Violence might be seen as an inevitable fact of life in our prisons – but researchers believe we can tackle it if we better understand what drives it.

A team of academics, led by renowned Waikato University clinical psychologist Dr Armon Tamatea, even hope to predict where, when and how it happens.

"While we know a lot about why violence occurs in the community, in everyday contexts, we know less about violence in prisons," he said.

Over the 2017/18 year, 42 prisoners were seriously assaulted, along with 12 Corrections staff.

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While that represented just a fraction of New Zealand's total prison population – there were 0.11 staff members and 0.40 inmates injured per every 100 prisoners – Corrections has recently taken major steps to counter violence, including a four-year health and safety initiative.

But much of what was known about prison violence to date, Tamatea said, was "occupational knowledge" gained on the job by custodial officers, or through prisoners themselves.

"As institutions of 'care', prisons - like hospitals and schools - are responsible for the safety and well-being for people who reside within them," he said.

"A critical question to ask ourselves is, if a family member was sent to prison, could their safety be guaranteed?

"Interpersonal violence is a major health hazard across the globe, and prisons are risky environments, not least because of the reasons why people end up in them but also because of the social and physical structures that can facilitate violence."

Tamatea - regarded for his work on assessing and treating violent and sexual offenders, along with special programmes for those diagnosed with psychopathy – said prison violence was often glamourised in film and TV, citing Wentworth and Orange Is The New Black as examples.

"[It] can generate an impression that violence - especially sexual violence - is rampant in secure institutions," he said.

"On the other hand, my prior work revealed that violence can go unreported and suggest an under-estimate of violence in places that are more hazardous than is officially noted.

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"An important point to remember is that every prison - and every unit within those prisons - has a culture, and that the culture will vary from site to site with regards to what behaviour is tolerated, and what behaviour is not, within the walls.

"Furthermore, every prison has a history, so the profile of violence for a given site can change over time depending on issues such as density and composition of prisoners, relationships with staff, impact of policy, type of regime in place, as well as access to recreational resources for prisoners."

He ultimately viewed prisons as ecosystems – spaces where people, resources, and the built environment were all linked, and where changes in one component affected other parts of the system.

"From this perspective, violence can be considered to be a product of this system. As such, efforts to reduce aggressive behaviour need to recognise the context in which it occurs - and the context is complex."

"While we know a lot about why violence occurs in the community, in everyday contexts, we know less about violence in prisons," Waikato University's Dr Armon Tamatea says. Photo / Alan Gibson

His study, supported with a $3.9m grant through the Government's Endeavour Fund, would first design a model that pin-pointed sites linked to violence.

Next, his team would delve into what shaped staff and prisoners' perception of safety, and what threatened it.

They also planned to get a better grasp of gangs in prisons; an estimated third of prisoners were affiliated with one – and around three-quarters of those identified as Māori.

"Much has been said about gangs in Aotearoa, but little is actually known about these groups," Tamatea said.

"Given the prominence of gang-affiliated prisoners across all of our large institutions, it will be important to have their input to develop workable approaches to preventing and intervening on violence without further marginalising these men and women."

Lastly, the team would investigate the physical design of high-risk sites, to see how they might be improved.

Tamatea believed the five-year project was set apart by the wide view it would take, blending together everything from Corrections data and staff perspectives, to information about the physical environment of prisons and contemporary gang culture.

He also singled out its focus on traditional Māori knowledge.

"Institution-level violence interventions can often be punitive, reactive, or compromised because they are based on imported knowledge from other countries that do not adequately account for culture-specific issues that Māori and Pasifika men and women present with," he said.

"Given the well-known disproportion of Māori in our jails - roughly 50 per cent or more of the prison population at any given time - Māori knowledge will be essential in the design of approaches for reducing violence and enhancing wellbeing."