New Zealand's only faith-based prison unit is under threat of closure unless it meets a Corrections Department edict to make changes to its programme.
Prison Fellowship New Zealand, which runs the 60-bed Rimutaka Prison unit, has been told it has until May 31 to develop a plan for a rehabilitation component to the services that it already offers.
The faith-based unit has housed several hundred inmates since it was established in 2003. It aims to get inmates to turn their lives around through the Christian faith, providing prison activities, restorative justice courses, and post-release support.
A Corrections evaluation of the unit last year found it had had no impact on reducing reoffending.
Corrections Minister Judith Collins called the evaluation "disappointing" and said the programme was clearly not achieving its objective. Although faith could have a positive impact on reoffending, "it must be supported by programmes that work".
Initially, the fellowship understood it had to introduce the rehabilitation component by the end of May and, if it was not up to Corrections' standards, a month's notice would be given of the unit's closure.
However, negotiations with Corrections on Friday had clarified what needed to be done, Prison Fellowship general manager Robin Gunston said. "We have to negotiate now until the end of May what the time frames will be."
Mr Gunston said the edict had come "out of the blue".
But Corrections says it clearly signalled last November that an amended programme would have to be submitted by May, after last September's evaluation.
Mr Gunston said the fellowship had welcomed the evaluation and agreed with suggested changes. These included improving communication with Corrections and making sure more prisoners finished the 18-month programme.
But Corrections' demand to include a rehabilitation element was completely at odds with the programme's purpose, he said before yesterday's meeting.
Drug and violence rehabilitation programmes were already offered elsewhere in prison, and the unit's aim was to prepare prisoners for reintegration at the end of their sentence.
"We operate a through-care scheme, so when a prisoner gets out, they can go into the community ... we help them in that process, give them huge amounts of motivation, try and find them support on the outside, line up jobs."
After the meeting Mr Gunston said that the fellowship would look at introducing the medium-intensity rehabilitation programme, which tackles recidivism. "I now understand why they need to focus on that, to reduce recidivism. We're committed to that."
The fellowship had tried to seek clarification from Corrections before the meeting about exactly what was wanted, but had been stonewalled, he said. "We are really, really trying hard, but we're just not getting anywhere."
After the evaluation, he said Corrections had agreed that the contract would be extended until June 2013 to give the unit time to carry out changes.
But Corrections general manager rehabilitation and reintegration services Alison Thom said the contract had expired, and it was made clear to the fellowship in November that it had a May deadline for the amended programme.
"Following the evaluation, we reconfirmed with Prison Fellowship New Zealand our need to have programmes and interventions in place that can demonstrate a contribution to reducing reoffending." All programmes were continually being reviewed to ensure they were reducing reoffending and providing value for money, she said.
Ms Collins said the faith-based unit did not provide any valuable services that Corrections did not.
"While the faith-based unit is the only unit in the country where faith-based programmes are used to reduce reoffending, the department has a contract with the Prison Chaplaincy Service of New Zealand to meet the spiritual needs of prisoners."
Wellington civil liberties lawyer Michael Bott said clients he had seen in the unit showed a definite improvement in social attitudes, respect and motivation, which prepared them for release far better than the harsh, violence-dominated prison environment.
"They are very valuable things, and they should be encouraged. The way we approach imprisonment is a colossal failure, because often the act of imprisonment makes the chance of offending worse ... you go in there knowing very little as a first-timer, and you're put in touch with hardened criminals and learn very quickly."
It would be a "significant loss" if the unit was closed, he said.
'CLASH OF CULTURES'
In September 2010, an evaluation by Corrections into the effectiveness of the faith-based Prison Fellowship highlighted problems with communication between it and Corrections staff, the number of prisoners who completed the 18-month programme, and issues with prison assessment and referral.
It said that, though prisoners left the unit feeling "engaged and motivated", there was no significant reduction in reoffending among the 50 prisoners evaluated.
There was also a "clash of cultures" between fellowship staff's belief in the programme and the scepticism shown by Corrections.
Though the unit was not working as a correctional rehabilitation intervention, it played a valuable role and could be effective if changes were made, the evaluation said.
These included establishing clearer communication guidelines, trying to avoid and reduce unnecessary turnover in prisoners doing the programme, and making sure the right people were chosen who would benefit most from it.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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