NZ: Greater transparency for prison system

From the article: “All 17 prisons are now measured on their performance against each other in a range of areas including security, assaults, drug tests and rehabilitation programmes. They are then categorised in four performance grades, with the resulting tables released quarterly.”

I am always interested in prison oversight and find the different methods to be fascinating.  The UK has an extensive prison inspectorate, which uses several teams of expert inspectors to evaluate a prison.  It then gives a rating (good, reasonably good, not reasonably good, or poor) in each of four areas (safety, purposeful activities, respect and dignity, and resettlement/reentry).  Unsurprisingly, I believe Australia has picked this method up and I know that Canada, which does not currently have an inspectorate (it has a large ombudsman office), is considering it.

NZ DOC’s website provides the following “three steps to determining a prison’s overall rating:”

  • At the first level key security measures like escapes and unnatural deaths will be checked. If any of these occur the prison will be classified as needing improvement, no matter how well it’s doing in the next two measures.
  • At the next level internal prison issues like the number of complaints, drug testing results, assaults etc are measured. If these are not up to standard the prison will be classified as needing improvement.
  • The third level measures some aspects of our ultimate goal of reducing re-offending, by increasing participation in programmes allowing prisoners to gain job skills and real jobs.

They then use rankings of “Exceptional, Exceeding, Effective, and Needs Improvement.”  You can see an example of their ranking of the prisons here.

To me, this seems like a good start, but perhaps too superficial.  There’s a big push in the US to have “data-driven” corrections – let’s boil everything down to a number, assign a weight, multiply, and boom, you have an effective evaluation of the prison.  Of course, it doesn’t really work like that.  You do need to use metrics (and I object to any prison inspection or evaluation system that is based purely on an inspector’s “feeling” about a prison), but prisons are complex and just looking at the numbers without further investigation often misses the contributing causes and connections between the numbers.  It also opens the door for the prison to manipulate the numbers in order to appear better or simply under-report.

Still, I’m all for public scrutiny and if this brings additional attention to important data such as assault rates, then that’s great.

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3 thoughts on “NZ: Greater transparency for prison system

  1. Joanne says:

    To me, I guess the important issue here is who is the overseerer. Sure we can improve the quality of the data, but if there is no will to change things for the better or if the body responsible for overseeing prisons has no teeth, then real change is unlikely to happen. I have long been making this argument regarding the Office of the Correctional Investigator in Canada (the ombudsman you refer to in your post). The office has been railing on about the same problems over and over again since its inception in the 1970s, but nothing, it seems, ever changes.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Joanne! I can’t speak for the OCI, but one thought that I had in reading your comment is that many issues in corrections are endemic to the system itself – so while we certainly want to work on issues, I don’t know that the issues can be truly erased. The big topics – use of force, assaults, suicide, disparate effect on minorities – will always be there to some extent.

    However, I certainly agree with you that change will only happen if those in the administration want to change. In Ohio, we have had tremendous change recently and it has been due to the director, Gary Mohr. He has been extremely open about the problems in Ohio corrections, he has welcomed feedback from every quarter, and he has put many of those recommended practices in place. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t sense the same humility, openness, and willingness to change from the Canadian prison system. From the extremely limited experience that I have, I get the sense that they think that they already have the answers. But maybe that’s just my experience – let me know if you differ!

    • Joanne says:

      The Canadian system has waxed and waned on accountability depending on the government in power. When the Liberals were at the helm, there was a clear push toward rehabilitation. As soon as the Conservatives came into power the tide turned toward an obvious push for punishment. In short this government does not care about humility, they prefer the scapegoat and retribution route to solving all of society’s problems.

      I am very happy to read about Ohio, Wherever the right thing happens, at least it is happening!

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