The news that the faith-based unit at Rimutaka prison is to be closed is disappointing, to say the least. The unit and the programmes run there for nearly a decade have routinely been praised for changing attitudes and lives of the participants, including some people with long histories of criminal offending, and often serious offending.
I remember my first visit to the unit, hosted by Prison Fellowship director Robin Gunston. The overwhelming impression was of the inmates being without exception engaged in some useful activity, with a sense of purpose. This was in marked contrast to the atmosphere common to many other prison wings, where boredom and a sense of just marking time is the norm.
The Corrections Department has historically not been an easy place for NGOs to operate. Some questionable methodologies have been applied to evaluate the success or otherwise of various initiatives from the community sector. Similarly, the bar for proving ‘value for money’ of ‘third party’ initiatives seems to be set much higher than for evaluating ‘internal’ programmes or initiatives.
What is crucial to resolving our shamefully high recidivist rate is recognising that working with individual prisoners and endeavouring to alter their behaviour is necessary, but not sufficient. The other side of the equation is the need to locate those individuals within a wider social context, to seek to acknowledge and remove the barriers to reintegration that are beyond the control of the released inmate.
The faith based unit was designed to affect change in inmates’ attitude and understanding while they completed their sentences, to give them some self-management tools, and then to continue to provide practical support and guidance post-release.
Corrections claim it wasn’t working. I look forward to with interest to seeing what strategies the Department comes up with and puts in place that will work better.