Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

New focus spurs hope for prisons

Anne Tolley's push for rehabilitiation and education expected to pay dividends - but it will take time.

Anne Tolley has earned praise for her reforms, despite rioting at Spring Hill prison this year. Photo / APN
Anne Tolley has earned praise for her reforms, despite rioting at Spring Hill prison this year. Photo / APN

On the table at Rimutaka Prison last week was lamb fillet with duck liver pate, caramelised potatoes and vegetables in an oxtail jus.

The food was made and served by prisoners, including a chef whose security classification was too high to allow him to mingle with diners such as Corrections Minister Anne Tolley and Wellington business leaders.

The "Prison Gate to Plate" event, in which inmates were trained by top chef Martin Bosley, was part of an initiative to convince company bosses that prisoners could work when their sentences were over.

"It was outstanding - top, top quality," said Mrs Tolley.

The minister is overseeing a sea change in Corrections policy. The culinary stunt at the once-notorious Rimutaka was one of many signs that the National-led Government was shifting away from a punitive, risk-averse approach in prisons and towards rehabilitation and education.

After a much-criticised stint as Education Minister, Mrs Tolley has earned tentative praise from both sides of the political spectrum for her handling of the Corrections portfolio.

Mrs Tolley told the Herald that the days of locking prisoners up and throwing away the key were over for all but a handful of hardline criminals.

"There's some really bad buggers out there who need to be locked up. But the majority of our prisoners cycle through on a reasonably short basis and those are the ones that we can do a lot of good with."

Her latest major policy change was to overhaul the education system within prisons. Every youth inmate would get an educational assessment at the beginning of their sentence, which could involve digging out old school reports and finding where they were most likely to excel.

The education system behind bars would be as close as possible in structure to schools and tertiary institutions on the outside. Inmates with eight-hour study days would be spared some prison tasks.

Mrs Tolley: "You don't want to take someone out of a class to go and sweep the yards because that was their assigned job, because actually they're involved in something worthwhile."

By 2015, 85 per cent of youth prisoners were expected to have gained NCEA Level 2.

The minister was also considering family-friendly initiatives, such as giving incarcerated parents one day a week with their children within prison grounds.

This drew criticism from the lobby group Sensible Sentencing Trust, which said prisoners were being treated better than victims.

Mrs Tolley responded: "Prison is not a pretty place. You can't even make a decision about what time you get up in the morning. Any day that you are in prison someone else decides that for you, every single day. What time you will eat, what time you will shower - that's an enormous punishment."

Justice reformer Kim Workman said Mrs Tolley's policies had not yet made a dent in reoffending rates.

Corrections' last annual report showed that nearly half of prisoners were reconvicted within a year of their release. As a result, the prison population had not fallen.

But many agreed that she was on the right track.

Mr Workman said: "I think back to 1960 to 1970 as the period of great prison reform in New Zealand. There hasn't been a similar period since. We might be starting to see one now."

Meanwhile, Mrs Tolley is heading to New York and Los Angeles for ten days to investigate how US police cope with some of the country's most notorious gangs.

Tolley's ups and downs

Four-course meal served by prisoners at Rimutaka Prison, once known for its high rates of violence.

Inmates rioting at Spring Hill prison in June.

- NZ Herald

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