Prison blues

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier’s investigation into how the Department of Corrections has responded to calls for improvement paints a picture of a shambolic organisation suffering from years of ineffective leadership.

Judge Boshier initiated the investigation following the riots at Waikeria Prison in 2020-21. The prison was one of many he and earlier ombudsmen had inspected over years where despite multiple recommendations for change by them and other oversight agencies, the same issues kept coming up again and again.

These included unreasonable lock-up hours, lack of privacy in toilet and shower areas and, in Waikeria’s case, decrepit conditions in its high security areas.

And although the department said it had accepted most of the recommendations made for change, many of them were not being implemented. Issues he had raised did not appear to have been addressed in a way that resulted in enduring or timely improvements for those in prison.

When changes were made, they were too slow, "and the fair treatment and rights of people in New Zealand have, unfortunately, been the collateral damage".

Peter Boshier. PHOTO: NZ HERALD
Peter Boshier. PHOTO: NZ HERALD
Legal rights and interests of prisoners had been too easily and unreasonably overlooked, and Judge Boshier said while he acknowledged the department’s obligations to staff and the wider public, it had not sufficiently had the fair, safe and humane treatment of prisoners at the centre of its decision-making. He saw this as a core reason why change had not occurred in response to oversight entity reports.

Should the report give pause for thought to those political parties keen on policies which would raise the prison population? If the department is struggling to treat about 8500 inmates decently now, would increasing the number of prisoners pose more safety issues for inmates, corrections staff and the public in the long term?

Among the issues identified by Judge Boshier were a disconnect between front-line prison staff and the national office, absence of clear lines of accountability for addressing and monitoring progress on implementing recommendations of oversight agencies, and poor processes and systems which were not consistent.

The risk posed by short staffing is often cited by the department as a reason for limiting prisoners’ freedom, so it was surprising to read in Judge Boshier’s report the department did not have a long-term workforce strategy or plan.

He considered the lack of effective long-term capability planning had contributed to the staffing crisis.

Despite good intentions, he said the department’s organisational culture appeared to have hampered the ability of senior leaders to drive and embed lasting change — particularly as its focus frequently shifted in the face of multiple crises.

In the face of negative public scrutiny, the department was excessively risk averse and reactive.

Judge Boshier found the senior leadership of the department was overly optimistic about the organisation’s performance.

We wonder if that has changed. Both the department leadership and Corrections minister Kelvin Davis are keen to convince us the department is heading in the right direction.

They have accepted Judge Boshier’s recommendations which include a review of the Corrections Act and its regulations to ensure te Tiriti o Waitangi, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and relevant international human rights obligations such as the Mandela Rules are given greater emphasis. Judge Boshier also called for better transparency, governance, accountability and reporting and comprehensive strategies to improve workplace culture and planning.

It is understandable change in such a complex organisation takes time, but the pattern of assurances the department will do better after a damning report which is then followed by another damning report highlighting the same issues is a habit the department has previously found hard to break.

Judge Boshier accepts the current chief executive Jeremy Lightfoot is making efforts to transform the department’s operation, but he points out the deeply rooted culture within the department impeded the efforts of successive chief executives from making progress.

There needs to be the political will to keep the pressure on if this is to change now.