Prison watchdog blasts Corrections over lack of access to rehabilitation

Forty percent of male prisoners are back behind bars within just two years, and now New Zealand's prison watchdog is blasting Corrections over lack of access to rehabilitation.

With more than 200 convictions, former inmate and member of the notorious Headhunter gang Blair Wickens was one of those men trapped in a cycle of recidivism. 

Today prison and the past are behind him - but turning that corner required facing hard truths.  

"I deserved to go to prison. Definitely, 100 percent I let down my family, let down my friends," he told Newshub Nation. 

Eventually Wickens broke the cycle. But it took him 12 long years and leaving the gang which had been his family.  

"One of the hardest decisions in my life. It's all I knew for a long time," he reflected. 

"Handed my vest in. I ended up paying the consequences for that, which was a couple of bumps and bruises."

Every inmate has a story. No two are the same. Wickens' began with a happy childhood. He was a talented, passionate sportsman. At around 13, he represented New Zealand in hockey. 

"It was probably the best feeling that I've ever had in my life," he said. 

But from there on, life wouldn't go as planned. His parents split up when he was a teenager, which set him on a troublesome path. 

"Being an only child I sort of had no one to talk to. So I ended up mixing with the wrong crowd."

It didn't take long to run into trouble. Expelled at 14, arrested for stealing and soon sent to jail as just a teen.

"It's tough. Trying to adapt to that world was really hard." 

Wickens looked elsewhere for a father figure. He found one in his uncle, who was in the Headhunters gang and Wickens soon became a Headhunters prospect himself.

"I might sound strange to a lot of people, but I sort of looked up to my uncle, from a distance. Seeing some of the flash cars he had, seeing the gold...It was family, brotherhood. Friends that had been through the same sort of stuff."

The number of inmates accessing rehabilitation services has steeply declined.
The number of inmates accessing rehabilitation services has steeply declined. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

Rehabilitation is supposed to give prisoners a path to turn their lives around, not only for their benefit but the taxpayers'. Every prisoner costs the country $100,000 a year.

Programs to treat addiction and violence are offered in prison by Corrections New Zealand. So are opportunities for education and work. 

But according to Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier, New Zealand's prison watchdog, access to rehabilitation is lacking. And even for those who get into a program often it comes too little, too late.

"These people will come out and will be citizens again and will walk the streets one day, so we've got to get them ready for that," Boshier said. 

"There's not much point in starting a program shortly before parole or release, because often, there's not much time to go and it means that they're being released when they're not ready to be released." 

Statistics show prison rehabilitation has greatly reduced in the last five years. From 2015 to 2016, nearly 6000 New Zealand prisoners took part in a program. By 2018 - it had dropped by 1000. And by 2020 - it halved again.

COVID-19 lockdowns have heightened the problem. But the numbers have been trending down for years. Boshier says the fact that all prisoners can't access treatment isn't good enough. 

"They have a right to be able to have access to rehabilitation programs. It's not just nice to have." 

Wickens experienced the programs first hand. Polytechnic qualifications, plumbing courses, drug programs. Blair has a house full of prison accomplishments, but says that are worth little on the outside.

"They count for nothing," he said.

Among them - a program to address addiction in a drug treatment unit (DTU). Not every prison has a DTU. Waitlists are often long and it can take prisoners years to be accepted.

And when he did, instead of helping - he says prisoners were coached how to pass.

"The DTU's are a joke… those relapse prevention plans that we got given, literally got handed out to us or copied from the ones before."

Waikato University criminologist Juan Tauri has spent decades working with prisons, and agrees that current access to rehabilitation is not good enough.

"We're not meeting the demand or need in any way, I think, that is required to drive down the reoffending and re-imprisonment rate… we should not be surprised if they return to prison within 12 months or 24 months."

He adds that support outside of prison is also lacking.

"There are still some significant issues, I think, in the reintegration framework. I don't think that we're doing as well as we can do."

Prisoners get a grant, called Steps To Freedom - $350 - upon release. According to Wickens, enough for a new pair of shoes and not much else. 

"You get $350 bucks and then you're pretty much told, 'See you later. Good luck.'"

Corrections declined Newshub Nation's request for an interview but said they've gotten rid of less-effective rehabilitation programs. They say the drop in prison rehabilitation is down to that, fewer prisoners and COVID-19.

But they admit there's a shortage of psychologists - which means some prisoners do face delays.

While Wickens is starting his life over again from scratch, there are many others who never get the chance. Lacking the help they need in prison they're left instead to help themselves.

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