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Pita Sharples Speech On Prison Corruption Bill

Corrections Amendment Bill

Thursday 21 February 2008; 5.20pm

Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Maori Party

Last Friday’s Herald contained an interesting response from the Chief Executive of Corrections, in response to the Patten report inquiring into systematic corruption at Rimutaka Prison.

According to that newspaper, the Corrections boss, and I quote him, had “conceded there had been a malign culture at the prison for some time”.

It was an interesting word to use. Malign – meaning harmful or evil in nature or effect.

It is, therefore, timely, that this Bill is on the order paper, to improve the operations of the corrections system, and to tweak the 2004 Corrections Act in order to address the issues that have arisen since its implementation.

As this House knows, improving the operations of the Corrections system is and must be an absolute priority in order to increase public perception and confidence in the way in which the sentences and orders imposed by the courts and the Parole Board are managed.

If there is a negative institutional culture existing in any agency of the state, we must do everything we can to address it.

Question time has been rife with claims of bullying, of harassment, of assaults on staff members. We have heard the reports investigating into endemic smuggling of contraband.

And whilst the David Patten Inquiry concluded there was no ‘systemic corruption’ at Rimutaka, there were a number of worrying outstanding factors.

One was that there are allegations of corrupt activity by some staff which have been referred to the Police.

The other was that some of the most disturbing allegations could not be substantiated as the former officers who had come forward with these claims, refused to co-operate with the inquiry.

The claims that a prison was being controlled by gangs and that inmates compiled shopping lists of contraband for guards to smuggle in, whilst not able to be proven, are indications of an environment that warrants rigorous scrutiny.

And so we have before us today, a range of provisions to improve the control of contraband in prison; provisions to allow a consistent approach to the monitoring of prisoners’ telephone calls and mail; and provisions to allow the jamming of cellphone transmission.

Of particular concern to the Maori Party is that any search, detection and offence provisions be applied fairly to all - whether inmates or staff, whether gang-affiliated or not, whether Maori or not. This is something that we cannot emphasise too greatly.

In the case of Rimutaka, the Maori Party has been aware of the allegations of corruption and serious misconduct that have been described by the PSA as ‘a cloud of suspicion’ hanging over the staff.

We know too, that a number of prison staff have been suspended, The Patten report refers to staff employment processes which needed to be improved.

We frequently hear that exposure to sunlight is the most effective disinfectant. However, we have employment legislation which in order to protect people means that the disinfectant demanded by the public is often unable to be used.

The consequence of that means we remain “in the dark” and are left to speculate unless all parties involved agree to let “the sun shine in” so to speak.

So what is to be done to make the changes necessary to immediately address the so-called malignant culture at this prison, and others?

The Bill requires additionalsearch, detection and offence provisions to come into play to improve the control of contraband in prisons.

It includes within its scope that search powers will be extended to parts of the prison inhabited by people other than prisoners, that is staff.

Section 100 (1) is to be repealed and replaced by a new section which will authorise an officer to search any place in the prison – such as a staff member’s locker.

Presumably these new actions have been introduced as a result of what the Bill describes as an “increase in inexperienced staff members”.

This is an interesting observation. I recall the thoughts of Professor John Pratt in ‘Punishment in a Perfect Society: the New Zealand Penal System”.

Professor Pratt put forward three reasons as to why successive attempts at penal reform fail. There are constraints arising from a lack of funding; skilled staff may be lacking; and there is opposition by a public opinion demanding punishment rather than treatment.

And so the question must be asked – as to why there are not measures in this Bill to increase the professional development opportunities in order to upskill staff.

The emphasis is clearly on new legislative measures to punish and to prosecute rather than to educate and train.

We know that governments respond rather vigorously in election year to those demanding a get tough attitude towards ’crime’ whether real or imagined. It is always a vote winner.

This Bill while supposedly having an ’honourable’ intent is along with other bills which have come before this House and due to come before the House such as the Summary Offences (Tagging and Graffiti Vandalism) Amendment Bill are part of that vote catching, election year legislative parade.

The other key pressure that has created the need for this Bill is around theconcept of electronic communication. The Bill responds to the technological advances that have occurred with particular relevance to cellphones.

The Bill will now give the Department the authority to intercept, monitor, disable, disrupt and interfere with wireless transmissions to prevent cell-phone use.

The Bill states, in black and white, that within prison walls, cell-phones have been used by prisoners to organise further criminal offending, to threaten and harass witnesses and to organise escapes.

The bewildering thing beyond all of this of course, is how on earth prisoners are able to get away with their continued success in a criminal career while inside prison walls.

A couple of months ago in Christchurch, Judge Michael Crosbie, gave out a sentence for an offender who ‘fixed’ evidence with text messages from jail and noted at the sentencing that the Courts are seeing more and more of this type of offending organised by texting in a prison environment.

We therefore welcome the arrangements that have gone on between Corrections, Vodafone and Telecom to put in place blocking technology to put unauthorised cell-phones out of action.

I’m particularly pleased with the point about harassment. A lot of prisoners have used their cell-phones to harass their partners.

We are pleased that stiffer penalties are not the only option to address the threat of communications devices but that a more comprehensive block-out of coverage is being considered through more technical arrangements as well.

As I understand it the blocking technology has been rolled out in Hawkes Bay Prison and so we will be interested to hear any reports from the Minister as to how well that trial has gone.

Finally I want to refer to the new provisions around information sharing. This Bill continues the path of surveillance that we have seen in many other bills before this House. It extends the current provisions around the release of information on high risk offenders to the police to also include other relevant social agencies.

We will be keen to see whether the measures in this Bill can actually assist in facilitating the rehabilitation of offenders, or whether the emphasis is all on managing risk and monitoring the offender in their return to the community.

What we know is that some 41.1% of all prisoners are reconvicted within twelve months of release, and that figure rises to 56.4% after two years. Given these statistics, we are absolutely passionate about the need to introduce meaningful and effective reintegration and rehabilitation programmes.

We are happy to support this Bill through to the Select Committee to ensure that the voices of experience can be heard on this and other issues of contention in the Bill.


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