Speech: Corrections Regional Engagement Forum – Whangarei

“We can’t keep judging someone by the worst mistake they’ve ever made - or there would be a hell of a lot more of us inside.”

That’s what Martin Bosley - one of our country’s most acclaimed chefs and restauranteurs – told a room of about a hundred very well-fed guests a few weeks ago.

I was lucky enough to be one of them.

We had just been treated to several courses of gourmet food that you’d be stoked to receive at the swankiest of restaurants in New Zealand.

But this was a fine dining experience with a difference.

We weren’t sitting in a five-star restaurant. We were in the Staff Training College Dining Room at Rimutaka Prison.

The immaculately dressed men with impeccable manners who served us our meals were prisoners.

And the six men who had prepared and cooked this incredible feast – looking a mixture of pride and total discomfort at being put into the spotlight - well, they were prisoners too.

We were at the Rimutaka Prison Gate to Plate event, a hugely popular part of the Wellington on a Plate food festival, where over a period of six years the men of Rimutaka have served up roughly 2,000 dinners to hundreds of people behind the wire.

 That night Martin and the other guest chefs spoke about how working with these men over the years had opened their eyes to what prison could be - and should be - about.

 They said their experiences working with prisoners in the kitchen – seeing their professionalism, pride and skills on display - totally changed their perception of what’s possible with industry training in our prisons.

 It made them realise that they have far more options than they had first thought about who they can employ in their businesses.

 They stopped seeing these men as prisoners, futureless and stigmatised – and started seeing them as people, with hopes and dreams, and something meaningful to offer society.

 And that’s really what today is about.

 It’s about – hopefully – changing perceptions, opening eyes and building relationships.

 We will be talking about the work we have underway to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders, and how you can hopefully be part of that work - because there’s certainly plenty for you to get involved in.

 To Corrections’ National Commissioner, Rachel Leota and Acting Regional Commissioner Al Riach, as well as all the Corrections staff, here today – welcome and thank you for organising this fantastic event.

Welcome also to our existing partners and friends from the local and wider community – it’s great to have you with us.

I want to thank you and our Corrections staff for all your hard work in the region.

I know it’s not always easy, but you’re doing a great job to help people change their lives for the better so we can keep our communities safe.

And to everyone here attending a Corrections event for the first time – it’s a real privilege to join you this morning.

For those who don’t know – Corrections’ Northern Region stretches from the Bombay Hills to here in the far North.

It’s probably the busiest in terms of infrastructure and people – all up we have approximately 2,000 staff members; five prisons with a total capacity for over 2,600 prisoners; and 15 Community Corrections sites, managing roughly 10,000 offenders on community-based sentences.

And as we speak, the majority of these offenders will be involved in some kind of treatment, rehabilitation, education, training or employment programme.

We have had some impressive achievements both here and right across the country in this space.

In 2016/17, nearly 2,000 prisoners took part in trades training, over 1,400 received intensive literacy and numeracy support, and almost 4,000 qualifications were achieved by prisoners while in prison.

But you and I both know that it’s not just about some flash-sounding numbers; it’s about what these numbers represent.

Because when we actively support offenders to learn and earn, we’re giving them the best opportunity possible to reintegrate back into their communities, get ahead, and live crime free once they’ve finished their sentence.

I know that the reality is that many offenders have complex needs and that they require significant support to get back and stay on track.

This isn’t the sort of work Corrections can do on its own, which is why a core part of their work involves building strong, trusting relationships with organisations, businesses, community groups and iwi.

We’ve seen some great examples of these partnerships in action.

For instance, earlier this year I attended the NorthTec graduation where seven prisoners had just finished a Level 3 Certificate in Construction Trade Skills Painting.

Meeting the graduates, seeing the pride in their faces and hearing first-hand how much they valued this qualification and what it meant for their futures only reinforced for me how vital this work is.

And Corrections has partnerships with the likes of the Howard League with the two working together to help offenders get driver licences so they can get back on the road and into work.

And then we have a whole heap of great stuff happening through the This Way for Work pilot.

For those who don’t know, this programme involves 13 offender recruitment consultants across the country working with employers to place people with criminal convictions into stable work.

In the 21 months that this has been running, over 1,500 people have been placed into work.

That’s a monthly average of 70 odd people – and for some of these offenders, it’s the first time they have held down a job.

We all know how life-changing that can be.

And of course, for those of you who are employers, programmes like this have the added benefit of giving you access to a reliable, trained, and motivated workforce, and allowing you to know upfront who you’re employing, and that you have ongoing support from Corrections.

So far Corrections has entered into over 160 partnerships with employers to help offenders into all types of work – from construction services to forestry, logging, farming, and electronic and electrical equipment manufacturing.

This is just some of the work underway, and I’m keen – as I know Corrections is – for us to do even more together.

Now as many of you will have heard, this Government has set a long-term goal to reduce New Zealand’s prison population by 30 percent over the next 15 years.

One thing I have asked Corrections to look at to help us achieve this goal is what I call the transition points in our system – especially for those in prison.

What this means is that I want us to do everything possible to ensure people walk out our prison gates as better people, not broken people – and that means giving them the support they need both before and when they are released back into their communities.

We have a lot to look forward to.

Just last week we held our Criminal Justice Summit, which marked the start of a much-needed conversation about what needs to be done to build a justice system that better ensures the safety and wellbeing of all New Zealanders.

As we look to the months and years ahead, we need people, businesses and organisations and leaders like you to feed into the work we’re doing in the criminal justice space and to keep helping offenders – through training, education and employment – get on the right track.

Because you really are one of our most valuable assets in helping us safely reduce the prison population and in helping us keep our communities safe – and once again, thank you to those of you who are already doing just that.

“We can’t keep judging someone by the worst mistake they’ve ever made - or there would be a hell of a lot more of us inside.”

Martin Bosley’s statement still resonates with me. That night, I could feel the emotion of what he was saying – and I could see for myself that perceptions were changed in that room. I want everyone in this room to be a part of that.

So, for all the employers here today. When you get to that part of the job application form which asks if the candidate has ever been convicted of an offence, please don’t just write-them off if there’s a tick in that box.  Ask a few more questions.

I hope today inspires you to give offenders a second chance so we can not only help them but improve the safety and wellbeing of their whanau and our communities too.

Thank you.