National | Corrections

Cultural competency training, toxic workplace overhaul needed at Corrections - Ombudsman

Waikeria experienced a major riot when prisoners protested conditions and treatment at the facility in 2021. Photo / Brett Phibbs / NZME

In a scathing new report, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has lashed out at the Department of Corrections for what he says are deep-rooted workplace and leadership issues and a lack of cultural competency and capability to work with Māori.

Boshier's investigation was triggered by concerns over the treatment of prisoners at the Department of Corrections and the 2020/2021 riots at Waikeria Prison, which happened after what he says were repeated warnings things needed to change.

“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," Boshier says.

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, were constantly criticised by himself and other agencies.

The department accepted most of the recommendations yet Boshier says a lack of action meant the riots still occurred.

"Most prisoners will go back into society. It’s important they are treated with dignity and respect to minimise their chances of reoffending," Boshier says.

Systemic deficiencies

Boshier's probe claims systemic deficiencies and a senior leadership team mired in a culture of risk-aversion and reactivity, failing to confront the root causes of problems.

A report from Te Ao Māori News in 2022 revealed many in private prisons commissioned by Corrections also felt they were being unfairly treated.

The department declined, however, to intervene.

Boshier says concerns about a divided organisation, disconnection between frontline prison staff and head office, and limited attention given to staff survey feedback were raised.

“In my view, all of the issues I’ve outlined are shortcomings that Corrections’ senior leadership could have addressed but has not," Boshier says.

The report also highlights a lack of cultural competency and capability to work with Māori and the department's tendency to explain away oversight bodies' concerns and recommendations.

Approach 'too narrow

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.

"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,” Boshier says.

Boshier says Corrections needs to start valuing oversight agencies' recommendations, instead of explaining them away.

"The department needs to see the recommendations and suggestions from agencies like mine for what they are - opportunities for change."

The other recommendations include enhancing accountability, addressing systemic issues head on and prioritising cultural considerations.

"I am aware that the current chief executive is making efforts to transform the way the department operates," Boshier says.

"However, the culture that is deeply rooted within the department has impeded the efforts of successive chief executives from making progress."

'Striving to do better'

In a statement to, Corrections chief executive Jeremy Lightfoot said he welcomed the Chief Ombudsman's report, and accepted the recommendations in full.

"There are 8,500 people in prison. They are some of New Zealand’s most complex and vulnerable people, and we are responsible for keeping them secure, safe, and well, and providing the treatment and support they need to successfully transition back to the wider community upon release." Lightfoot said.

"This work can be exceptionally challenging, and when something goes wrong, it can have serious and lasting consequences – for the community, victims, our staff, and the people we manage," Lightfoot conceded.

"We must therefore do everything we can to prevent this, and we are always striving to do better."

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