The Chief Ombudsman has called on the Department of Corrections to urgently fix a series of workplace culture and leadership issues that are preventing it from achieving lasting change.
Peter Boshier today released a new report, Kia Whaitake | Making a Difference, following his self-initiated investigation into how Ara Poutama Aotearoa | the Department of Corrections has responded to repeated calls for improvements in the way prisoners are treated.
“Most prisoners will go back into society. It’s important they are treated with dignity and respect to minimise their chances of reoffending,” Mr Boshier says.
He says the catalyst for his investigation was the 2020/2021 riots at Waikeria Prison.
“Waikeria was one of many prisons I had inspected over a number of years where despite countless recommendations for change by both me and other oversight agencies, the same issues kept coming up, again and again.
“Those issues included unreasonable lock up hours, a lack of privacy in toilet and shower areas and, in the case of Waikeria, decrepit conditions in its high security areas. The Department accepted most of the recommendations yet the riots occurred.
“This troubled me so much that I felt a deep dive was necessary to understand why the Department hasn’t been able to make meaningful and long-lasting change.
“My investigation identified a range of systemic issues and a senior leadership team that was failing to address a risk-averse and reactive culture. I was concerned to find that people I interviewed during the course of my investigation consistently described a divided organisation and a pattern of disconnection at all levels, mainly between frontline prison staff and head office.
“In my view, all of the issues I’ve outlined are shortcomings that Corrections’ senior leadership could have addressed but has not. I accept that the Department is attempting to overhaul its approach but progress has been too slow and the fair treatment and rights of prisoners have, unfortunately, been the collateral damage.”
Mr Boshier says he saw limited evidence that the Department’s senior leadership had paid serious attention to the feedback from staff surveys.
“I found that the Department’s senior leaders should have known about many of the culture and leadership issues identified in this investigation,” he says.
“I also heard concerns about the Department’s lack of openness and accountability. People from outside the Department frequently said that Corrections often operated in secret. These views were not surprising since prisons are closed institutions. But I believe more openness and transparency are needed.
“I was also surprised to find during my investigation, that prisoners’ rights were not at the heart of decisions made at every level of the organisation.”
Mr Boshier says the Department has legal obligations to treat prisoners fairly, safely and humanely, and to make sure their living conditions meet an acceptable standard, but the Department’s approach to its governing legislation is too narrow.
“That is why I am recommending that the Corrections Act 2004 and the Corrections Regulations 2005 are reviewed to make sure Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and relevant international human rights obligations such as the Mandela Rules, are given greater emphasis.”
Other areas of concern included a lack of cultural competency and capability across the Department to work in partnership with Māori, and the Department’s tendency to explain away the concerns and recommendations of oversight bodies.
“The Department needs to see the recommendations and suggestions from agencies like mine for what they are -opportunities for change.”
Mr Boshier says there needs to be better governance, accountability and reporting along with comprehensive strategies to improve workplace culture and planning.
“I am aware that the current Chief Executive is making efforts to transform the way the Department operates. However, the culture that is deeply rooted within the Department has impeded the efforts of successive chief executives from making progress.”