There are growing calls for Corrections to take over the running of police custody units, but it’s not on the Government’s work radar and a justice advocacy group has described the prospect as inappropriate 

The Police Association and Corrections Association have renewed the idea that those in custody could be better looked after under a changed framework. 

Custody remains a pressing issue for police, with many units around the country unfit for purpose, leading to risks for both those detained in them and the staff themselves.  

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Police now have a permanent full-time work group operating to improve the custodial system. 

This has been guided by recommendations from the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), coroners’ findings and an internal police review from 2019.  

Changes so far have included updated mandatory training, the use of technology for better risk assessment, infrastructure remediation work and the removal of ligature points across all 15 sites. 

“The general day-to-day management of people in custody is probably better suited to Corrections officers… because dealing with prisoners is something that we do all the time.”
– Alan Whitley, Corrections Association

But, Police Association president Chris Cahill said while police were making positive changes to improve what they could, the problem remained that some custody units simply should not be operational.  

“Far too many of the custody units just shouldn’t be operating in any way. I can rattle them off… Whakatane, Hastings, Blenheim, Nelson, Gore, they’re all over the show.  

“They really aren’t fit for purpose. They’re not good environments for people to be kept in, but they’re not safe environments to work in as well and police have had a look at that and tried to do something about it but it’s a multi-million dollar project that the government has to invest in.” 

He said it was also worth exploring whether police should be involved in the custody system at all.  

“This is a problem that needs to be sorted out by police, Corrections and justice. It’s not just a police problem. I think Corrections need to have more of a presence. 

“If I look at Napier and Hastings, for instance, Napier no longer has any custody units, the custody unit in Hastings was the old police station that was knocked down but they didn’t build a new custody unit so it’s still the old custody unit sitting around the back.  

“But you’ve got Mangaroa Prison just sitting just down the road. That to me is where the custody unit should be and to be honest, managed by Corrections who are the experts.

“That’s the first place I’d be trying it.” 

In 2017, people arrested in Auckland started being taken to the relatively new Custody Unit at Mt Eden Correctional Facility. While police managed those in the unit, Corrections was right next door managing the larger facility. 

Cahill said it was facilities like Auckland’s that would be perfect for Corrections staff to take over. 

That idea is something former Corrections Association president Alan Whitley said had been discussed in the past, but never gained traction. 

“It goes back to when Greg O’Connor was the president of the Police Association and we had some discussions around the fact that the general day-to-day management of people in custody is probably better suited to Corrections officers … because dealing with prisoners is something that we do all the time.  

“Now, the other thing that we spoke about at the time was that if Corrections officers were able to look after these people in custody, it would then free up frontline police to get back out and do frontline policing duties and therefore make a safer community.  

He said these were only ever discussions between the two associations and was not aware that anything formal ever went higher.

He also said while the idea was good in theory, it would not be feasible to move anything forward until the current staffing challenges with Corrections were rectified.  

“If we have Corrections within the realm of police custody units, there is potential there for blurring of lines and upstream issues to happen.” – Aphiphany Forward-Taua, Just Speak. 

People’s experience in custody units, as well as police working in the units, is something the IPCA keeps close on its radar. 

Wider reports were completed in 2012 and 2015 but in a briefing to incoming minister Kiri Allan in June this year, the IPCA said it intended to expand its work programme. 

“So that we can inspect and audit custodial facilities at the level of frequency required to meet international standards, we will devote a portion of the additional funding received in Budget 2022 to strengthen this area of our work.” 

The IPCA hopes to have this increased programme in place by next year, and is also considering publishing its inspection and audit reports, which it does not currently do. 

Just Speak executive director Aphiphany Forward-Taua said the idea of Corrections staff within police custody units was fundamentally wrong.  

“Police have the discretion and the responsibility of charging people for a crime, and this discretion by law is required to be overseen by a police supervisor. So of course, if we have Corrections within the realm of police custody units, there is potential there for blurring of lines and upstream issues to happen.  

“We could see the influence of Corrections officers on police officers and their responsibility as officers of the court and also officers of the law to make those decisions and we just think it’s fundamentally wrong for those powers to be blurred.” 

She said it also sent the wrong message to people who were detained.  

“That when you’re picked up by the police, eventually you’re going to end up in prison, it kind of has that presumptive connotation attached to it, whether or not that’s intended, that is something that can happen.” 

Whitley added there would need to be consideration of how to manage those simply picked up by police, versus those being held for longer periods.   

“You’ve got to look at the legalities of – can you mix a detainee with a remand prisoner? You’d have to have a look at what the facilities are like, and what the numbers of the people that would be housed in those facilities would be, as opposed to the number of beds that are currently available on the system. 

“For example, Rotorua, they’ve got quite a nice custody hub there and that is suitable. Some of the other places I’ve seen around the country… they weren’t really up to speed.” 

He said he would not want to see Corrections officers working at police stations, but there was merit to the idea of Corrections operating within the custody units.  

“This is not something that has come up in any of my engagements with Corrections.” – Kelvin Davis, Corrections Minister.

“There needs to be some delineation about who would be looking after a detainee as opposed to a person that had been remanded. Once a person is remanded in custody we can look after them. Currently, we cannot look after a detainee who’s held by the police for a number of days, but has not yet been remanded.  

“So obviously, there’ll be some legal things that both departments would have to have a look at if they were to pursue this.” 

Cahill said the police’s growing use of authorised officers – those trained specifically in custody – was a step in the right direction, but many custody units were still being managed by people who were not adequately trained for it, or did not want to be there.  

“So you still end up with people in custody that have limited ability, and it normally means taking someone off the street because they’re looking after a prisoner in custody, which isn’t ideal.” 

He said another major issue for police custody was the transporting of people. 

“Say you arrest someone in the Far North, you’ve got nowhere you can keep them in custody, so you’ve got to drive them to Whangarei and it takes two people to transport the prisoner. So you’ve got no one looking after Kaikohe for the rest of the night, things like that.  

“Nelson’s particularly difficult as they don’t have a prison. So the closest prison to Nelson is Christchurch. So, you’ve got the whole West Coast and Nelson, who have to look after prisoners for longer periods of time in cells that aren’t suitable.” 

“I think if police could get out of transporting prisoners, that would be a valuable resource to free up.” 

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said no work had been, or was, underway to look at whether Corrections should take over the running of police custody units.  

“This is not something that has come up in any of my engagements with Corrections.” 

Meanwhile, Police Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government remained committed to ensuring safe and appropriate custodial services. 

“Improvements to safety and effectiveness of police custodial services began during our first term, back in 2019. That work has continued during 2020 and 2021 and is ongoing under the National Custody Team.

“Making sure custody sites are consistent and well-maintained is absolutely essential. I would expect police to prioritise remedial work to ensure safety and appropriate environments for anyone in custody.”

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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