A recent report investigating the state of three New Zealand prisons found that low staffing numbers were straining conditions. The Corrections Office of the Inspectorate report into the Rimutaka, Otago, and Auckland South prisons also highlighted overcrowding, violence, and the difficulty facing mental health facilities as major problems. Lachlan Balfour spoke with Liam Martin, Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University, about the report and the state of prisons in New Zealand.

Liam Martin is a Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University. He is an expert in New Zealand prisons.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Lachlan Balfour: These reports have found that while the conditions in these three prisons were adequate, staffing levels were causing long waiting times for rehabilitation programs. Is this quite common in prisons in New Zealand and is it detrimental to prisoners?

Liam Martin: Yeah, I think in the backgrounds of these issues is a long period where prison numbers have been rising dramatically and that is creating over-crowded prisons where resources are stretched. More prisoners mean fewer resources per prisoner and you are seeing across the board the difficulty in providing services for a record number of prisoners. So for example, prisoner surveys suggest that around forty percent of prisoners report not being involved in any work or education at all, and most prisoners report being in their cells for about eighteen hours of each day. So prison life is really a place where people are idle a lot of the time and are confined to their cells.

LB: Is it quite difficult to get the staff needed because some prisons are quite out of the way and it is seen as maybe being a dangerous job?

LM: It is a tough job and it is difficult to get trained staff, to get staff that know what they are doing, and these are people who are working under immensely difficult situations. I think it is easy from the outside to criticise what is happening in prisons but frontline staff are the ones who deal with this on a daily basis. Problems of staffing are really quite severe across the whole system.

LB: I suppose along with this is that mental health facilities are under considerable strain. I would imagine this is pretty widespread to all prisoners, what kind of effect is this having on prisoner’s rehabilitation?

LM: I think pointing out the strain on mental health systems both inside prisons and out is really important. But I think the bigger point that I would make is the way that prisons themselves intensify mental health problems. We are talking about people who are inside their cells for the most part, eighteen hours a day. What does that do for a person’s mental health? You know, no matter what services you are providing, when you have somebody in a cell for most of their life that is going to affect their mental health. Our prisons are also very violent places. At most prisons about half the prisoners report having been assaulted during their current sentence and so we have got people within their cells for long periods, under constant threat of violence, these are conditions that really intensify mental health problems and make it almost impossible to effectively deliver mental health interventions. I don’t think prisons are the right place to be helping people improve their mental health, the basic conditions of the institution really push against that.

LB: We saw an announcement from the government that they were going to build a special mental health facility at Waikeria prison. Is this model better or do you think it will have the same kind of problems?

LM: I am kind of ambivalent about it. On the one hand we do need to be delivering mental health services to people. [On the other], there are those who say that the institutionalisation of our large mental health facilities in the second half of the twentieth century was really just a movement of people from mental health institutions into prisons, and prisons are the institutions that hold the people with the most severe mental health problems in New Zealand. So you can see there the temptation. While we have got people that is where we need to deliver services. But as I have said. I think prisons are terrible places to improve people’s mental health. The basic conditions of the institution intensify underlying problems so the idea of building mental health facilities into prisons I think is a very problematic one.

LB: Further to this, I suppose it doesn’t help that a lot of prisoners were found to have been moved quite far from their homes, some having been moved from the North Island to an Otago facility. How does this affect them?

LM: Again, I would point to this as a symptom of overcrowding. When you have only got a few open spaces across the whole system what ends up happening is people being moved around and people being sent away from their home networks, care, and support. So it is really key that when people are locked up we do everything we can to allow them to maintain those family and community relationships and when we move people away we sever them. And that is the most critical resource post-release is those relationships, those are the people who are going to help them reintegrate. I would just like to point out also that this is particularly severe for women because there are only three women’s prisons across the whole of New Zealand, in the north in Auckland, in the south in Christchurch, and in the middle in Wellington. Women particularly end up getting moved very long distances. When I visited Arohata prison last year, I was surprised to meet a woman inside from Auckland and that was because the Auckland women’s prison was full and she had been moved the whole length of the North Island down to Wellington. What lies in wait for her when she returns to Auckland? Will the people she needs still remember her, still support her?

LB: The report didn’t really touch on this but we have seen an increase in double-bunking recently with these prison numbers increasing, how detrimental is this?

LM: Yeah again it is a symptom of overcrowding. About forty percent of people in prison in New Zealand now are double-bunked so they are sharing their cell with someone else, and again you are in their eighteen hours a day, so I hope you get along. I have heard prisoners talk about this: for all the problems of being in your cell, at least it can be a safe space, a place to retreat and you are not exposed to violence. But when you are sharing it with another person you lose that safe space and I think that has flow-on effects for other aspects of prison life as well.

LB: Last week there were calls from Corrections officers saying prisoners who assault them should have their sentences extended. Do you think this would act as a deterrent?

LM: I do really sympathise with Corrections officers who deal with the mess created elsewhere on a daily basis and are working under conditions of physical threat. And to a certain extent, [they] serve time themselves – spending long periods in these harsh prison environments themselves. But I don’t agree that intensifying the punishment, extending the prison sentences will reduce violence. I think it is doubling down on the flawed logic that has got us into this mess in the first place. We ask a very violent institution, a prison, to prevent violence and I think that is a fundamental contradiction in our whole approach. Prisons are very violent places, forty percent of prisoners say they have been assaulted, they are also exposed to institutional violence in the form of strip-searching and other kinds of invasive procedures, these are not institutions that we can rely on to prevent violence. So I don’t think that extending sentences or adding to the intensification of the punishment is going to make our guards safer in the long term.

LB: Are prisoners more likely to lash out in a prison environment?

LM: I do think there are a range of elements to prison life that do facilitate violence. I often think there is a circular relationship between the kind of control practices that prisons rely on and the interpersonal violence of the people in there. One of them is when prisons experience high levels of violence, one way they often respond is through long periods of lockdowns, extending the hours that people spend in their cells. Now you have got all these people in their cells bored out of their minds, pent up energy, agitated, aggravated, and then when you open the cells you actually increase the risk of violence. So it is kind of having the opposite effect to what was intended and that is kind of symptomatic of a more general problem where prisons are violent institutions that intensify violence rather than preventing it. They don’t do what we want them to do.

LB: What about anti-violence programs in prisons?

LM: There are people who have dedicated their lives to working in very intimate ways with people in prison to deal with anger, deal with emotions, and to navigate life without resorting to violence, and I do think that that is valuable work. But I think ultimately prisons intensify violence, the basic conditions of the institutions do, and I think the best violence prevention strategy is sending less people to prison. If you are trying to think about what we should do, I think it is actually cutting prison numbers and delivering some of those violence prevention programs outside in the community where people are living under conditions that are much more conducive to personal change and personal transformation.

This interview originally aired on 95bFM’s weekly news and current affairs show The Wire. For more stories like this, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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