• Paul East

Thank you for inviting me to share this auspicious occasion today and, to all of you receiving long service and merit medals, congratulations.

Since becoming Minister of Corrections I have attended a number of these presentations around the country.

One of the most rewarding aspects of these ceremonies is the opportunity to see the prison service as it really is: A proud service built on:

dedication; and
hard work.
I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the support given to prison officers by their families and friends - many of whom are represented here today.

Being a prisoner officer can be a difficult occupation at times. Having a loving, supportive home environment must make a world of difference.

So, to all friends and families here today, I thank you for being the strength behind the prison service.

Prisons can be volatile, perhaps even frightening places at times. The recent incident at Rimutaka Prison, serves to remind us how quickly problems can occur.

It's at these times that the importance of discipline, training and the application of well developed procedures becomes apparent.

The Government is determined to ensure all people and organisations working with offenders are appropriately trained and supported to do the job properly.

I must say, I was extremely impressed with the way the prison service dealt with the incident, last weekend. This situation could have become very serious if it was not managed in a calm, intelligent and professional manner.

I would like to take this opportunity to publicly acknowledge and thank the Regional Manager, Dave East, and the National Manager Operations, Bryan McMurray, for their handling of this situation.

I also understand about 70 officers responded to Rimutaka's call for assistance on Sunday. Many of those who turned up that afternoon were off-duty or on leave. As Minister, it is reassuring to know that this dedication to duty is so strong in the Service.

Over the years you have witnessed considerable improvements in the way prisons are managed. Unit management and case management, for example, were significant developments. However, more is to come.

The next step is to integrate offender management right across the Corrections system. This move recognises the need to provide consistency in the way we deal with offenders and will effectively link the work of prisons with that of Community Corrections and the Psychological Service.

The key to an integrated offender management system will be the development of a national information system for Corrections.

Aside from contributing to a reduction in the rate of re-offending, I understand the new information system will make your lives, as staff, a little easier. Many of the administrative tasks should become less 'paper-intensive', leaving more time for front-line prison duties.

Last week the Department marked its second anniversary. I am pleased with the headway it has made since 1995. I am sure you would all have noticed a greater focus on reducing re-offending.

When I first took on this portfolio there were a number of areas in which I wanted to see decisive action. These are:

prisoner employment;
getting drugs and alcohol out of prisons;
focusing on programmes and systems targeting re-offending; and
exploring alternatives to prison sentences.
I am particularly pleased with the progress being made in inmate employment and combating drugs and alcohol in prisons - both key Coalition Agreement targets.

Getting every inmate in this country working whilst in prison will be a challenge. But that is what the Government is committed to seeing happen.

Many inmates come into our prisons having known only a directionless life of failure and indolence. Few have any real skills, work ethic or habit of working. Unless they acquire these in prison, they will return to the community with a prison record and little prospect of employment.

It is critical that prisoners who are one day going to be released, are equipped to lead law-abiding lives upon their return to the community. Working while in prison helps them to meet that requirement.

Prison industries also have the capacity to earn revenue that can be used to partially offset the considerable costs of keeping inmates in prison. That is a worthwhile objective - as long as law abiding New Zealand businesses and workers are not adversely affected by prison enterprise.

The Government wants as many prisoners as possible doing a normal day's work. Prisoners will learn that work is a proper means of supporting themselves and their families, and of making reparation for the damage caused by their criminal acts.

The Department of Corrections is currently putting the finishing touches on a detailed inmate employment policy that has been circulated to a variety of interest groups, including business organisations, labour organisations, prison welfare groups, government departments and judicial officers, for their comment.

The direction for New Zealand prison industries is becoming clearer. We want sensible and sustainable initiatives. Some should be co-operative with the private sector, community and other agencies; others may well be managed within the prison.

Whatever the type of work, inmate employment is designed to improve the skills and confidence of the individual. At the same time, the Government will continue to explore innovative ways of reducing criminal re-offending and strive towards making New Zealand a safer society in which people are encouraged to live productive and worthwhile lives.

I am also pleased with the progress made in implementing the Government's zero-tolerance of drugs and alcohol in prisons.

Slowly but surely the net is being drawn around those inmates who persist in breaking the law and continue to abuse drugs.

Around the country vehicle checkpoints and the intensive searching of visitors have prevented large amounts of illicit material from entering the prison system. More is in store.

The Government has announced its decision to invest in extra drug dogs; establish a national crime prevention network in prisons; and develop intensive drug therapy units.

New legislation has been passed giving prison staff the necessary tools to detect drug and alcohol abuse and to punish those who are caught out.

Interestingly, both parliamentary socialist parties, Labour and the Alliance, attacked the Government's prison drug policy as being too punitive.

They feared a possible infringement of drug abusers' rights! They even suggested prison officers could use their new powers to humiliate prisoners!

What a load of nonsense!

I make no apologies for adopting a strong approach when it comes to the abuse of drugs and alcohol by inmates.

Using drugs is illegal. Prison walls should not shield inmates from the law. Prisoners must learn to obey the law - like the rest of us.

Prison officers shouldn't have to worry about such things as managing intoxicated inmates or the risk of diseases from needle-sharing inmates.

I do not hold with this trendy-lefty predilection for putting the interests of offenders above those of decent, law abiding citizens.

Don't get me wrong, though, it's not all stick.

Counselling and support will continue to be available for inmates wishing to 'kick the habit' as will other new initiatives such as the development of drug therapy units.

I think we have the balance right.

In many ways it is an indictment on our society that the number of prison inmates continues to grow and your job becomes more difficult as each year goes by.

There have been any number of well meaning experts who have offered solutions and suggestions in the past. However, you and I know that the causes of criminal offending, in almost every case, start with the offender's home life. The vast majority come from failed family backgrounds where parents were unable to cope or didn't want to cope.

For my part, I have welcomed the recent debate on our social welfare system. The acceptance of the social welfare benefits, provided by the taxpayer, brings with it obligations. Surely, as a parent, it brings the obligation of ensuring: that a child is immunised against disease; that a child attends school each day; that a child is home in bed during the evening hours?

Is it too much to ask that parents are required to meet such basic obligations?

As a practising lawyer I was well aware that in almost every case, when a young person stood in the dock of the court, that child had been marked for failure from the beginning, coming from a home and background where discipline, self-respect and respect for others were unheard of.

Unless we have a system that requires accountability for parenting, and gives a helping hand to those who are failing, then we can only look forward to more and more young people filling the cells of our prison.

It is nearly a year since the election. Corrections, as with all other portfolios, is making steady progress in achieving the commitments outlined in the Coalition Agreement.

Carping critics, in particular the Labour Opposition, would have you believe that the Government is not working. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that the Coalition is stable and is working towards a prudent mix of sustainable growth, fiscal responsibility and progressive social policies - based on the Coalition Agreement.

May I again thank you for the privilege of being here today.

Again congratulations to all medal recipients. I extend my grateful thanks to all prison staff for the excellent work you are doing.