Corrections – a system in crisis

The prison muster has hit 10,000 – and our system is struggling to cope.
Two-thirds of inmates are double bunking, people are spending up to two years on remand, prisoners are bussed and flown all over the country as spaces open up for them.


PSA members in Corrections – particularly those who work in prisons – are doing it tough. Overcrowding makes their jobs harder and potentially more dangerous, but they’re carrying on.

The system’s ripping at the seams and PSA members are the sticky tape that’s holding it all together. The PSA has been working with Corrections to tackle the safety issues and reduce the muster, to give everyone a little more breathing space. But with more crime, more convictions and delays in the courts, it’s hard going.

Working Life spoke to three Corrections officers – all highly experienced, all PSA delegates and all deeply worried at where the system is going. The PSA is concerned the government thinks it can lock up more and more people, without addressing where it will put them, how they’ll be rehabilitated and who’ll do the work.

The first consequence of overcrowded prisons: inmates spend more time in their cells. The time prisoners spend “unlocked” has been halved, meaning that 14 hours out of their cells has been cut down to six. That leaves precious little time for training and rehabilitation work, which is crucial if the department’s going to meet its Better Public Services target of reducing reoffending.

There’s no privacy. Tensions run high. Everyone’s more on edge. Officers need to be twice as alert to what’s happening, read the body language and watch each other’s backs. More staff have been recruited, they say, but that’s not always the solution.

“We have new staff coming in, but they are not as experienced at reading a situation,” one Corrections officer told Working Life. “Some new staff can walk into a situation and inflame it without realising. So you have to be a lot more vigilant.” 

Moving inmates

In January, TVNZ broke a story about how if overcrowding got too bad at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, there was a deal which would allow inmates to sleep the night in the cells at Manukau District Court. They would arrive at night, sleep, then in the morning they’d be shipped back so the Court could use the cells. This hasn’t happened yet, but it could. There’s also a plan to change the law so that Corrections could use Police jails as if they were prisons.

And then there’s the constant moving around. Every time the inmates are transported, they need escorts; extra staff. They’re unsettled because they don’t know where they’re going to be from one day to the next.

As the muster increases, so do the workloads. New staff can’t do the work of the officers in charge of a unit, who say they have so much paperwork to do that they can’t take breaks. There’s no chance to give newer recruits the vital safety training they need on the job. The paperwork is all about the targets, they say, and these are targets that have been imposed on them by this government.
So what’s causing this – and how can it be fixed before it’s too late.

System at risk

The officers I spoke to were unanimous in saying the system’s ripping apart. They don’t blame the department. They acknowledge that government forecasts didn’t predict this, because New Zealand’s bucking international trends which have seen violent crime rates falling in many countries. They say that’s down to drugs, particularly P. There are perceptions that where P is involved, Courts will deny bail and send people on remand. There are people spending up to two years in prison waiting for trial. More violent offences, more people ending up in jail with addiction and mental health problems.

Complicated problems, complicated solutions. The three officers Working Life spoke to said Corrections needs to go to the government and get fast-tracked action on building new facilities, and more money for training programmes and other resources.
But at the core of it, this is all about politics, they say.

“Politicians have to get real. They’re constantly going on about the law and order issues, but they have to be cognisant that Corrections has to be able to deal with it. They say, ‘lock em up, life means life,’ they’ll all say that to get some votes. But they need to deal with the consequences.”

Our members in Corrections, like all our members, do their jobs because they feel it’s a vocation. But they’re reaching the point where they can’t do the jobs they signed up for. And that hits not just our members, but their communities. When we Stand Together for better public services this election, we’re making all our voices heard.

By Jessica Williams