Friday 12 September 2014

Working Prisons – A Move toward Values- Based Prison Reform?

by Kim Workman

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley’s announcement that all prisons will be ‘working prisons’
within four years has met with a mixed public response.  It was a master stroke on the Minster’s part.  For the conservative right, the idea of a ‘working prison' will conjure up images of chain gangs, forced labour and a highly punitive regime.  

But that is not what is envisaged.  The Minister made it clear that in the working prison, inmates would have a “structured 40 hour week which included work experience, skills training, education and drug and alcohol counselling or other rehabilitation programmes.  The ‘working prison’ is in fact, a new name for an old ideal  - that in well run prisons, all prisoners would have a ‘structured day’ of the sort proposed.   The plan to expand the structured day to all 16 prisons has not been achieved before, and will be difficult (but not impossible) to achieve. 

The Minister took another positive step by debunking the myth that prisoners are work shy, making it clear that the vast majority of prisoners don't want to be sitting around in their cells doing nothing.  That has certainly been my experience.  I recall that in the early 90’s as Head of Prisons, those prisons with a strong work ethic, (Waikeria and Rangipo/Tongariro come to mind), had less disciplinary issues, and excellent working
relationships between staff and management.  Witako Prison (now Rimutaka) while very small, had a unit of up to 40 prisoners, who would daily leave the prison on work release, their lunch in a paper bag, for a variety of jobs in Hutt Valley factories.  Now and again, a prisoner would detour to a local pub, or visit a loved one; but in the knowledge that the privilege of work release would be immediately withdrawn.  It was never a great issue, certainly not something that the media  would turn into a matter of national significance. 

The key to a successful work regime, lay with the Prison Superintendent and senior management.  Charlie Hood, the Waikeria Superintendent was  my role model, and it always seemed to me that our conversations were really mentoring in disguise – although I’m not sure that modern management theory would allow someone to be mentored by a subordinate.  It was a large prison, but everyday Charlie would do the rounds talking with prisoners and staff - he seemed to know them all by name.  He was supported by able managers (Gavin Dalziel comes to mind), and ran a tight ship, but one in which prisoners were treated humanely.  Charlie was equally open to prisoners engaging in role play therapy, music and art.  Those relationships kept internal strife to a minimum, and set the tone for a positive and mutually engaging work environment. 

Superintendent Bob Severne at Rangipo/Tongariro was something of a character, and had the confidence of prisoners.   On one occasion when we had a major muster crisis, (with a busload of prisoners being driven around the North Island and nowhere to go), Bob persuaded a group of prisoners to move into a condemned cell block with no heating, in the middle of winter, - a variation on today’s self-management units.  They were given extra food as an incentive, and spent the next few weeks with their hands firmly attached to the heated towel rails.  He was succeeded by the late Heather Colby, the first female manager of a male prison, (who had been a school teacher).   Heather visited the units daily, and the prisoners joked that they showered twice daily, once on returning from work, and again just before she visited.  Under her regime, I counted six female Unit Managers, mostly local Maori women who had successfully raised their own families, and saw prison work as an opportunity to revisit their parenting skills.  A firm corrective hand, and a kind heart saw escapes and ‘walkaways’ plummet – prison officers (sometimes female) would supervise about 6 prisoners daily in the forest, with nary an incident. 

 All this occurred at a time when there were no double fences around prisons, no high class technology, and the only razor wire to be seen was at Paremoremo Prison, which did have extra security and was relatively escape proof (but remember Dean Whitcliffe?).  Escaping from prison was an easy thing to do, and when it started to occur on a regular basis, it was a signal that the prison was being poorly managed.  I have often wondered what would happen today, if we returned to the old regime, mowed down the fences and razor wire, and asked prison managers to depend on their ability to manage relationships, rather than minimise risk.  We would know within a week, which prisons required closer inspection. 

Prisoners as Risk  - Reducing Unlock Hours

The advent of managerialism into prisons, while inevitable, has changed the prison culture.  The extent of that change hit me when reading a report of a Visiting Justice, into a complaint by Arthur Taylor,  concerning the regime under which he has been recently subjected. 

Included in that report was reference to the Prison Operations Manual.   Instruction M.02.01.Res.02 establishes that the attributes of a unit in regards to such matters as unlock hours and visiting arrangements  are relevant to the risk management of prisoners. 
In relation to unlock hours it states:

1. The more freedom a prisoner has, the more opportunity they have to breach the good order, security or safety of the prison. 

2. In order to minimise the risk by limiting this opportunity, prison managers will determine a unit’s unlock hours based on the broad type of prisoner being accommodated in the unit.

3. Generally, the lower the risk of the prisoners, the longer the period of unlock.

Increased lockdown hours were introduced into prisons about 8 years ago, initially as a cost saving measure.  It reduced the number of prison officers required to staff the prison, and was regarded as an unsatisfactory but necessary approach.  I recall visiting the G4S prison in Melbourne, and comparing its response to a similar situation.  They too had increased lockdown hours, but were required to keep a record of their lockdown regime, and report any occasion when prisons were locked down for more than 14 hours a day. 

In New Zealand, the lockdown regime is out of control.  Prisoners who should not be locked down for long hours because of their security classification, are being housed in units which contain a ‘broad type of prisoner ”  within that unit, and are locked down for 18 to 21 hours a day, regardless of their security classification.    That practice is in clear breach of the  Corrections Act 2004, which provides that  “sentences and orders must not be administered more restrictively than is reasonably necessary to ensure the maintenance of the law and the safety of the public, corrections staff, and persons under control or supervision”.

Stories are currently emerging of prisoners on short sentences, serving their entire sentence in the high-medium pods at Rimutaka Prison, which were not approved or designed for that purpose. 

The Department of Corrections may well argue that the restriction of freedom can be justified in the interests of safety, security and good order.  But that is not what the evidence tells us.   There is substantial research on the impact of prisoner lockdowns for more than 18 hours a day  - administrative segregation and solitary confinement usually means being locked down for 22 to 24 hours.  The effect of long periods in confinement is compelling.  The experience acts as a powerful incubator, capable of producing pathological effects that lead to lasting emotional damage, functional disability and psychosis.  [1] [2] [3] [4]    According to Juan Méndez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, any period of isolation longer than 15 days should be considered abusive. For young offenders and people with mental illnesses, isolation  "always constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and even torture.   Méndez has called for a ban on prolonged or indefinite confinement. 

The report from the UN Subcommittee onPrevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment orPunishment to New Zealand (CAT/OP/NZL/ 1) is highly critical of the way the current classification system is being administered, and the effect on people who are not a security risk. 

It found that prisoners belonging to different categories were often subjected to the same rules in terms of hours of lock-down, food, exercise etc. and found that prolonged exposure to inappropriate regime conditions, such as those which it observed for remand prisoners and youth, constituted ill-treatment. 

This is not a recent development.  The Hon Damien O’Connor then Minister of Corrections, with the Labour-led government, announced a regime of solitary confinement on 1 August 2007, and assured the public that it would be confined to badly behaved prisoners, and that the department would apply a system of ‘ checks and balances’ to ensure that it was not violated.   Well, the civil libertarians of the day were spot on.  The regime has not been well managed, and any move toward a ‘working prison’ regime will only succeed if these underlying structural issues are addressed. 

In summary then, increasing lockdown hours and harsh treatment of prisoners does not contribute positively to the security, safety or  good order in the long term.  Isolating people is a negative response – building positive relationships makes the difference.  The ‘Working Prisons’ policy will only work if there are positive working relationships within the prison. 

Is there a Mandate for Change?

Anne Tolley’s announcement has been well received, and well timed.  The public are ready for positive prison reform, as are politicians.  There is growing public recognition that investment in work training, community based offender rehabilitation, increasing basic literacy and numeracy, is worthwhile. 

A recent survey of political candidates, conducted by the Howard League of Penal Reform, showed that the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric of former campaigns is notable by its absence.  Problematic issues identified included: the overuse of remand; the tightening rules around parole; poor access to education, work, skills training, rehabilitation programmes or good health care in prison; and, limited support for those leaving prison.The vast majority of candidates (77%) stated that prisoners should be locked in their cells for a maximum of 8 hours a day, and 85% of candidates supported the extension of the ‘release to work’ scheme.  Even though no National candidates responded to the survey, all political parties have responded positively to Minister Tolley’s announcement. 
In a recent Huffington Post article , “ Why prison reform is good for us all” writer David Chura describes the reality of prison as a violent, negative place and takes the view that given our present prison system with its emphasis on punishment and retribution, everybody suffers. Inmates, correctional officers, victims, the average citizen and taxpayer.  He singles out the plight of corrections officers, who work in the same  harsh, dangerous, and degrading environment as do the prisoners.  Research in the USA shows that 31 percent of correctional officers meet "the criteria for full PTSD" (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder); that the average life expectancy is 58 years old, and that correctional officers have a 39 percent higher suicide rate than any other occupation.

Chura  comments: 
"So when I find myself labeled as "soft on crime" I have an old jail comeback: "Don't take my kindness for softness." Restructuring a broken prison system so that it protects and respects all citizens while holding offenders accountable is not "soft" but commonsense. We need to create prison conditions, both physical and psychological, that encourage cooperation on all sides and that supports change as opposed to conflict and calcification of negative behavior. Programs must be developed that challenge offenders to change their counterproductive behavior. Training in real employable occupations is essential. And support services must be established that help ex-offenders meet the demands of "going straight."
What Will it Take?

The implementation of a ‘Working Prison’ regime across the 12 remaining prisons will not be an easy task.  To be successful, it will require a fundamental change in the prevailing   prison culture.  Before work regimes of the kind envisaged can work,  a fundamental change in the relationships between staff and management needs to occur. 

The Current Prison Culture

One of the disturbing elements of the current regime, is an approach which ‘objectifies’ prisoners, and holds them responsible when things go wrong.  The Springhill riot, which occurred on the 1 June 23013, in which 23  prisoners attacked prison officers and started fires, causing $4m  was recently attributed by a sentencing Judge to their access to fruit, bread and marmite, which they turned into home brew.  

In a different version,  a prisoner’s father claimed that a prison officer found his son with home brew, and in the ensuing fracas, broke his son’s arm , causing a full scale riot.  Prison reformer Peter Williams QC claimed boredom and long unlock hours as the cause.  CEO Ray Smith commented that the prison was not set up to manage a large number of ‘unruly prisoners’ who held high security ratings.  

The interim report revealed that the prisoners were being locked down for more than 24 hours at a time, in breach of prison rules. It recommended a review of the practice of the rolling two hour unlock regime at SHCF which although meeting minimum entitlements saw prisoners with unruly behaviour locked in their cells for periods of more than 24 hours at a stretch, and ensuring that it is not replicated at other prisons.   

It is a curious comment, given that locking up prisoners for more than 24 hours is not within the rules; nor was the prison designed to operate in that way.  Springhill and newly built regional prisons adopted the Australian ‘campus model’ with strong perimeter security but greater responsibility internally on prisoners for their own movement. 

It raises the question as to why so many prisoners were classified as high risk, and whether the prisoner management regime at Springhill was competent. There are stories of medium security prisoners, who are entitled to be unlocked from their cells for 8 hours a day, having that reduced to 2 hours a day. This according to Jacinda Adern MP created a vast level of anger and led to a pressure cooker situation that blew apart. - 

This incidents and others that have followed it, point to a culture which treats prisoners as
less than human, but then quickly points in their direction when things go wrong.    There is growing evidence that prisoners are being  increasingly dehumanised.  Two media stories last month illustrate the point.   At the Te Kuiti Court, (and at Nelson and Blenheim)  prisoners  are publicly caged while awaiting trial.  As one prisoner commented, You get people taking your photo and putting them on Facebook . . . shame."  Shades of the treatment of Maori prisoners during the Waikato Land Wars.  Tony Fisher, general manager of district courts, said the Ministry of Justice had received no negative feedback about the "secure entranceway".  Yeah right. 

In the same month,  Prison  Inspector David Morrison reported that Prison officers have been advising prisoners on long-haul escorts to urinate on the floor.  He reported "Not only is this a breach of the design specifications but such practice could have a reaching adverse impact on the reputational risk of the department if such practice was to reach the media."
When it did, Minister Anne Tolley commented that public safety came before prisoner comfort.  What then, does human dignity come before?  
A recent serious assault on a prisoner at Springhill, in which a prisoner’s face was seriously disfigured,  was explained by Spring Hill Corrections facility manager Chris Lightbown thus;
'We manage some of New Zealand's most difficult and challenging citizens. Therefore, violence is always a risk as many offenders resort to violent behaviour as a means of resolving issues and of expressing themselves. 
 Prison Officers have increasingly adopted the attitudes of their political and departmental managers toward prisoners.  Recently, Bevan Hanlon of the Corrections Association of New Zealand  (CANZ) invited me to ‘like’ their  facebook page, “Stop the Assaults”   It makes for horrifying reading for three reasons.  First, it documents the assaults on prison staff by prisoners.  Most of the public would be unaware of the regularity with which those assaults occur, as they  rarely appear in the media.  Second, it does not record at all, any assaults on prisoners by prison staff, or prisoners on prisoners.  It is almost as if those incidents don't occur.  Third, the union’s Facebook response is limited to a call for more hardware; vests,  pepper spray,  batons and tasers. 

The Justice Coalition’s response to Prison Safety  - A Values Based Approach to Prison Management

Prison officers should not be criticized for taking such a narrow perspective – they are
simply mirroring their political and professional leaders.  That position was set in November 2012, when the Department of Corrections [Corrections] announced that former Police Commissioner Howard Broad would lead an Expert Advisory Panel [EAP] that included overseas members, to advise Government on ways to improve the safety of prison staff.[5]
The Justice Coalition, an umbrella group of 12 justice-related NGOs jointly committed to seek and deliver positive change across the sector, took a close interest in the review.  The Coalition core membership  comprises Community Law Centres Aotearoa; The Henwood Trust; Howard League of Penal Reform NZ, The Coalition of Howard Leagues, Victim Support; Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Trust NZ;  Prison Chaplaincy Service of Aotearoa NZ; Prison Fellowship NZ; Restorative Justice Aotearoa; Robson Hanan Trust; National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges and the Salvation Army.
Five member organisations of the Board met with Mr Broad on 26 February 2013 and stressed that the SSR should focus on the prevention of all violence in prison, including against staff, prisoners, visitors or volunteers.  As if to confirm the validity of our concerns, the Dominion Post newspaper reported on 7 March 2013 that two Corrections Officers at Rimutaka Prison had been suspended for alleged assaults on prisoners.[6]

The Department was unmoved by our view.  It wanted instead, to address a management objective in its , “Creating Lasting Change” Strategic Plan to: develop a comprehensive and internationally benchmarked staff safety action plan focussing on safer work practices, training and equipment”.

The Justice Coalition continued with its submission to the Expert Advisory Panel.   In retrospect, we consider it is a significant contribution given the current state of affairs.  We have therefore decided to make it publicly available, as we consider that it points the way toward the development of a values-based prison system, and the kind of organisation that would make the ‘Working Prisons’ strategy achievable.  It is a substantial document, and we urge parliamentarians, policy advisers, and the public  to take the time to read it.  

In a forwarding letter to the EAP, the Coalition noted,

Our major concerns are two-fold.  First, the strategy  seems to proceed on the pre-assumption, that violent behaviour, and conduct which provokes violent behaviour, is the exclusive attribute of prisoners.  In our submission we said that “the notion that it is possible to reduce violence in prisons by focussing only on prisoner assaults on staff is difficult to comprehend and unlikely to succeed.” 

Second, the interplay of the science of risk assessment has led to the perverse outcome of constructing offenders as walking bundles of risk. The significance of a risk-centric environment is that it can lead to unintended consequences, such as a less humanizing view of offenders. As Ward, Yates and Willis and describe,[7] the risk paradigm tends to construct offenders as “passive recipients of operant behavioural principles,” meaning that they become “risks” to be managed rather than humans with shared values and goals.

A  summary of the Justice Coalition’s Views

The department's focus for the Safety Review was about reducing assaults by prisoners on  prison officers.   The Justice Coalition argued for a more complete safety focus.  

Set out below is a summation of our position: 
  • The Coalition agrees that prisoner assaults on staff are unacceptable.  Equally though, no assault on a prisoner by anyone is acceptable.  It is also unacceptable for people, particularly those in authority, to behave in an inappropriate, abusive or corrosive way to others including prisoners, other Corrections Officers, contractors, volunteers and prison visitors.
  • If the SSR is to be truly strategic its key focus (and that of the EAP) should be on the promotion of positive prisons through the elimination of behaviours that trigger inappropriate conduct, including violence, by prisoners and prison staff and which create unsafe prisons.  As part of that, we believe Corrections needs to make explicit a zero tolerance policy for assaults by anyone, including Corrections Officers.
  • The Coalition promotes a complete safety focus based on the values of respect, humanity, support, relationships, trust, fairness, order, safety, well -being, personal development and decency.
  • Without strong and committed leadership emphasising alternative philosophies and values, a culture rooted in power, control, domination and intimidation will emerge in a prison system.
In the body of the report it: 
  • Describes the present prison culture as understood by Coalition members;
  • Describes the factors that inhibit the establishment of a positive prison environment;
  • Provides a Consumer’s View of the Prison System, including accounts of staff treatment of prisoners, treatment of prison visitors and volunteers;
  • Discusses other environmental issues, including the role of psychologists and the place of restorative justice in prison;
  • Accepts that prison management needs to have effective emergency response systems and tools for those occasions when the safety of staff, prisoners or other players is threatened by the violent actions of one or more prisoners.  However, the introduction, availability and use of ‘non-lethal’ weapons such as pepper spray, security dogs and Tasers must be considered very carefully and with full understanding of intended and unintended consequences of their introduction; 
  • If the prevailing Corrections view is that violence by prisoners  is so prevalent that protection has to be worn at all times, it indicates that all other means of control in changing behaviour has either not been put in place, or has failed, or there is an unwillingness to use less aggressive options;
Changing the Prison Culture – To What ?

The next and most important section of the Coalition’s submission, deals with the mechanics of change toward a positive and decent prison culture.  The most comprehensive analysis of decency in the treatment of prisoners is found in the 2004 work of Prof Alison Liebling who investigated the moral performance of prisons. 
Liebling developed a framework based on four general factors:
     (1) Relationship dimensions including respect, humanity, trust, staff       prisoner  relationships and support;
(2) Regime dimensions conceptualised in terms of fairness, order, safety,  well-     being, personal development, family contact, and decency;
(3) Social structures dimensions of power and prisoner social life; and                (4)    Individual dimension that concern meaning and quality of life.

The Introduction of External Independent Observers

In order to support Corrections’ accountability to the public of New Zealand, the Coalition believes there is a strong case to argue for greater day-to-day transparency in prisons, particularly at the ‘operational interface’.  To achieve this, the Coalition contends the time is right to introduce external independent volunteers/observers into the prison environment.  The presence of these people will help change dominant, undesirable prison cultures.


The Justice Coalition found it difficult to understand why the Expert Committee had such a narrow focus.  It seemed that the purposes of the exercise was not to promote safety in prisons, but to satisfy a performance target in the department’s strategic plan – i.e. it was more important to ‘tick the box’ than address the issue.   

That is not as farfetched as it sounds, and is addressed in a recent and significant article by Jamie Bennett, Governor, HMP Grendon & Springhill [8]   Bennett  proposes that the growth of managerialism has led to the expansion of technologies of control and monitoring within prisons, including key performance targets and audits. He goes on to argue in favour of independent prison inspection, as  providing a distinctive form of monitoring that is concerned with the lived  experience of imprisonment rather than management systems and promotes values of humanity as opposed to those of economic rationality propagated by managerial practice. 

In the United Kingdom, the inspection system provides independent scrutiny of the conditions for and treatment of prisoners and other detainees, by promoting the concept of ‘healthy prisons’ in which staff work effectively to support prisoners and detainees to reduce re-offending or achieve other agreed outcomes.  Reports are informed by published standards, called Expectations, derived from a range of international instruments.[9]

The criteria cover four primary ‘healthy prisons’ tests:

  • Safety – that prisoners, even the most vulnerable, are held safely;
  • Respect – that prisoners are treated with respect for their human dignity;
  • Purposeful activity – that prisoners are able, and expected, to engage in activity that is likely to benefit them;
  • Resettlement – that prisoners are prepared for release into the community, and helped to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
Bennett concludes that the concern of audit is with organisational control systems and compliance with them. In contrast, inspection is concerned with ‘outcomes for prisoners’, their actual experience in the four areas of the healthy prisons test.  The difference in focus acts to shift power, ensuring that the voice of prisoners and their experience retains an importance and receives protection within prison management.

Being Smart on Crime

In Rethinking’s view, the ‘Working Prisons’ strategy is a positive approach, and requires the full support of government and the Department of Corrections.  However, to expect all prisons to achieve that within the space of three short years is unrealistic.  Any attempt to do so, without at the same time changing the underlying culture of the prison environment, is doomed to fail.  We therefore recommend that the department takes the following steps: 

First, any plan to implement the ‘Working Prisons’ strategy  should take the findings of the UN Committee on Torture into account, and

  • Implement an immediate  independent external review of the prisoner classification system;
  • Consider the causes of increased prison violence and take account of both staff and prisoner’s safety, promote a positive prison culture, and include improved communication between staff and prisoners;
  • Intensify its efforts to tackle inter-prisoner violence by addressing its causes, including problems arising from gang cultures, the lack of purposeful activities, substance abuse, restricted out of cell time, as well as through staff training;
  • Carry out an independent and external review of the current ‘lock-down’ regime; 

Second, it must develop a Values-based Prison System Framework.  None of the above will have much impact, unless it is underpinned by a values framework.  As the Justice Coalition submission comments:

"The most comprehensive analysis of decency in the treatment of prisoners is found in the 2004 work of Prof Alison Liebling who investigated the moral performance of prisons.  Liebling is regarded as the world’s leading researcher in the quality of the prison environment and its influence on outcomes and impacts, including improved safety."
It is worthy to note that the Prison Fellowship New Zealand  brought Prof Liebling to New Zealand for their 2010 Criminal Justice Conference.  The objective was to influence the Government and Corrections to take cognisance of the importance of her work, especially with respect to the quality of prison life, for all actors.  She met with departmental officials to discuss her work.  Sadly, Prof Liebling reported that:

“Corrections New Zealand does not have a listening culture so I expect no change!”
Perhaps, now is the time to get ‘Smart on Crime’ - and listen. 

[1] Grassian, Stuart. 1983. “Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement.” American Journal of Psychiatry 140: 1450-1454.
[2] Haney, Craig. 2012. “Testimony of Professor Craig Haney to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee  on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights Hearing on Solitary Confinement (June 19, 2012).” Retrieved from
[3] Kupers, Terry A. 2008. “What to do with the Survivors? Coping with the Long-Term Effects of Isolated Confinement.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 35: 1005-1016.
[4] Scharff-Smith, Peter. 2006. “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” Crime and Justice 34: 441-528. 
[7] Ward T., Yates, P., & Willis, G. (2012). The good lives model and the risk need responsivity model: A critical response. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39, p.108
[8] Bennett, J. (2014), Resisting the Audit Explosion: The Art of Prison Inspection. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice. doi: 10.1111/hojo.12087
[9] HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2012) Expectations, 4th edn, London: HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Available at: (accessed 17 June 2013).

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