Corrections Minister preaches transparency

Corrections Minister Louise Upston. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Transparency and openness were the messages being peddled when Corrections Minister Louise Upston appeared before a select committee.

It has been a rough few years for Corrections.

The “fight club” scandal and subsequent removal of Serco from Mt Eden led to the sacking of one Minister and left the Corrections Department scrambling to repair its image.

The replacement Minister, Judith Collins, was also removed from the portfolio and it was her replacement, Louise Upston, who fronted the Law and Order Select Committee on Tuesday.

Alongside the increase in spending on prison capacity and prisoner mental health issues, much of the discussion revolved around the importance of being clear and open about what happened inside New Zealand prisons.

It follows a move by Corrections to loosen their media policy, after several years of blanket refusals regarding interview requests.

In recent months, several media organisations have noted their requests to interview a Corrections official have been granted, rather than having to send written questions for a bland response from the communications department.

Upston said there was an increasing expectation from the public about improving the outcomes for prisoners.

An enhanced Corrections Inspectorate, announced in March, was now operating and, with an increased number of staff, would be more proactive.

The old inspectorate had mainly investigated incidents, but now every prison would be inspected once every 20 months and if any issues were discovered, that frequency would increase.

A new chief inspector, Janis Adair, starts in July. She brings with her experience of working for the IPCA, the Ombudsman, and most recently on the UK Inquiry into historic child abuse.
Reports from the scheduled inspections will be published online. They will complement the Ombudsman’s inspections, which will be unscheduled.

When asked why the Inspectorate was not separate from Corrections, Upston said Cabinet had given the option a good “kicking around” last year before deciding on beefing up the current system.

But if it did not work out as planned, Upston was open to revisiting the option of an independent Inspectorate.

Following questions about transparency and openness, NZ First MP Mahesh Bindra raised concerns with Upston about problems he had encountered when visiting a prisoner at Mt Eden.

MPs are allowed to visit prisoners unannounced, but last year Collins wrote to her peers asking them to go through her office before visits.

Bindra said he had arrived at Mt Eden only to be told by the prison manager he needed to go through the Minister’s office and his visit would be restricted to 30 minutes.

Upston said it was important MPs could advocate for their constituents, but it was also important any visits to prisons were safe and did not disrupt the prison schedule.

“I can assure you I support every member of Parliament’s right to advocate on behalf of their constituents,” she said.