‘People don’t want to spend money on law breakers’: staff shortages send New Zealand’s prisons to crisis point | New Zealand

Human Rights

Confined to cells for 23 hours a day; unable to see family face-to-face; problems accessing lawyers – New Zealand’s prisoners are becoming “excessively disconnected and isolated” because prison staffing shortages have hit crisis point, says the Human Rights Commission, lawyers and those working with prisoners.

As of January, the department of Corrections is down by more than 850 frontline staff across its prisons – 498 of those are vacant positions, with another 354 unable to work due to sickness, injury, leave or “some other reason”, the department says.

The shortage was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but has snowballed due to poor planning, high staff turnover, and a lack of resourcing, says the New Zealand Law Society.

Janine Bonifant, a member of the Society’s criminal law committee says it is the “biggest crisis [prisons] have faced” in her 30 years as a criminal lawyer.

“Many in the profession would agree – including Corrections – that this is an extraordinary situation.”

The lack of staff means that prison programmes, time out of cells, and visiting hours have been slashed due to health and safety concerns.

Bonifant gives the example of one of her clients who needed to complete a rehabilitation programme, in order to become eligible for parole. Initially, nothing was available due to the Covid lockdown, then it was delayed due to staffing shortages.

After finally starting the programme and getting through 19 sessions, it was then suspended last year, and because her client had been unable to complete rehabilitation – through no fault of his own – his parole was declined.

“The rug was ripped out from under his feet.”

It is likely her client will see out his full sentence, due to end in April, and be released without receiving the treatment he needs, creating a risk for himself and the wider community and increasing the likelihood of reoffending, Bonifant says.

A charity that supports the children and families of people in prison – Pillars Ka Pou Whakahou – says the lack of staff is detrimental to prisoners and their whānau [family].

“They often miss out on opportunities, get misrepresented at parole hearings for being ‘ill-prepared’ and often don’t know what is happening with their cases,” it said.

One Pillars social worker, who wished to remain anonymous, says a client she worked with has been declined parole seven times because he has no access to a programme with Tongan facilitators.

“He can’t understand facilitators who speak in English,” she says adding that the prisoner was transferred away from his family to another prison but their Māori based programme was also delivered predominantly in English.

“He couldn’t participate in this course because he couldn’t understand,” she said.

Corrections says of its 76 psychology and medium intensity rehabilitation programmes, 21 have been delayed or stopped because of staffing shortages.

‘A human rights issue’

Meanwhile, family visits have been severely limited. Bonifant says she is aware of prisoners who, in some cases, have not been able to see their family for a year after moving prisons in order to complete a programme elsewhere.

Bonifant says prisoners have become demoralised.

“When nothing is available it is demoralising and we get a further fracturing, a further disengagement. If they are also then disconnected from their whānau, the impacts can only be traumatising or re-traumatising.”

Prison becomes “a very lonely place to be” when staff shortages mean that some prisoners are spending 23 hours a day locked in their cells, regardless of security level, she adds.

Lawyers are also struggling to get a hold of their clients on the phone, she added, because there is not enough staff to escort them, while face-to-face visits have also become rare.

“I don’t disagree with Corrections that there is a health and safety aspect to this, but my view is, at the same time, it is a human rights issue. [Prisoners] need to be able to talk to counsel, and counsel needs to be able to take in disclosure to go through the case,” Bonifant says.

The Human Rights Commission acknowledged it was a complex situation for corrections but that it was “deeply concerned” by the situation.

Face-to-face visits with whānau and rehabilitation programmes are a human right, says Paul Hunt, the chief human rights commissioner.

“Contact with whānau is a key factor to successful rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners ,” he adds.

“Such isolation takes a toll on the mental health of prisoners, making the journey to rehabilitation much more difficult.”

‘People don’t want to spend money on those breaking the law’

In late 2022, Corrections were advertising for 114 roles – some of which were promoting multiple vacancies.

“We are actively working to recruit new Corrections officers across the country,” says Jessica Borg, Corrections general manager for psychology and programmes.

Over the last three months of 2022, Corrections had received more than 1,800 applications for officer positions, a spokesperson said.

New Zealand’s entire criminal justice system needs a boost, says Bonifant.

She suggests “putting proper money into penal institutions, paying defence lawyers what they are worth and putting money into the hard-working court staff”.

“Unless you have whānau who are directly affected, or you’re affected yourself, most people don’t want to see money spent on those breaking the law,” she concedes.

To get prisoners to engage with a system that refuses to engage with them is difficult, Bonifant says. “There’s no incentive for them really to be doing anything, which is really disappointing.”

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