Part 5: Reintegrating offenders into the community

Department of Corrections: Managing offenders to reduce reoffending.

In this Part, we look at how the Department manages the transition of offenders from prison into the community. We discuss the challenges the Department faces in trying to meet the needs of these offenders and some initiatives to address these challenges.

Summary of our findings

Successfully reintegrating offenders relies on several factors, including finding suitable accommodation, finding suitable employment, and building pro-social support.2 Finding suitable accommodation for offenders is difficult. The Department partners with non-governmental organisations to provide supported accommodation, but it will remain a challenge.

Knowing their probation officer before they are released is important to offenders. We saw some good and not so good examples of prisons and community probation working together to transition offenders into the community. We highlight the pre-release unit in Auckland as a good example of this practice.

The aim of reintegration

The aim of reintegration is to successfully manage the transition of offenders from prison into the community. This includes maintaining or building on the positive changes made in prison and ensuring that all reintegrative needs are effectively addressed. These needs include ensuring that the offender:

  • has suitable accommodation;
  • can obtain employment;
  • manages their finances;
  • can manage their relationships; and
  • gets pro-social community support.

The Department often referred to the "offender pathway", where offenders would transition through the prison from high security, to low security, to external self-care units such as Whare Oranga Ake or reintegration houses in the community such as the Salisbury Street Foundation in Christchurch. The pathway was viewed as the offender's journey to rehabilitate themselves and reintegrate into the community.

The Auckland pre-release unit

The Department has one pre-release unit in Auckland. The unit in Auckland was set up to work with male offenders rated up to high security who had not previously been motivated to address their offending. The Department recognised that the men were getting out of prison because their sentence had ended. However, they had not received any rehabilitation, nor was there anything in place to support them.

The unit focuses on six areas to prepare offenders for transition into the community. Feedback from prisoners and ex-prisoners helped the Department to determine the types of activities, courses, and support required to prepare them for release. Often, it was the simple things, such as not knowing their probation officer before release or having no accommodation or even a driver's licence. In response, the unit came up with "the big six":

  • accommodation on release, both temporary and long term;
  • preparation for employment, including a curriculum vitae (CV) and interview skills;
  • driver's licence;
  • debt and money management;
  • Work and Income support as necessary; and
  • probation "plus" support network (community, whānau, and family).

We were told that 70% of offenders in the pre-release unit did not have a driver's licence or birth certificate. The pre-release unit helps offenders to leave with both. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, traffic offences result in about 4% of prison sentences and 25% of community-based sentences. This is more than 15,000 offenders a year. Although not all of these offences will be for not having a driver's licence, it often contributes towards the offending. One offender told us that, because he had got his licence in the unit, "I might stop for the Police now."

Secondly, a driver's licence also provides identification, which is important for getting a bank account, for signing up for a rental property, and for any other situation where identification is needed. Having a bank account is critical for managing money and being paid a benefit or a wage. We were told that it can also mean that offenders do not have to deal with loan sharks, which can get them into trouble.

The staff emphasised that the focus was on giving offenders "real tools" that they can use when they are back in the community. The staff will try to put the offenders on rehabilitation programmes, but that is not their main focus:

It's about giving them something real they can take out with them, along with their driver's licence – saying they are a citizen.

Transitioning from prison into the community

Offenders said that knowing their probation officer before release was important to them. We heard this from many current and former offenders during our audit. The handover to community probation needs to start before the prisoner is released so that the proper support mechanisms are in place and offenders know what is expected of them before they leave.

The pre-release unit is a good example of the Department working as "one team" to manage the transition from prison into the community. The Department has a probation officer who is a dedicated team member of the unit and comes into the prison to meet with offenders.

Offenders told us that having their case manager, prison officer, and probation officer working together was "choice" and "bloody good". They appreciated having the probation officer there to help them understand what they need to do when they get out, what their special conditions mean, and what support is available. We met other offenders who had breached the conditions of their sentences because they did not fully understand the conditions and ended up being recalled to prison.

Working with community probation is in its early days. It has been a change in approach for both prison and community probation staff. We were told that, previously, prison staff saw their job as ending at the front gate. Now there is an awareness that prisons and community probation need to work together to successfully manage an offender's transition into the community.

We saw some examples where prisons and community probation were working well together. These were presented to us as examples of innovative practices.

We saw other examples where the Department was still working in silos. In one example, we observed a risk assessment that community probation staff were preparing for a sex offender about to be released from prison. No prison officer or case manager was present, which meant the community probation staff had no information about the offender's recent behaviour in prison. Without that information, they were unable to assess the risk the offender would pose on release. In our view, this example appeared to be a legacy of the old Department structure and would not have happened if the Department had made sure that the right people, with the right information, were in the room at the right time.

We understand that collaboration has improved significantly in the last year. We recognise that the Department is carrying out good practices, and we expect the Department to do so more consistently.

A recently released prisoner struggling to reintegrate into the community

At the beginning of our audit, we were scheduled to meet with a recently released high-risk offender and his probation officer in Northland to observe how they were managing the transition into the community. The offender had been paroled from the pre-release unit in Auckland one week before. Our meeting with the offender was cancelled because the offender was apprehensive about meeting with us. 

The probation officer was concerned that the offender was using drugs again. She had contacted the high-risk team and the practice leader for advice. They had concerns but not enough evidence at that stage to recall the offender. 

One month later, we visited the pre-release unit and talked to the team there. The unit had been told that the probation officer in Northland was planning to recall the offender. The prison officer asked whether it would help if he went to Northland. He drove up to talk to the offender and the probation officer. The prison officer was able to offer a lot of information that the probation officer did not have. The information was gathered over years of knowing the offender in prison. Their conversation determined that the offender's accommodation was unsuitable because it was too close to drugs. The decision was made to try to get him a better place to live. 

The offender was surprised to see the prison officer. In the past, it was a "no no" to visit former prisoners. They were someone else's responsibility when they were past the gate. This example showed that the prison officer now works with the case manager and probation officer to have a one-team approach.

We have highlighted the pre-release unit because it provides a formalised structure for prisons and community probation to work together. The Department has a project under way to align case management in prison with community probation. There is an opportunity to make sure that this work includes prison officers. Prison officers spend a lot of time with offenders, which means that they have valuable information to contribute to managing offenders transitioning into the community.

Recommendation 2
We recommend that the Department of Corrections continue to strengthen the alignment between case managers and probation officers. We encourage the Department to ensure that the knowledge and experience of other prison staff is used in managing and transitioning offenders from prison into the community.

Support networks and accommodation

Offenders spoke of the need for support in the community when they are released and how important family and whānau are to reintegration. Research shows that community and pro-social support is vital to stop them reoffending.

Finding work and suitable accommodation is also vital for offenders to remain free from offending. However, finding suitable accommodation for offenders is difficult. For example, in Christchurch, there is less social housing after the 2010/11 earthquakes. Other areas also experience difficulties because of shortages in available accommodation.

Reintegration centres operate as a residential bridge between prisons and the community. They provide a controlled environment for offenders to adjust to being back in the community. We visited the Salisbury Street Foundation in Christchurch. We received feedback that "Salisbury is a good bridge back into the community, especially for long-laggers."

The Department partners with non-governmental organisations to provide supported accommodation, but it will remain a challenge because of shortages in accommodation.

Helping offenders on short or remand sentences

As noted in paragraph 2.18, the Department now focuses on prisoners on remand or short sentences. Every year, about 6000 offenders who have served two years or less are released. About 400 of these are under the age of 20 years. About 80% of prisoners on remand spend less than six months in prison.

Offenders within this group have often spent previous time in prison for short periods and have the highest reoffending rates. It makes sense to focus on these offenders because they are more likely to return to prison – more than 60% of these offenders are reconvicted within 24 months of their release.

One new initiative that will focus on prisoners on remand or short sentences is the Out of Gate programme.

Out of Gate

Out of Gate will provide a navigation service to make sure that eligible prisoners on remand or short sentences have access to the reintegrative support they need as they prepare to return to the community. 

The Department has been allocated $10 million from the justice sector fund to establish Out of Gate nationwide over the next two years from September 2013. The Department is contracting providers to assess individual reintegrative needs and "navigate" offenders to a range of community services. The focus will be on employment, accommodation, education and training, living skills, health/well-being, and whānau, family, and community links. 

Navigation will involve engaging with and assessing the prisoner before they are released. A navigator will come to the prison to meet the prisoner. On the day of release, the navigator will pick up the released prisoner from prison and take them to where they need to go. This could include driving them home, taking them to check in with their probation officer, connecting them to social services (such as Work and Income), and/or providing parenting and budgeting advice. 

Participation is optional for eligible offenders, and they might receive about 20-40 hours of support, depending on their age and needs. The Department estimates that the service could reach about 2150 offenders each year.

2: Pro-social support is positive support that fosters and reinforces positive behaviour and actions.

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