Former Corrections officer suggests 'modern management' to blame for spike in assaults in New Zealand prisons

The number of assaults in New Zealand's prisons has spiked dramatically - and a former Corrections officer says modern management is to blame for an increasing power imbalance between inmates and staff.

As the world battles the ongoing pandemic, Corrections is grappling with its own outbreak as increasing levels of violence sweep through the prison system. 

In an exclusive report last week, Newshub revealed that Corrections had recorded a 97 percent increase in attacks on staff in the 2019-2020 period, compared to the number of assaults recorded in 2016-2017. 

These assaults are considered 'non-serious' by the Department of Corrections - however, 'non-serious' injuries can still result in overnight hospital stays, X-rays and stitches. According to the department's definition, "biting" and "gouging" are categorised as 'non-serious' attacks.

The report also revealed a 64 percent increase in prisoners seriously assaulting fellow inmates. Of these attacks, gang involvement has risen by 93 percent - again compared to the 2016-2017 figures.

A former prison officer, who worked in the role for 25 years, has suggested the sharp spike can be attributed to shifting attitudes towards inmate management in prisons.

The man - who wishes to remain anonymous - told Newshub modern management favours a more hands-off, less hardline approach to controlling criminals. Yet this approach may conflate with an increasing lack of respect for staff, particularly when punishment is not enforced for bad behaviour.

"There has to be respect, and it appears that modern management [has] caused the inmates to have no respect for officers," he said.

"In my day, assaults were few and far between. There was always a line between an officer and inmate. We were not friends and they did as they were told."

His comments echo those of Paul Dennehy, the associate vice-president of the Corrections Association - the union representing New Zealand's corrections staff. He believes officers have been gradually encouraged to shift away from traditional, more hard-nosed methods - potentially at the expense of staff's safety.

"There's been a softening by the department on how we manage prisoners - if they commit minor infractions, staff are told not to do anything about it, which gives [inmates] a sense of [being] bulletproof and that they can do what they want," he said during an interview with The AM Show.

Chief custodial officer Neil Beales disagrees. He said violence in prisons is reflective of what occurs in the community - not an imbalance of power between inmates and staff.

"Many prisoners have long histories of reacting with violence to situations they perceive as unfavourable or in an attempt to get what they want," Beales said.

He also attributed the spike in assaults to New Zealand's growth in gang membership, with the number of recorded gang members rising by a third in the last two-and-a-half years. As a result, a greater proportion of prisoners are gang affiliated. Of the current prison population of 8962, 35 percent have ties to the criminal groups.

"Gang members are over-represented in acts of disorder and violence in prison," Beales said. "Gang members also are known to incite other prisoners to carry out violent acts on behalf of the gangs."

The Department of Corrections says the spike in assaults reflects what is happening in the community, such as an increase in gang involvement.
The Department of Corrections says the spike in assaults reflects what is happening in the community, such as an increase in gang involvement. Photo credit: File

He also attributes the increase in assaults to substance abuse, particularly methamphetamine, or P. According to a University of Otago study published earlier this year, more than a quarter of middle-aged New Zealanders have tried the drug at least once. The study also found the risk of violent assault increases by 60 percent during a period when a person has used meth.

More than 90 percent of New Zealand's prison population have had a lifetime diagnosis of a mental health or substance abuse disorder.

"A growing proportion of the prisoner population have extensive meth use or abuse habits," Beales told Newshub. 

"Meth abuse is associated with significant and lasting impacts on mental and emotional functioning, including issues such as anger control."

What is an example of modern management? 

There is now more awareness than ever around discriminatory behaviours that disadvantage particular groups. Shifting values and attitudes have correlated with widespread prison reform in recent years, with a growing focus on the humanising of inmates - people who are stripped of their identity, autonomy and reduced to a number in the system.

Many countries are opting for rehabilitative, modern approaches, including New Zealand. According to the Department of Corrections' website, "what works now" in the prison system is an interpersonal approach characterised by "empathy, respect, warmth, confidence and persuasiveness", mannerisms that have been associated with "good outcomes" in correctional rehabilitation programmes. The approach also encourages staff to be aware of their own biases and preconceptions.

New Zealand's Corrections has faced criticism for being too "PC" in recent years. In November 2019, the department adopted a policy that inmates should be referred to as "clients" or "men in our care" to humanise the inmates. Staff were also instructed to address "clients" by their first names instead of surnames.

Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis confirmed the policy was introduced under the Government's Hōkai Rangi 2019-2024 strategy, a scheme to reduce the over-representation of Māori - more than 50 percent - in the Corrections system. 

One element of the strategy, 'humanising and healing', outlines the department's commitment to treating inmates with respect, upholding their mana and dignity. 

"Our systems and environments will not cause further unnecessary stress to people who are already experiencing hardship through having their liberty deprived and being separated from their whānau. We will recognise and encourage the dreams and aspirations of people in our care and management, and their whānau," it says.

Former Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, berated the strategy's commitment to avoiding terms such as  'prisoner' or 'inmate', calling the Government "soft on crime" and too concerned with "political correctness".

Former Opposition leader Simon Bridges said the strategy's policy to call inmates "men in our care" was too PC and reflected the Govt's "soft on crime" approach.
Former Opposition leader Simon Bridges said the strategy's policy to call inmates "men in our care" was too PC and reflected the Govt's "soft on crime" approach. Photo credit: Getty

During Dennehy's interview with The AM Show last week, host and former political editor Duncan Garner claimed Davis had "taken the foot of the throat".

"He needs to get into his department and say this is not good enough," Garner opined. "I've heard someone call them 'clients'. You're kidding me."

"There's too much leeway given to prisoners," Dennehy said.

"There seems to be a design not to call prisoners what they are and the situation what it is, and our staff, who do a fantastic job in trying circumstances... are getting worn down."

Inmates face 'no consequences' for assaults

The increase in assaults may also be attributed to claims that New Zealand inmates face little to no punishment for attacking an officer - a pattern that teaches prisoners they can go scot-free for violent behaviour.

A former prison guard Newshub spoke to last week - under the alias of Dave - revealed staff are often discouraged from speaking up about incidents out of fear of ostracisation by the Department of Corrections.

Dennehy claimed inmates face "no consequences" for assaults on staff, and said police are often reluctant to file charges against the offender.

He says ideally, an inmate who attacks a member of staff should be charged internally with misconduct and denied privileges, such as television access. However, many will still be entitled to attend their programmes, such as employment preparation or training in various industries - a privilege Dennehy believes should also be suspended. The injured staffer should also be taken to the police to formally lay charges - however, that process rarely is followed through.

"You might have a prisoner who is serving a lengthy period of imprisonment, and so their [the police] thought is basically - what's the point in charging them? They may get a few extra months, they're already doing 10 years - there is no value to that," Dennehy explained.

"From a staff member's perspective, it completely devalues the trauma they've been through."

The associate vice-president of the Corrections Association says inmates face "no consequences" for assaulting staff.
The associate vice-president of the Corrections Association says inmates face "no consequences" for assaulting staff. Photo credit: Getty

The former prison officer Newshub spoke to said in his experience, assaults on staff were dealt with in-house and would be punishable by seven days in "the separates" or "the digger" - solitary confinement - and 24 days without any privileges.

"The minimum should be how we handled it - digger for seven days and loss of all privileges. Hard-nosed but fair. If serious, [take it to] the police," he said. "They may not get much, but it is on their record and could go against their getting parole."

The former officer agreed that a lack of punishment inflates an inmate's sense of power, and undermines the authority of the officer.

"Not charging the inmates is giving power to the inmates," he said. "Reducing the authority of an officer is leading to contempt for officers.

"I have been told by inmates since leaving that they found me firm and fair, and this is how you have to be."

He clarified that while staff did not act physically violent to restrain inmates in his experience, any attempts to attack an officer were "neutralised".

Yet Beales has contradicted the claims, saying inmates are held to account through internal misconduct charges, a change in security classification, or referral to police for consideration of criminal prosecution.

He also noted stab-resistant body armour, on-body cameras and an expanded use of pepper spray have been introduced to combat the risk, including tactical skills such as de-escalation.

"We encourage all staff to report any and all incidents of abuse, threats or violence," Beales said. "We do everything possible to minimise this risk and provide the safest environment possible for staff and prisoners. 

"Our staff do an incredible job in some very challenging circumstances to keep New Zealanders safe. Our staff are trained to work with some of this country’s most dangerous and volatile people in a complex and challenging environment, where assaults by prisoners are often spontaneous and come without any warning."