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A taste of the Kiwi spirit
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 11/05/2007

Newzealand There are many things Americans might not know about New Zealand, like the fact that it was the last landmass on the planet to be discovered, or that it was first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, or even that the country’s inhabitants proudly refer to themselves as Kiwis, after the flightless bird with hair-like feathers native only to New Zealand. As rare as this knowledge may be in the United States, it’s probably rarer still to find an American with an understanding of how the New Zealand corrections system operates.

Instead of the numerous and diverse private or public facility managers, there is a single controller of prisons in New Zealand, its government. The New Zealand Department of Corrections manages approximately 7,600 offenders in the country’s 21 prisons and employs 3,200 COs. Yet, New Zealand faces many of the same uphill battles as its American corrections counterparts, even though this island country has about one percent of the U.S. population.

“I guess that our issues are the same as all other countries,” says Beven Hanlon, a typically easygoing native New Zealander. Hanlon is the president of the Corrections Association of New Zealand (CANZ), the largest corrections union in the country with 2,900 officers.

“The biggest issue in New Zealand prisons at the moment is the fact that we cannot recruit staff quickly enough and cannot get them to stay when they are recruited,” he adds. Hanlon has seen these problems worsening firsthand; he’s also a corrections officer and has worked at Hawke’s Bay Prison in Napier for the last ten years.

“Our union has found that we are approximately 650 staff short, and when you only have 3200 COs in the whole country, 650 is almost 25 percent,” Hanlon says.

With an overall population of around 4.1 million, New Zealand has been looking beyond its own borders for a solution to its staffing woes.

“What the department has done is they’ve gone and recruited people from overseas,” Hanlon explains. “They went to England with a big recruiting campaign. Now we’ve got a large contingent of English officers working in the New Zealand system.”

Even with the additional help, the staffing shortage is being compounded by a problem that is not restricted to U.S. soil: prison overcrowding.

“Our prison population is increasing faster than we can build prisons,” Hanlon says, “and I believe this is standard around the world. But the good thing is that in New Zealand we have an employment contract that says if our union disagrees with how many prisoners can be held at any prison, we can stop the department from trying to go above that number. So what we’ve managed to do is stop prisons from double bunking. We have the right to refuse bunks or any other arrangement we deem to be unsafe. We have had many court battles over this and have been very successful.”

In lieu of double or triple bunking, the department has built four new prisons in the last two years. This can be attributed to the Regional Prisons Development Programme (RPDP), which was created by the government to construct the new prisons. The fourth and final prison, Spring Hill Corrections Facility, opened September 25, and will start accepting inmates this November. Overall, the RPDP will contribute an additional 1,600 beds for the country.

“The government has invested 890 million [Australian] dollars in the four new prisons,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark at the Spring Hill opening ceremony. “We’ve worked hard to meet the challenge of both accommodating the rising prison numbers and at same time developing a more modern and effective corrections system.”

“Overall we are seeing an impact in the fight against crime with last year’s recorded crime rate being the lowest it’s been in twenty years,” Clark added. “Around prisons there have been substantial improvements to security. Prison escapes have fallen by 78 percent in the last ten years. The amount of contraband getting into prison is dropping due to a number of factors like doubling the number of dog drug teams since 2004, increasing surveillance at gates and checkpoints, and having a single point of entry now into two-thirds of our prisons.”

Even with these improvements, there’s something else the government may be planning for New Zealand’s prisons, especially if the administration changes in the next general election of 2008.

“The previous government tried private prisons and it was a failure,” Hanlon says. “The only part of the private sector still in our service is the private contractors that escort prisoners from court, but only in the largest city in New Zealand.”

Hanlon cites the United States’ private prison history as an argument against bringing privatization into his country.

“We’ve got a new election coming up and the old party is looking like they might make it back,” Hanlon says, “and one policy they’re really keen on is privatizing prisons. We’ve got a bit of a battle going on about this. We’re using the American, Australian, and South African experience and looking at their issues to prevent that kind of system from coming here. What we’re saying is corrections is a cornerstone of the justice system and as such should not be privately run, and should be run by the government. Keeping it this way is going to be our single biggest challenge.”

While Hanlon and his union fight to keep the private contractors out of prisons, they are also trying to get more officer safety equipment in.

“The New Zealand corrections service is completely unarmed,” Hanlon says. “We do not even have batons for our riot squads. We are trying to get safety equipment introduced and this is proving difficult. We are going after stab vests, batons, dogs, and pepper spray, and anything else that will assist us to protect our offices.”

CANZ says the number of inmate assaults on staff is rising across the country. Although the service is unarmed, New Zealand still has one of the lowest inmate escape rates in world, and only one New Zealand CO has ever died while on duty.

“We have on our website a link to a memorial wall for corrections officers in the U.S., and the number of officers in the U.S. that have died on the job is incredibly scary to me,” Hanlon says. “Our fear is that with the rising prison population and rising assaults on staff, these terrible things could start happening here. We’re going to keep campaigning hard for the ability to use things like tear gas and stab proof vests.”

From Hanlon and others in New Zealand’s corrections administration, a deep care and concern for fellow officers is clearly present, as well as a sense of belonging to the global criminal justice community.

“As a union we’re really interested in making contact with people in corrections from around the world, even just to share ideas,” Hanlon says.

“[Corrections] is not an easy job,” said Minister of Corrections Damien O’Connor at the Spring Hill ceremony. “There are too many people who are quick to condemn and criticize your work. All I’d like to say is ‘kia kaha.’”

“Kia Kaha,” is an expression from the country’s indigenous Maori people, meaning “stay strong,” and it’s as much of the New Zealand spirit as the Kiwi bird itself. It also keeps those in the corrections field going strong and serves as the type of motivation that anyone in the field, regardless of where they live, could use on a daily basis.

Related Resources:

Learn more about New Zealand

Read the 2006 New Zealand prison forecast

Watch video from the Spring Hill ceremony

Email Beven Hanlon a question



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