David Bennett: Davis must correct prisoner-first system

Opinion 23/08/2019
Photo: iStock.

OPINION: Last week I along with many New Zealanders, was appalled to see a prisoner freely sending inciting letters while he is accused of committing arguably the most insidious crime in our history.

The release of seven inflammatory letters from the alleged Christchurch gunman is truly shocking and requires hard questions to be answered by Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis.

The release of these letters is the latest consequence of Davis’ prisoner-first Corrections system. 

National stands unashamedly on the side of victims. We must ensure we safely and effectively reduce crime and reoffending whilst putting victims at the centre of our system.

Davis’ explanation for allowing these letters to be sent on his watch was that ‘New Zealand has never had a prisoner like the man accused’. Exactly. New Zealand has never had a prisoner like this, which is precisely why the Minister should have exercised extreme rigor and care when reviewing the prisoner’s privileges as soon as he was taken into custody.

I would expect that a case of this severity would have had the Minister demand reports on the process for managing high profile prisoners. It was the Minister’s responsibility to ensure Corrections had the procedures in place to deal with him and he has failed to do so.

Both Davis and Corrections admit the letters should not have been sent, and Chief Executive of Corrections Christine Stevenson accepted her staff could have withheld the letters under the current law. Yet we have the Minister calling for a potential law change. Rather than showing some leadership and taking accountability for Corrections’ ineptitude, the Minister would rather blame it on the law.

Letters from another imprisoned white supremacist have since been released, sparking Corrections to come up with some sort of solution. In a completely backwards approach, they have set up an 0800 number and email address where people can alert authorities if they receive unwanted correspondence from prisoners. The Minister is putting the onus on victims to alert Corrections if they receive unwanted letters, rather than Corrections stopping them from getting out in the first place. Victims are hurting as a result of the Minister’s incompetence, yet his major Corrections announcement has again been prisoner focused.

The Minister has labelled our system ‘extremely racist’ and has implemented a strategy to lower the Māori prisoner population. The strategy focuses on things like ‘changing the language’ and providing ‘more comfortable visiting rooms’.   It suggests providing weekend home visits prior to release, but is light on reintegration which is the key to delivering outcomes which protect victims and reduce recidivism. One of the more concerning recommendations is that gang leaders who are ‘disengaged from offending behaviour’ are connected with their members in prisons to support them. It’s good to be ambitious in seeking to reduce the Māori prison population, but it isn’t realistic to achieve this without a plan to reduce crime.

Rather than a strategy, the Minister needs to focus on establishing better systems that help prisoners reengage in their communities through meaningful employment opportunities on release.

Whether it’s giving prisoners the right to vote, to being on the side of prisoners in their assaults on prison officers, the Government has established a prisoner-friendly system at victims’ expense.

Public safety and the rights of victims will always remain National’s bottom line. Kelvin Davis must take responsibility for Corrections’ ineptitude and reform his prisoner-first system.

David Bennett is National's Corrections spokesperson.