Ombudsman suspects bad leadership behind substandard prisons ahead of year-long probe

The Chief Ombudsman says he can't understand why some prisons do so much better than others when it comes to rehabilitating inmates, but suspects it has something to do with their leadership.

Peter Boshier on Tuesday morning announced a year-long investigation into Corrections, including the "treatment and conditions" of prisoners and staff, rehab and education opportunities, how it handles complaints and the use of solitary confinement.

The rare "deep-dive" was started by the Ombudsman himself. 

"I don't understand why in some prisons the practise is good," Boshier told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"We look at exemplars of practise and think, 'Gee - of our checklist of what's working well in this prison for the rehabilitation and treatment of prisoners, that's pretty good.' Others time and time again don't seem to be able to move. 

"I've said to my team, 'I don't want to just keep doing reports looking at who's done what and who hasn't, and I don't want to keep saying this unless there's going to be traction... That's why we've decided to do a good, hard, deep-dive look." 

He said previous reports on a range of issues have frequently gone ignored. 

"A succession of reports we've done we've highlighted issues we haven't felt have been acceptable. We've made recommendations - sometimes they're implemented. Often - even on a repeat visit - they haven't been. 

"Then you add to that the pretty well-publicised recent incidents and events culminating just last week with the revelation that female pregnant prisoners were being handcuffed just prior to giving birth, it just seems to me there are some attitudinal cultural issues that I need to have a good look at." 

Assaults against prison staff have been rising over the past few years, even as the number of prisoners has gone down. In January, 16 Waikeria Prison inmates rioted in protest of their "inhumane" living conditions, which led to a six-day standoff that involved fires, destruction and violent clashes.

On Monday an Amnesty International report found asylum seekers were being locked up with hardened criminals. And as Boshier mentioned, last week it was revealed some female prisoners were handcuffed while giving birth. While against the law, the Corrections Association - which represents staff - said it was for "public safety". 

Peter Boshier.
Peter Boshier. Photo credit: The AM Show

Boshier said there was no doubt the investigation would run into resistance from those who don't want change. 

"I think that organisations are often as good as their leader. Why is it that some prisons seem to have a director and a management style that's very encouraging of the practise and rehabilitation? 

"I just want to single out the practise of containment in some prisons, where prisoners are locked up for 23 hours a day. It's hard to see what rehabilitation can really occur in that setting. It flies very close to the bone in being in breach of our international obligations for dignified treatment. 

"I do want to see whether we can help Corrections move in areas where they have just found it difficult, for whatever reason, to make that movement themselves." 

Chief executive of Corrections Jeremy Lightfoot was informed of the looming probe last week.

He said it was "critical that we are open to scrutiny and I have advised the Chief Ombudsman that we will do everything that we can to ensure that he and his team have access to whatever they need from us".

He said in recent years a growing proportion of prisoners have had gang affiliations or problems with methamphetamine, and it's become increasingly difficult to "sustainably resettle people into the community" due to the housing shortage.

"Through regular prison inspections the Chief Ombudsman makes hundreds of recommendations in relation to our facilities and practices every year. The vast majority provide us with invaluable feedback to act on and clear areas of focus - with many changes made as a result.

"Others are more challenging and sometimes span multiple years where work remains ongoing to address the recommendation."

Boshier said when the report is done, perhaps a year from now, he hoped Corrections would follow its recommendations.

"This report, when it's done, will be tabled in Parliament. I most hope that it's done collaboratively, and that reforms - if we think they need to be introduced - have that buy-in from Corrections. I'd like to think this is going to be apolitical." 

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told Newshub he welcomes the investigation.

"It is important that Corrections are open to scrutiny and I expect the department to do everything they can to ensure that he and his team have access to whatever they need."

He talked up the Government's efforts in addressing "systemic problems in the Corrections system", pointing out a near 20 percent reduction in the number of inmates, new partnerships with iwi, a rise in former inmates getting employment and a "first-of-its-kind mental health service at Waikeria".

"Corrections staff come to work every day to keep New Zealanders safe and help people turn their lives around. I look forward to seeing what further recommendations from the Ombudsman could assist them to do this."

Corrections said it was not supplied with a copy of Amnesty International's report on asylum seekers before publication, and was "concerned with the veracity of some of the information included".