How to rehabilitate prisoners

Rehabilitating prisoners requires more action than rhetoric, says the author of a new book on the justice system

In 2009, in an attempt to improve its woeful performance, former chief executive Barry Mathews announced that the Corrections Department’s rehabilitation and reintegration services would be combined into one team.As part of this new strategy, Corrections Minister Judith Collins recently announced the Department is to employ 227 case managers -- to work directly with prisoners to reduce their risk of re-offending.

Collins declared:

“This is a major advance in the management of prisoners in New Zealand. The case management model will see an end-to-end approach in managing a prisoner’s rehabilitation and reintegration.

This is incorrect -- because these case managers will only work with inmates in prison. Once they leave, ex-prisoners are basically on their own – unless they find support from some other agency in the community. The reality is that very little is done by Corrections to assist ex-prisoners and it would be fair to say that Corrections doesn’t actually have a reintegration service.

That’s a bold statement -- so let’s see if it holds water, or if the ship is really sinking. A cursory inspection reveals there are at least four huge holes in Corrections’ hull.

Lack of support with housing: First, in 2006 the Department established a list of seven ‘reintegration needs’. Finding suitable accommodation for those coming out of prison is at the top of the list. In Canada, where re-offending rates are much lower than in New Zealand, 60% of federal prisoners are released into half-way houses – funded by Canadian Corrections. But in New Zealand, Corrections provides funding for only two half-way houses in the entire country -- with a total of 28 beds. There are no half-way houses in the North Island and there are none for women anywhere in the country. This means that less than 1% of sentenced inmates are released into supervised accommodation each year.

Alcohol, drugs and literacy: Second, 90% of prisoners have alcohol and drug problems and a similar percentage have problemswith literacy. The Department makes only minimal attempts to address these. For instance, the availability of substance abuse treatment in prison is being doubled from 500 to 1,000 places. Since 90% of the 23,000 people in prison each year are there with alcohol and drug related offending, this is not going to make much difference.


In regard to literacy, last year Dr David Wales, Assistant General Manager of the new Rehabilitation and Reintegration Service, claimed 1,496 prisoners attended classroom-based literacy and numeracy education.Unfortunately, the Department’s Annual Report for 2010 says only 9% were assessed by their tutors as having reached a satisfactory level and actually completed the programme. Nine per cent of 1,496 is only 135 prisoners -- which represents only 1.5% of the prison muster. That’s a disgrace.

The reality is that the vast majority of the 23,000 people in prison each year receive no assistance whatsoever. These problems then become reintegration issues -- but neither is on the list of reintegration needs established by the Department. Once inmates are released, the Department is more interested in monitoring compliance than helping ex-prisoners learn new skills.

The use of volunteers: Third, the Department avoids taking responsibility for reintegration by contracting agencies like PARS or the Prison Fellowship.But Corrections provides so little funding to these agencies that both have to rely on the extensive use of volunteers. As a result, New Zealand now has 4,500 prison volunteers and the highest ratio of volunteers to prisoners of any country in the world. Maybe this demonstrates how many Kiwis seem to care but it enables the Department to avoid paying for professional services.

Corrections seems to have so little interest in what happens to inmates after they leave prison, Dr Wales refers to them as ‘ancillary services’ and admits the Department does not even bother to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing re-offending.

Undermining the Parole Board: Finally, Corrections leaves it up to the Parole Board to facilitate the reintegration of high risk offenders (the ones on long sentences). However, the Department undermines the Parole Board’s efforts by ignoring Section 43 (1a) of the Parole Act. This section requires the Department to provide the Board with all information relevant to the inmate’s offending -- which obviously includes their history of substance abuse.

But the Department generally doesn’t provide alcohol and drug assessments. In the case of Graeme Burton, it refused to provide such an assessment despite four psychological reports and two psychiatric reports all stating that alcohol and drugs were clearly a risk factor. Parole Board chairman Judge David Carruthers says that without this information, the Parole Board is ‘flying blind’.

Conclusion: Corrections has decided to combine rehabilitation and reintegration services into one team. This is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic -- because the reality is that the Department doesn’t have a reintegration service, so there is nothing to combine. For the most part, Corrections leaves reintegration up to other agencies. The result is that 52% of prisoners return to prison within five years. For those under 20, the figure is 70% – and the ship called Corrections is sinking on the rocks of recidivism.


The evidence and references for the arguments made in this article are all available in Roger Brooking's new book, Flying Blind: How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct: