They're too young to go to prison but can't be in society. So how do you rehabilitate kids in custody? Meghan Lawrence goes inside Auckland's youth justice facility.

Classrooms, vegetable gardens, basketball courts, bright murals, Maori carvings and inspirational quotes.

It looks just like a high school.

But the five-metre tall wire fences that surround the circle of buildings and the impenetrable pairs of locked doors between structures give it away.

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Korowai Manaaki in Manurewa, South Auckland, is one of the country's four youth justice residences.

Young people may be detained in a youth justice residence if they are awaiting Youth Court, if they have committed a serious offence and are deemed unsafe to live in the community, and if they are on remand and have nowhere else to go.

Korowai Manaaki has 46 beds with an equal amount of teenagers.

Within one of these rooms is the oldest resident, Sean*, an 18-year-old from South Auckland, who has been in and out of youth residences and boys' homes for the past seven years.

The Herald was invited into the facility to see what work it is doing to turn these teenagers' lives around.

We cannot identify the teenagers interviewed due to restrictions and suppressions imposed by the Youth Court and were also asked by Corrections not to probe into the home lives of the teens to respect their privacy.

At age 10, Sean left his family home. By 11, he was "hanging with the wrong crowd and making the wrong decisions".

At 12, he was living alone and turning to crime to feed himself.

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Korowai Manaaki is a Youth Justice Residence, located in Manurewa, Auckland. It provides secure care for young people who have been referred by the courts. Photo / Michael Craig.
Korowai Manaaki is a Youth Justice Residence, located in Manurewa, Auckland. It provides secure care for young people who have been referred by the courts. Photo / Michael Craig.

"I had to be an adult because I had no other choice. A lot of things were going on at home," he said.

"I started stealing stuff and robbing. I just wanted money and all I would think about was what I was going to do the next day, and how I was going to eat."

Sean said his avocation of theft turned into a way to make a name for himself, and as his reputation grew he thought he was cool.

"I was like my own leader. I was a one-man team.

"I wasn't thinking and I didn't care where I ended up. I knew it would get to the point where I would be locked up, behind big gates."

I started stealing stuff and robbing... all I would think about was... how I was going to eat.

Behind big gates is exactly where he ended up, but the teen credits his time within the youth detention centre for changing his life.

"This place is part of life," he said.

"When you are here you know it is time to change."

As an 18-year-old, he decided to turn his life around when he realised the next step was district court and adult prison.

"I don't want to end up in prison for a long period of time. I want to become an engineer."

Korowai Manaaki is one of four Youth Justice Residences. It has 46 beds, eight of which are for girls. Photo / Michael Craig.
Korowai Manaaki is one of four Youth Justice Residences. It has 46 beds, eight of which are for girls. Photo / Michael Craig.

He said Korowai Manaaki staff helped him focus on creating a positive future and upskilled him for his release.

"I have achieved a lot in here. If I didn't come here, I wouldn't have got my driver's licence and forklift licence. I've also got site safety and first aid, and barista and I am trying to go for my traffic control.

"Now my focus is on organising a placement and apartment for when I get out, so I can be ready to make good choices and get a job, so I can make my own money instead of thinking about stealing again."

A typical day

Every day at the residence is structured and scheduled - from when residents wake up and shower, to set duties, school, development programmes and bedtime.

Teens wake up between 7am and 7.30am. Prior to school, they will eat breakfast, clean up after and also have their morning wash routine.

For breakfast, they usually have toast, a selection of cereals or porridge and a hot drink, which is prepared by staff.

They then attend classes on site provided by Kingslea School. They learn during the standard school hours of 8.45am to 3pm and study NCEA courses.

After school, they participate in a range of other courses and programmes, including sport, cultural activities, life and vocational skills, such as driver and forklift licence training.

They are also assigned chores by a roster system, which covers everything from setting meal tables, general cleaning, washing and drying of dishes.

The teens can gain points towards a behavioural management system by completing their chores and often volunteer for more for extra points.

These points can accumulate towards rewards and special privileges, such as the use of an MP3 player with approved music, or a portable DVD player with approved movies.

The teens are given two hours of free time a day where they can make phone calls, play chess or cards, watch approved movies and write letters etc. Photo / Michael Craig
The teens are given two hours of free time a day where they can make phone calls, play chess or cards, watch approved movies and write letters etc. Photo / Michael Craig

The teens are given two hours of free time a day where they can make phone calls, play chess or cards, watch approved movies that are age and content appropriate and write letters.

They can make calls from a communal phone at the facility, but no internet or cellphone access is allowed. The school uses tablets for specific education programmes but this is monitored for unauthorised use.

Dinner is served between 5pm and 6pm depending on other activities. A range of food is available and is intended to provide a nutritionally balanced meal.

Occasionally staff will undertake a specific cooking programme, including menu design, budgeting, and cooking. The teens also work with staff to prepare meals on special days such as Waitangi or Pacifica.

Bedtime is 8.30pm and lights out is usually at 9pm. All bedrooms have a bed, shelving, and access to toilet and bathrooms facilities.

The teens are not locked in their rooms but are asked to buzz through to the staff office for permission to leave. No one can get into the room without a key to provide safety.

If a teen has a high level of behavioural management system points, based on good behaviour, they can be out of their room until 9.30pm.

Teens are also provided with health services for medical and mental health needs, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and access to pre-employment services and crisis management services.

After school hours teens participate in a range of other courses and programmes, such as; sport, cultural activities, life and vocational skills. Photo / Michael Craig
After school hours teens participate in a range of other courses and programmes, such as; sport, cultural activities, life and vocational skills. Photo / Michael Craig

Korowai Manaaki residence manager Ie Nua said structure provided the teenagers with predictability.

"It is important for people who have had little structure in their days, to start to have some structure in their lives, so they know what is ahead and they can plan mentally and emotionally."

"Obviously, there is downtime too, where they can play cards and table tennis, but even then we try and structure that time and encourage staff to incorporate a learning outcome out of every interaction."

It is important for people who have had little structure in their days, to start to have some structure in their lives

Nua said having new peer groups, a structured day that was positive, and a safe place to live, were all things that really shift behaviour.

If a teen does misbehave at the facility, such as becoming aggressive or disturbing to others, they can be placed in a secure unit - which is a quieter unit identical to the open unit.

This gives them time to settle and the staff can work more closely with them.

A teen can only be kept in a secure unit for up to three days, unless n application is made to the court.

Managing challenging behaviour

The maximum period a teen can be sentenced to stay at a youth justice residence is six months, but due to remand periods, their entire stay may equate to much longer.

Some people can be in a residence for more than a year, and then they will get sentenced - but the national average is about 48 days, said Oranga Tamariki general manager of youth justice residences Ben Hannifin.

"Most of the young people here are working through that remand period, which is tough because they don't know how long they will be here for," he said.

"It is very difficult for the team to develop good programming and plans around that young person because you can't really do criminogenic work when they are not guilty of anything yet.

"What we try to do in those short-term stays is keep them safe, keep them healthy, and keep them fed so when they do eventually go they are in a much better place than when they came in."

"Everything we do is about transitioning them back into the community and the good stuff they do here is also stuff they can do outside the wire," Ben Hannifin. Photo / Michael Craig

Hannifin said it was much more productive dealing with the sentenced population.

"Because they know when they are getting out and we have a date to work to, to make sure we have a good transition."

When given this time, Hannifin said staff gave prominence to developing skills and connections that the teens could build upon outside of the facility.

"Our hope is to connect them into something that they really value and flourish in and can continue to do when they leave," he said.

"Because that is the only way you will break them out of the environment they were in that drove the offending."

Hannifin said the big challenge is getting them into it, and keeping them in it when they are not in state care.

"The reality is, it might take a couple of goes because we do have a lot of young people who come back."

Ongoing work

New Zealand's four youth justice residences combined - the others are in Rotorua, Palmerston North, and Christchurch - house about 150 teenagers, who are generally aged 14 to 17.

About 40 per cent of youth offenders will have repeat visits to youth justice residences.

Fifty to 60 per cent never come back, the rest come back a lot.

"And unfortunately as they turn 17-18 they then move on to the adult space," Hannifin said.

He believed short periods of stay at the residences were part of the problem, and future efforts needed to target alternative options.

"All they are really doing is associating with a peer group that we would rather they didn't," he said.

"There are alternatives that should be used for those people with short-term stays, so we can work with those people who have been sentenced for a serious offence.

"At the moment the facilities and actual environment they need doesn't exist."

Hannifin said the first step was creating different environments, such as remand homes, and updating existing environments.

There are currently remand homes in Dunedin, Palmerston North, and Rotorua.

Remand homes are an alternative option for lower-risk youth. The facilities provide supervision and care, but have a much more home-like environment.

About 40 per cent of youth offenders will have repeat visits to youth justice residences. Photo / Michael Craig
About 40 per cent of youth offenders will have repeat visits to youth justice residences. Photo / Michael Craig

"You are going to get young people who are volatile and angry and need security, but that is not many, and the others don't need to be in that kind of space," Hannifin said.

"But we need to help communities accept that and work with them to feel comfortable with that environment in their space."

He said an initial negative reaction to remand homes was only human nature.

"The immediate reaction is people not knowing how comfortable they are with these homes in their communities, but then we have public consultations, open homes and that kind of thing, so we are transparent about what we are doing.

"After that, we generally get a lot more willingness to support the homes, people wanting to volunteer and a more positive uptake - but initially people are worried about the effect on the value of their house and whether their car is safe, and all those kinds of questions.

"That is only natural but it doesn't last long."

Hannifin said youth justice residences also needed to move from being a correctional space, to a therapeutic space.

"It's about how do we get a young person who has had a pretty tough journey, to feel safe enough to actually start to understand what brought them here.

"They have been challenged a lot, so how do you create an environment that looks institutional but allows them to start to unpack some of that and feel safe enough to do that.

"Ultimately we need to shift away from a placement, to being here to rehabilitate and reduce reoffending. That has got to be our goal."

At existing youth justice residences, such as Korowai Manaaki, it meant new paint, flooring, fresh furniture, and creating a graffiti-free environment, he said.

An upgrade of Korowai Manaaki is scheduled to begin next month.

"It will still not change the architecture, it will still have a fence and concrete walls, but It will be a complete refresh."

Nua said the sector also needed to up its game in terms of working with families of youth offenders.

"Our investment should be in getting the family into a position that they are able to look after the young person," he said.

"Our future is in outreach and helping address the family issues that may have contributed to the youth being here."

The courtyard of the youth justice residence in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
The courtyard of the youth justice residence in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig

Hannifin said rehabilitating youth offenders also took community involvement and compassion.

"I think most people would think kids are in a place like this because they are so risky that if they were out they would be further offending, but that is not the case. It is just the safest place for them at that point in time.

"The community has to accept the fact that these young people are from their space and they have every right, as every other teenager does, to live a thriving life. It is our job to make sure the community stays safe with them living in it."

The justice system worked hard to keep youth out of these residences, Hannifin said, but what brought them to that space was an accumulation of things in their life.

"Their mental health, being out of education, their family environment, and the peer group they are associated with - these are all aspects in a young person's life that makes finding an alternative bail address, or an alternative placement to here, quite a challenge."

Turning a life around

A new start at life can be achieved, as illustrated by a 16-year-old from South Auckland, who was released from Korowai Manaaki late last year.

The teenager was 13 years old when he started offending, and spent a total of two years within the youth justice residence after becoming involved in aggravated robbery.

"The start of my journey was rough. I was probably one of the people who caused the most mischief on site.

But when I got told I was heading to district and had no more chances, it made me feel like I had no hope and I decided something needed to change.

"What really helped me was knowing my release date and having the support of the youth workers who pushed me to my limit and led me to success.

"I jumped back on track and up until now I am still trying to change from the person I was. I am leaving all my bad stuff in the past."

The teen said staff helped him prepare for court, taught him time management, and most important of all - taught him to never give up.

"I focused on trying to achieve my Level 1 NCEA, and I am only 10 credits away now.

"I also recently competed in a charity triathlon that raised $700. It was 50km; running, rowing and riding. I'd never done anything like that before so it was more about the commitment, that was the hardest bit.

"It felt good to achieve it. It was just another achievement."

On his release, the teen started a life skills and peer pressure course and hopes to move into a welding course.

"It felt like I was dreaming when I was first released," he said.

"It feels better, like I am back to normal and being myself again."

A typical day at Korowai Manaaki
Weekdays
7am-7.30am: Wake up, shower, breakfast (toast, cereal or porridge and a hot drink).
Teens are on a chore roster that can include setting tables and washing dishes.
8.45am: School, which follows NCEA curriculum. Tablets with internet access are available under strict monitoring.
Midday: Lunch (for example, spaghetti carbonara with garlic bread, battered hot dogs with fries and tomato sauce).
3pm: School finishes. After-school courses include sport, cultural activities, life and vocational skills and chores.
5pm-6pm: Dinner (for example, sweet and sour pork with vegetable fried rice or roast beef with honey-roasted potatoes and vegetables).
6pm-8pm: More courses and two hours free time to make phone calls from communal phone (no internet or cellphones allowed), play chess or cards, and write letters. Special behaviour earns privileges such as playing approved music, or approved DVDs​.
8.30pm: Teens go to their rooms.
9pm: Lights out. Good behaviour means being allowed out of room until 9.30pm.

Weekend
Teens can use gym and sports facilities and do art, model-making, song-writing and Māori or Pasifika cultural programmes. The girls' unit may do a make-up programme.

School holidays Emphasis on vocational skills such as driver licences, forkhoist or barista programmes.