International evidence shows maintaining family ties can reduce recividism, so why is phone contact in New Zealand prisons so inconsistent and inequitable?

Just before Christmas, Radio New Zealand reported that Waikeria Prison had one faulty telephone for 80 prisoners. While the Department of Corrections disputed this, the prison has acknowledged that, between August and November, one of the two phones in the affected unit was unable to be fixed due to a Covid-19 lockdown.

Everyone agrees that maintaining contact with whānau is important for prisoners. However — logistically — providing access to telephones is not always straightforward. This is largely because phones are located in communal areas and so access depends on prisoners being outside of their cells. Thus, like many things in prisons, the issue is largely one of coordinating time and space.

Consequently, prisoners spending long hours locked in their cells is a significant hurdle. Periods when prisoners are in classes, rehabilitation programmes, or at work, is another factor needing to be taken into account.

These problems are well documented in Prison Inspectorate reports. For example, in 2020 lockup hours at Northland Region Corrections Facility (NRCF) prevented prisoners contacting their family, including school-aged children, after 3.30pm. Long queues for phones on the weekends, causing tension, was the result.

Other recent reports on Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF) and Arohata Prison have stated that, while the women “generally received at least one hour out of their cell each day, this time was often used for cleaning and making telephone calls rather than exercise” as intended.

This lack of sufficient time for phone calls contrasts with British prisons, which require telephone access for at least two hours each day — though this requirement is fast becoming redundant due to a proactive programme of installing phones in cells that started in 2018.

More fundamentally, telephone access is not equitable across the prison network, as can be seen in prisoner surveys and Department of Corrections’ data.

Ombudsman’s surveys show that while only 16 percent of Tongariro prisoners surveyed had problems accessing a phone, 44 percent, 47 percent and 61 percent of prisoners had problems at Auckland Prison, Waikeria Prison and NRCF, respectively. And in one unit at NRCF, a huge 84 percent of prisoners had difficulties, resulting in bullying in the south pods of the prison.

The Serco-run Auckland South Corrections Facility (ASCF) is unique because most prisoners’ cells have a telephone — though when the Ombudsman inspected the prison in 2018 he found “issues around the serviceability of … in-cell systems” causing problems with the telephones. Prisoners also reported delays in phones getting repaired. Significantly, 33 percent of prisoners indicated they had problems accessing telephones, despite an almost 1:1 ratio of phones per prisoner.

Large differences in the number of telephones in the other prisons is clear from a 2018 Official Information Act response. While ARWCF and Invercargill had one phone per 13 prisoners, Rolleston and Tongariro Prisons had less than half the number, with one phone per 29 and 33 prisoners, respectively.

New Zealand has no standard to measure these ratios against, but the New South Wales’ prison inspector’s standard is a ratio of one phone per 20 prisoners. The 2018 data indicated that almost half of our prisons would not have met this standard.

The discussion about telephone access before Christmas importantly drew attention to the issue. However, it failed to mention another important fact — that prisoners have a legal entitlement to only one telephone call to whānau of up to five minutes each week. While most prisoners get more than this, some don’t.

As Oxford University’s Sharon Shalev wrote in her 2021 report on women’s prisons for the Human Rights Commission, AWRCF technicians were requested to reset phones to cut off at five minutes when a call of five minutes 30 seconds was observed in the Management and Separates Units.

Covid lockdowns and the related halt to prison visits have really reinforced the importance of phone contact with whānau for prisoners. In fact, the British government credits maintaining family ties with a significant 40 percent reduction in recidivism.

Given this, surely it is time to change the Corrections Act to increase prisoners’ weekly minimum entitlement to telephones. Widespread installation of phones in cells must also be a priority. Maximum and high security prisoners should be first on the list because they have fewer hours outside their cells and greater need for support to ensure their successful community reintegration.

If we want prisoners to succeed without crime after prison, we need to help them. Increasing their access to telephones is one way to help do this.

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