Shining a light on women in New Zealand prisons

By Janis Adair
Chief Inspector
Office of the Inspectorate | Te Tari Tirohia

Over the last few years, the Office of the Inspectorate has shone a light on the imprisonment of women in New Zealand.

Women in New Zealand prisons share common experiences with imprisoned women around the world. Many women are likely to be caring for children, have low levels of literacy, have experienced trauma and abuse, and have mental health and substance use disorders. In response to these experiences, experts have called for gender-responsive and trauma-informed practices in prisons.

In New Zealand, women make up 6.1% of the prison population (at 31 October 2022). Currently, 486 women are housed in New Zealand’s three women’s prisons, down from a high of 766 in 2018. Women tend to be in prison for less serious offences than men, such as offences against public order (which include drug and traffic offences), and are more likely to be sentenced for property crimes, including burglary and dishonesty. Women are much less likely to offend against a person than men, and are less likely to be reconvicted of a crime in the two years after being released from prison.

Indigenous Māori women are over-represented in New Zealand prisons, a long-standing trend. Māori women aged 20-60 years comprise 15% of the general population, but are 63% of women in prison. In comparison, Māori men comprise 52% of the prison population. The majority of women in prison (69%) are aged between 20 and 40 years, and a small number are under 20 or over 60.  Around a sixth of women in prison have gang links, compared with 37% of male prisoners.

The Office of the Inspectorate’s focus on imprisoned women began with a complaint, received in February 2020, from a lawyer representing three maximum security women at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF). This led to a special investigation into the management of these women. A report was released in March 2021, which included adverse findings around the use of segregation and force.

Following this, Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis issued a letter of expectations to the Chief Executive of the New Zealand Department of Corrections | Ara Poutama Aotearoa in which he said the Department should accept the recommendations outlined in the report. There should be, he said, an “urgent review and overhaul of maximum security classification for Women, the development of management plans for Women and a review of all Women’s prisons.

He went on to state: “The corrections system and network was built to suit the needs of male prisoners. I believe we need to review the system and network to ensure we operate our women’s prisons based on the needs of female prisoners.

Following the Minister’s letter, the Inspectorate broadened its scrutiny and carried out inspections at New Zealand’s three women’s prisons (ARWCF, Arohata Prison and Christchurch Women’s Prison), and then undertook a thematic inspection of the lived experience of women in prisons. Together, the reports examine the challenges faced by women in prison and offer an opportunity for the Department to refresh its polices, practices and procedures. The reports aim to focus and strengthen the Department’s efforts to make significant and lasting changes to the women’s prison network.

The inspection reports are part of the programme carried out by the Inspectorate across New Zealand’s network of 18 prisons. The inspection process provides an ongoing invaluable insight into prisons and provides assurance that shortcomings are identified and addressed in a timely way, and examples of good practice are shared across the prison network.

My decision to undertake the thematic inspection arose from the recognition of a real and present opportunity for the Department to reimagine and redesign the way in which women are managed in prison and prepared for their transition back to the community.

The thematic report, The Lived Experience of Women in Prison, provides insights into the vulnerabilities and specific needs of women which, while recognised in the Department’s Women’s Strategy (2017-2021) | Wāhine E Rere Ana Ki Te Pae Hou, were never fully realised. It importantly also shares the voices and lived experiences of women in prison and of staff, which provides the most powerful and compelling messages of all.

The thematic report has one overarching recommendation, which has been accepted by the Department: “The Department must review the strategic and operational leadership, resourcing, operating model and service delivery across the women’s prison network (including health services) to enable, and deliver, better outcomes for women, which are critically gender specific, culturally responsive and trauma informed.”

While I recognise there is much work to be done, I felt it important to make only one over-arching recommendation and provide further areas for consideration. The Department should focus on prioritising actions for better outcomes and closely monitor and report on progress to ensure visibility. There must be a positive and open culture which promotes and encourages continuous improvement.

I expect the Department to work collaboratively with key partners and stakeholders and, importantly also, to engage directly with women in prison and on release to best understand how improvements can be co-designed to reflect the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women.

The significant over-representation of Māori women in New Zealand prisons, who also make up the majority of the remand population, demands attention and must be more robustly addressed with an authentic Māori response across the three women’s sites, alongside the Department’s Hōkai Rangi strategy, which aims to “humanise and heal” and reduce the proportion of Māori in prison.

Considered together, these reports provide a compelling case for changes to the management of women in prisons. I also appointed dedicated staff from my Office to work across the women’s prison network to provide assurance over the findings and recommendations of the reports.

In response to the Inspectorate reports, in October 2021 the Department released its updated women’s strategy for 2021-2025, Wāhine - E rere ana ki te pae hou | Women rising above a new horizon. The strategy was developed in consultation with a range of predominantly Māori women, including those with lived experience of the justice system, whānau (extended family), service providers, staff and a range of agencies and iwi (tribe-based) organisations.

Corrections’ National Commissioner said at the time: “The release of three reports by the independent Corrections Inspectorate, all relating to the management of women in prison in our recent history, demonstrates the absolute need for a refreshed strategy to guide our work”.

The next step for the Inspectorate is a review of mothers with babies units in the women’s prisons. Currently women in prison who have a child aged under two can apply to keep their child with them in prison in a special unit. The review aims to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the Department’s practices and processes when working with women in prison who have a child or children aged two years or under, are pregnant, or are housed in a mothers with babies unit. A report will be released in 2023.

The Minister’s letter also led to a review of the entire Corrections’ complaints system, overseen by my Office, which resulted in the report, Redesigning the Ara Poutama Complaints System: Working towards a manaakitanga approach. This wide-ranging report proposed a redesign of the complaints resolution system to move Corrections towards a model that places the complainant at the centre of the issue. Work is now ongoing towards that aim.

The Office of the Inspectorate works to ensure that all prisoners are treated in a way that is fair, safe, secure and humane. The Inspectorate is part of the Department of Corrections, but functions independently to ensure objectivity and integrity.

All five reports have been publicly released:

Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility inspection report

Arohata Prison inspection report

Christchurch Women's Prison inspection report

Thematic Report: The lived experience of women in prison

Special Investigation into the management of three wāhine at ARWCF

This article  was originally published in the newsletter External Oversight and Women in Places of Detention by the External Prison Oversight and Human Rights Group of the International Corrections and Prisons Association.

External Oversight and Women in Places of Detention newsletter