Through the wonders of modern technology I was able to sit in my room in Helsinki this morning and listen to Radio New Zealand’s interview with Ray Smith, CEO of Corrections. The release of the report into Serco’s dismal, entirely predictable failure to manage Mt Eden Prison shows that we need to be doing so much better when it comes to managing our prisons. The more difficult political challenge, though, is to change our collective understanding of the role and purpose of prisons.
Listening to Ray Smith, one might come away thinking that the whole problem was with the staff who were dishonest, who neglected their duties or allowed themselves to be intimidated. Certainly the report should be a catalyst for us to think hard about how we recruit, train and continue the professional development of people who work in our prisons. The real problem is more systemic.
A week ago I visited Lillestrøm, a short train journey to the north-east of Oslo and the site of the KRUS Correctional Service Training Academy the Norwegian training school for prison officers. The Academy has the status of a university college, with academic and teaching standards accredited and overseen by the Norwegian equivalent of our NZQA.
Of the 1,200 people who apply to the school each year, most have an average age of 23 to 27 years old but some are much older, often seeking a ‘second’ career. Applicants are expected to have a good secondary school record, be physically fit, of good character and with a spotless police record.
From that ‘long’ list, about 500 are selected to come to the Academy for a day of activities, assessments, and observation. One student I spoke to joked that if you got through that day, the rest of the course was relatively easy!
About 180 of the original 1200 applicants are offered a place each year, and currently around 40 – 45 % of prison officers are women.
What follows is a two year tertiary diploma, including time spent working alongside experienced officers in prisons. At the end of the two years, graduates are assigned to a site; at the conclusion of one year’s practice, they are deemed to be fully qualified.
The course work for the diploma includes study of law, ethics, human rights, professional practice and cross-cultural communication and understanding. They also study the more predictable skills of prison management, safety, and physical control and constraint techniques.
The trainees are on a salary for the whole period of their training. Prison officers are quite well paid, and as I understand it their ‘status’ in the broader community is akin to that of police officers. They are recognised as people doing a necessary, important and difficult job.
The teaching and other facilities I saw at the Academy are the equal of anything we would expect to see in our universities and polytechs. The Academy also has an active research unit; indeed, part of the institution’s mandate is to conduct and publish research into national and international ‘best practice’. For example, the increase in foreign inmates has been a characteristic of the Norwegian system over the last several years and has been extensively researched by the Academy.
All of this represents a level of investment in prison officers that our New Zealand equivalents can scarcely dream about! A quick scan of the programme offered to trainees in New Zealand highlights the contrast. The Norwegian system is undoubtedly more expensive, but perhaps the commitment to careful selection, education and training is part of the reason for their much lower rates of recidivism, prison violence, and greater success in rehabilitating offenders and ensuring long-term behavioural change?