We take pride in being a cohesive and safe country, with a strong co-operative culture. But New Zealand’s current record high rates of incarceration and reoffending show we are failing in our societal duty to rehabilitate offenders and protect victims. In March 2017, the number of inmates in New Zealand prisons had tipped over 10,000, the seventh highest rate of incarceration in the OECD. In the early 1980s in New Zealand there were 83 inmates per 100 thousand people—today there are roughly 212.

For Annaliese Johnston, a social policy analyst with the  Salvation Army, these figures tell a story. “What I find quite striking in all this is that crime overall has actually dropped in New Zealand in the last few decades, which is consistent with trends in other Western nations. Yet our prison muster is higher than ever and we are struggling to make significant headway on reducing reoffending, which suggests that we struggle to rehabilitate people well in  our prisons.”

It’s possible that ‘leaving behind’ those who are in prison will not cause many to lose sleep. After all, it can be argued that we are discussing people who have at some stage made a cognitive choice to break the law—stealing property, injuring others—leaving a trail of brokenness. But each broken life in prison has its own story, often one of repeated societal failure.

Each offender has their own history with family, friends, education, work, and society, and when they’re released from prison, they will have to make decisions about where they live, who they interact with, and how they support themselves. To do rehabilitation properly is not only good for the offender, it prevents the disaster of the ‘revolving prison door:’ offenders unchallenged by their actions—and denied help and healing—too often create more victims, making us all more unsafe, our society blunter, less responsive, less decent.

“Over the last decade, post-prison reoffending rates have changed very little. For example, in 2006, 56.4% of ex-prisoners had reoffended within two years of being released, and in 2015 this figure was 57%,” says Johnston. This cycle of offending, conviction, imprisonment, release, and rapid return to prison doesn’t make us safer in the long term. And, at the same time, we are locking up more people. We must find a better way.

Mike Templeton knows how hard it is to break this cycle. A former prisoner, Mike spent 10 years of his life in and out of prison in the 1980s and early 2000s for various crimes stemming from drug addiction. For the last decade, however, his life has had a different focus, as a counsellor and soon to be ordained Anglican Deacon who works with church and community organisations, helping prisoners work out their own journey of rehabilitation.

man outside prison freed

As someone who lived the pattern of reoffending and reimprisonment multiple times, Mike says that his story changed when he was paroled to Victory Outreach Recovery Home, a faith-based halfway house in Auckland. Rather than simply walking out of the prison gate and back into the same world, the halfway house gave him time and space to focus on identity formation, strengthen ties with his family, and take part in education and employment programmes. Over several months, Mike established new connections to community and public life, making a new life both possible and plausible.

So, what’s being done to make sure that more of our prisoners have post-prison stories like Mike? In 2016, the Department of Corrections spent $176 million on rehabilitation and reintegration services, and there are some fantastic success stories.

Within prisons, Corrections have developed a variety of programmes, including Drug Treatment Units (DTUs) which have been credited as the Department’s most successful therapeutic programmes. These are run collaboratively with NGOs, with “a residential 3–6 month long programme that aims to rehabilitate prisoners with substance abuse problems through group-based treatment, teaching inmates about addiction, change, relapse, and the effect their actions have on others.”

Annaliese Johnston says that a “2006 evaluation of the 24-week programme revealed that DTUs reduced the reconviction rate by 15% for male offenders and by 30% for female offenders.” Given that a huge proportion of prisoners struggle with addictions and substance abuse (some studies suggest up to 89%) these are essential if prisoners are to successfully rehabilitate, reintegrate into the community and pursue employment opportunities. Johnston adds, “While DTUs work, participants in our research said it can be hard to get a place in the programmes, especially for prisoners with shorter sentences. It would be great if there was more funding to allow wider participation in this kind of rehabilitation effort.”

There are also exciting new public/private inititatives that have been set up in the space between the prison gate and full release, aimed at helping prisoners successfully manage the transition from prison to a new life. Whare Oranga Ake is a collection of kaupapa Māori rehabilitation units for training and repatriating prisoners to life outside, set up by Hon Sir Pita Sharples in 2011 on the grounds of Hawkes Bay prison and later at Springhill prison. This programme specifically involves whānau and the community, helping to prepare them to receive and support offenders at the end of their sentence. They are unique, in that they recognise Māori philosophies, and the strength of Māori communities—particularly important given that Māori make up 15% of the general population, but 56% of the prison population.

Mike points to Whare Oranga Ake as a leading light in pioneering the kind of approach that worked for him at Victory. He laments that, at present, Whare Oranga Ake only has funding to provide 40 beds over two sites nationwide, a drop in the ocean compared to the need.

“If you have somewhere to lay your head, cook your own meals, and space to call your own, that is huge. You start to feel human again.”

Other official support for ex-prisoners includes the Out of Gate service, connecting short term prisoners—those who are inside for 2 years or less—with NGOs who focus on addressing employment, accommodation, education, and training, living skills, health,  and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, Johnston’s research found that the Out of Gate service only reaches a certain number of ex-prisoners, for quite a short amount of time. Some former prisoners she interviewed reported that on release from prison, they were dropped off at the bus-stop with nowhere to go. Many also talked about very simple things that would help, such as having an accepted ID before they left prison, something that is essential for participating in society—required to open a bank account, to get on the benefit, and apply for housing.

Reintegration, however, doesn’t just come down to having the right practical supports. A 2014 Colmar Brunton survey for the Ministry of Justice found that while 67 percent of New Zealanders believe that prisons keep the public safe by containing offenders, just 8 percent think that prison deters offenders from re-offending.

The crucial challenge of reintegration is rebuilding public trust, says Johnston. “The reality is that there will be many who would not want the risk of having someone with a criminal record as their tenant or employee, and understandably so. I do think however that there are many New Zealanders out there who believe in the ‘fair go,’ and want to give people that second chance. Some of the guys I interviewed in my research talked about what a huge deal it was when they met an employer who was willing to do that, and it made them want to work even harder and better for them. Many of them are desperate to make a better life for their families.”

“And we have stakes in this,” she continues. “If we want safer communities, and less reoffending, effective reintegration needs  to happen, as most prisoners will not spend the rest of their life  in prison.”

Former prisoners, just like the rest of us, are hardwired for connection and belonging, and if programmes like Whare Oranaga Ake, community groups, and other organisations can facilitate those relationships, then the people most in need of help will be less likely to turn to other self-destructive habits. Mike says that halfway houses fill an important gap, giving former prisoners a place to stay and opportunity to establish pro-social behaviours that will assist them in proving they’re ready to rent a house and find a job.

To do rehabilitation properly is not only good for the offender, it prevents the disaster that is the ’revolving prison door’.

Annaliese Johnston supports this intermediary step, saying, “A good model of housing that was mentioned by some of the guys I interviewed is the ‘flats’ that The Salvation Army rents or owns, with a reintegration team close by. One guy talked about the effect of having his own space, saying: ‘Your head is so messed up when you come out, you need that space to adjust and get back on your feet. Time to stop hearing the keys and doors clang every time you wake up. If you have somewhere to lay your head, cook your own meals, and space to call your own, that is huge. You start to feel human again. Like you could be a good member of society.’”

As a small nation with a big problem in recidivism, there is hope for change, but it starts with people meeting, talking to, listening and helping those who need a second chance—combining compassion with prudence, care for victims, and bracing realism. Maybe Mike is more prepared for that job than most, but at present there’s certainly not enough Mikes to go around.

Annaliese Johnston says that while crime has been part of the human experience throughout history, overcoming its effects requires a human response from each of us. “When you hear the stories of many of those who have ended up in the criminal justice system you realise how many of them were victims to horrendous abuse and circumstances themselves. It does not mean that we excuse criminal offending, deny justice, or ignore the risks of reoffending—those all have to be weighed up. Ultimately though, I think that the greatest hope we can offer someone is forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption in the face of their mistakes. That’s a story common to us all.”


Brad Mills

Brad studied as a journalist and now works as a project manager. He spent six years at Rhema Media in their news, radio, and TV departments and has been a contributing author for magazines and online publications. Brad recently started a podcast with some friends called The Round, and when he’s not writing, or finishing some home renovations, he loves to travel and surf.