If the Government was serious about reducing re-offending, the Corrections Department would pay for professional reintegration services instead of relying on well meaning volunteers like Ngapari Nui

Black power member, Ngapari Nui, has been working as a prison volunteer for the past five years trying to steer young gang members away from crime. By all accounts he’s been doing a great job. But last week Mr Nui was given the boot after the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust made a complaint to Judith Collins claiming that gang members should not be allowed to volunteer in prison.

Since then two other volunteers, who also used to be in gangs, have also been shut out.

This puts Collins at odds with her management team – because Corrections likes to use volunteers. On their website, the Department describes how important the role is to them:  “Volunteering within Corrections supports our goal of reducing re-offending, by assisting offenders to meet their rehabilitative needs and transition back into society (reintegration).”

Over 2,500 well-meaning Kiwis are currently authorised by Corrections to fill this role. Despite their good intentions, the reality is that these volunteers don’t make much difference. About a quarter of ex-prisoners reoffend in the first 12 months of release and 50% are back inside within five years.

Who you gonna call?

There’s a reason these volunteers are ineffective. It’s because reintegration is a job for professionals and those doing it should get paid. Try looking at it like this. What if police officers didn’t get paid? Suppose the police was a volunteer force – no skills or training required. Would you feel safe in your community? What would happen to the crime rate?

What if teachers didn’t get paid? And only those who love working with kids could volunteer? What would happen to our kid’s education if we did that? What if doctors, nurses and social workers didn’t get paid?  What if prison officers didn’t get paid? Only volunteers with authoritarian tendencies required.

How many would put themselves forward for that – especially if they were asked to volunteer at Paremoremo? What if city councils relied exclusively on volunteers to collect the city’s rubbish? Man, what a mess that would make.

With perhaps the exception of rubbish collectors, the people who do these jobs are professionals, with years of training and experience. No doubt there’s a bad apple here and there, but most of them are dedicated – they believe in what they do and they make a valuable contribution to society.

At the heart of all this is the old fashioned principle that if what you do is worthwhile and makes a difference, then you should get paid for it; and the more specialist your skills are, the more you make. This is how it works in a modern economy.

Picking up the trash

So what does this say about the use of volunteers to reintegrate prisoners and reduce reoffending? It says that Corrections regards the resettlement of prisoners in the community as less important than rubbish collection – just chuck them out on the street and see if anyone volunteers to pick them up. It means that as a society, those coming out of prison are worth less to us than our garbage. And it means all the political posturing about reducing reoffending is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

These are human beings were talking about. Frequently, they go back to the dysfunctional environments they came from, punctuated by poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and violence.

Judge David Carruthers, current chairman of the IPCA and former chairman of the parole board, points out that in Canada, 60% of prisoners are released into halfway houses funded by the Canadian Correctional service; and that this has helped to cut reoffending rates dramatically.

Canada now has over 250 halfway houses which provide counselling support and additional rehabilitation programs for ex-prisoners. The staff in these houses are not volunteers; they’re paid professionals. Why? Because the Canadian Corrections service understands that this is not a job for volunteers, and those who do it make a valuable contribution to society, and should be paid accordingly.

In New Zealand, the Corrections Department provides funding for only two halfway houses in the whole country – Moana house in Dunedin, and Salisbury Trust in Christchurch. These two facilities provide beds for a grand total of 25 ex-prisoners at any one time – bearing in mind that about 20,000 people circulate through our prisons every year.

There are no halfway houses funded by Corrections in the North Island where the bulk of the prisoners are held; and there are no halfway houses for women anywhere in the country.

In addition to limited funding for half way houses, in 2013 the Government agreed to fund five agencies to provide Out of Gate reintegration services – to the tune of $10 million over two years. That’s $5 million a year – not much when you consider that crime costs the country at least $9 billion a year and the prison population is at an all-time high of 9,500.

Because these agencies are paid so little, they have no choice but to rely on volunteers. Perhaps it should be no surprise that New Zealand has one of the highest ratios of volunteers to prisoners of any country in the world. That says something about the compassion of the average New Zealander.

But it doesn't say much for the Corrections Department which treats those coming out of prison with less respect than the garbage we put out on the street. Even our rubbish is picked up and recycled by people who get paid.  

Comments (6)

by Megan Pledger on July 13, 2016
Megan Pledger

We don't know that the volunteers aren't helping.  The stats aren't great but they could be even worse if the volunteers weren't there.   But, I agree, there should be specialised services for re-integration - and it doesn't help that the Serco model (provide as few services as you can get away with and offload troublesome prisoners elsewhere)  is in place because that just makes the prisoners coming out even more brutalised.  

by Ian MacKay on July 14, 2016
Ian MacKay

Sounds  like Halfway Houses fully staffed would help many ex-prisoners. But in the meantime, since it is so unlikely that this Minister of Corrections would even consider such a plan, would the volunteers be the best for now? I believe that born again Christians often claim to be ex-crims who have seen the light. And they say it works.

Incidentally, I recall a prison reformer saying that 28 days in prison had a devastating effect on first timers. After that length of time most become institutionalised, and learn to adopt lesson taught by the hardened ones.

by Rich on July 14, 2016

The UK has volunteer police, called Special Constables. Maori wardens are also a bit like volunteer police.

Historically, before the institution of professional police in the early 19th century, members of the community would (either voluntarily or compulsorily) act as watchmen and proto-police.

One could argue that having an entirely professional (in the sense of being full time paid workers) police force results in their being distanced from community attitudes. See the work of Ross Meurant, and also the behaviour of US police officers. One option to avoid this would be to have conscription into police duty for a few days a year.

by Lindsay on July 14, 2016

"Over 2,500 well-meaning Kiwis are currently authorised by Corrections to fill this role. Despite their good intentions, the reality is that these volunteers don’t make much difference. About a quarter of ex-prisoners reoffend in the first 12 months of release and 50% are back inside within five years."

Do you know if the volunteers had been working with re-offenders?

If you don't, then your claim that, "...these volunteers don't make much difference" is groundless.

Are you a volunteer?

by Roger Brooking on July 16, 2016
Roger Brooking

@Lindsay: Prison volunteers work with prisoners (that's what they volunteer to do). Prisoners are pretty much all re-offenders (not many first time offenders in prison). It goes without saying that volunteers work with re-offenders.

by Roger Brooking on July 16, 2016
Roger Brooking

Just to make it clear. I am not opposed to the use of volunteers. The Corrections Department spends about $160 million a year on rehabilitation programs in prison but only $5 million a year on reintegration services. That's what I'm opposed to.

Using the analogy that those who end up in prison have the psychological equivalent of two broken legs, that's like putting an expensive plaster cast on on one leg (rehabilitation) and a piece of sticking plaster on the other (reintegration). No wonder these guys still re-offend when they get out.

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