent of prisoners being released.

The Ministry of Social Development and the Department of Corrections have worked together to place Work and Income work brokers and case managers permanently in prisons to help prisoners nearing release to find suitable work before they are release.

Other steps taken this year include:

- A new Prisoner Employment Strategy, launched in May, will significantly increase job and training opportunities for prisoners. It is important to remember that more than half of all prisoners have no qualifications and were not in paid work prior to sentencing.

- Doubling the amount of Drug and Alcohol Treatment units in our prisons so that up to 550 prisoners per year will, by 2008/2009, be able to receive the kind of intensive treatment that is essential for them to turn their lives around.

- Corrections is testing a comprehensive new health screening tool to ensure we identify mental health and addiction needs, including gambling.

- The department will roll out new motivational programmes to help give offenders the drive to change their lifestyles.

- The Government is working to improve the Health-Corrections interface so that mentally unwell prisoners receive the best possible care.

- Two new high-intensity special treatment units. Programmes running in these units have been shown to significantly reduce re-offending rates.

- We are boosting treatment programmes for offenders serving community-based sentences. These will include more domestic violence programmes to combat a jump in offending in this area, and an expansion of Tikanga Maori programmes.

- We have made some real progress on expanding the use of the Release to Work scheme. Release to Work is a form of temporary release that allows prisoners nearing release to be employed during the day in paid employment in the community. It provides prisoners with a stable work record and job experience and the job is often carried on after their release. In the last six months the numbers working in the community at any one time has increased from about 15 to in excess of 60. I am committed to see this, and in-prison employment opportunities, grow even further.

I would also like to commend the hard work that community and prisoner support agencies do to help prisoners on their release from prison.

PARS has a long and distinguished history assisting prisoners and much of the work they do is voluntary. I would like to applaud them for the incredibly valuable work they are doing in the area of reintegration.

Orongomai marae has close links with Rimutaka prison and has been working with offenders when they are released from prison for many years now – thank you for this.

The Operation Jericho initiative run by Prison Fellowship is another excellent example of how community groups and volunteers can assist inmates, both before they are released and during they transition period when they are first released. The programme links mentors to prisoners and tries to ensure offenders have a supportive environment in place post-release.

I would also like to applaud local council leaders for their encouragement. In February 2003, the Wellington Leaders Forum indicated its desire to support moves to improve prisoner reintegration in the Wellington region.

This unit brings all these positive components together.

The unit is unique because it will provide specialist custodial accommodation for 60 prisoners and will aim to reduce re-offending by increasing prisoners’ general competence, self-responsibility and self-reliance.

The Unit will work with those prisoners who have the highest reintegrative needs and will allow them acquire skills that can be used to address those needs.

The Unit will also provide an environment where prisoners can participate on release to work and vocational training.

It will form the base for the Wellington Regional Reintegration Team and a hot-desk will be maintained for the Probation Service, PARS, prison Chaplains, Operation Jericho and Housing New Zealand, allowing all involved to have a central point of operation and focus.

It is important to remember that all but the very worst prisoners will eventually return to the community at some point.

It is in all our interests to prepare them so they have the opportunity to get on with their lives and become productive members of society.

It therefore gives me much pleasure to declare this reintegration unit open.

ENDS

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