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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

TUESDAY, 20 AUGUST 2019

The Speaker took the Chair at 2 p.m.

Prayers.

MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS

Department of Corrections—Prisoner Mail Management

Hon ANDREW LITTLE (Minister of Justice): I wish to make a ministerial statement, under Standing Order 356, in relation to corrections’ dealing with correspondence, and I do so on behalf of the corrections Minister, Hon Kelvin Davis.

Last week, corrections’ chief executive issued an unreserved apology when a letter written by the man accused of the Christchurch mosque attack sent a letter that was subsequently posted on an online message board. Let me be clear: under the current law, that letter should have been withheld. The purpose of the law which allows corrections to vet and block mail to and from inmates is to prevent harm to victims and others. The family and friends of those lost in the mosque attacks should have been protected by the proper application of the law.

As the Minister, I publicly stated my disappointment and my loss of confidence in the process of prisoner mail management. Corrections immediately stopped the alleged offender from sending and receiving any further mail, and put in place changes to the system that mean all mail of prisoners who have been identified with extremist ideologies and/or registered victims will be checked centrally by a single specialist team. Corrections have now developed a revised process, which will include all of the accused’s correspondence being reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team, which includes members of the prison management team, corrections intelligence staff, senior custodial staff, and corrections psychologists, as well as partner agencies with specialist knowledge and as well as corrections’ Chief Custodial Officer.

Withholding a prisoner’s mail is a serious step. The final decision about withholding the particular prisoner’s correspondence at issue in this matter will be made by the chief executive in accordance with section 108 of the Corrections Act 2004. The strengthened process is unprecedented and demonstrates the seriousness with which corrections are taking this and their commitment to ensuring that we get this right.

Following on from events last week, corrections will do a full review into the practice of the reading of mail and withholding of correspondence. This review will be carried out by an external party. The centralisation process will remain in place until the review has concluded and corrections is confident its processes are robust and can ensure this can be prevented from ever happening again. The review will provide a report to the chief executive of corrections, containing a broad assessment of how our current processes operate and the level of consistency across the prison network; clear recommendations to enhance the existing processes to ensure instances of inappropriate treatment of prisoners’ mail are eliminated; and, finally, advice on ensuring that the law is effective and being adhered to. The chief executive has also advised me that corrections has set up an 0800 number over the weekend so that people can report any concerns they have about receiving unwanted mail from prisoners. The number to phone is 0800 345 006.

Corrections advise that around 15,000 items of mail are sent from prisoners every week. Under current legislation, prisoners are allowed to send and receive mail. The vast majority of the around 10,000 prisoners we have write to friends and family, which aligns with what we need to do to uphold our human rights obligations. That is part of the rehabilitation process to give them a better chance of reintegration and to reduce their reoffending on release.

These letters can be withheld for a range of reasons and, at the time the 2004 Corrections Act was set in place, the holding of mail centred around threats to the security of individuals and the security of prisons. The current grounds may not have envisaged mail being published to a wider audience and may not have captured the broader issue of hate speech. So, as the Prime Minister announced yesterday, we are considering whether or not the current Act is fit for purpose. The bottom line is that the community should be safe from those behind bars, whether that’s individual threats or the spread of hatred, and that’s what we’re going to make sure of.

Finally, on behalf of the Minister, I want to apologise again to the many people who were directly affected by the terrible events of 15 March and who were caused further anxiety by the publication of the letter last week. The top priority of corrections is the safety of the New Zealand public. The system has let us down but we intend to fix it and to strengthen our systems so that this never happens again.

MIL OSI