Ka hao te Rakatahi Youth custody Index

Mar 31, 2017

Nā Nuku Tau

A few people have been asking me questions because of my last column. Chiefly, what is the “Youth Custody Index” (YCI), and what is it all about?

The YCI is a St Thomas of Canterbury College project run by a group of senior students and is a collation of information regarding the state of youth in custody in New Zealand – both good and bad. The point of the index is to spark debate and raise awareness of any discrepancies and issues.

As the project was divided into four parts between myself and three other students, I will just give a summary of the main points of interest from my chapters. It should also be noted that this information is from last year’s index. This year’s will be released June 28th at Ngā Hau e Whā.

My two main focus points were youth in police custody and youth in prisons. Both showed areas of concern. In regards to youth in custody there was good news, with numbers dropping in recent years. The total nationwide custody count was 7171 in 2013. The total in 2015 was 5846. However, we still found some concerning facts. We asked the New Zealand Police to identify the number and nature of youth complaints made against police over the past two years. Police stated: “That no research had been collated/collected on this”. We found this response concerning. Police are basically saying that while the evidence is available, they will not show it to us because it requires too much research. Interestingly, no such difficulties have arisen when the information was requested for past indexes.

On youth in prisons, we found positive things here. For example, all youth are kept in separate quarters from adult males, and education is mandatory for under 16s. All new prisoners are also assessed for their risk of self-harm or suicidal tendencies. However, again of concern, when we requested information from the Department of Corrections regarding the frequency and nature of incidents involving youth at prisons, we were refused the information. We were also refused information regarding self-harm, staff versus inmate conflict, and any copies of inmate feedback. Either the information didn’t exist, or they simply would not supply us with it.

We asked Corrections to provide details regarding length of stay for all those youth in custody. The Department failed to provide further information, stating: “… we cannot readily extract information relating to the average stay of an offender in a youth unit from our electronic record. In order to identify this type of specific information, we would be required to manually review a large number of files – section 18(f).”

No such difficulties were experienced by Corrections in previous years when supplying information to former students completing previous Indexes.

We also enquired of Corrections what efforts have been made to adhere to United Nations guidelines in keeping adult and youth offenders in separate quarters.

Their response:

“The Department manages a low number of young women prisoners. In this regard we believe that housing these young women with others is in their best interests and therefore does comply with our responsibilities under the (United Nations conventions of Child Rights) to place a young person in line with their best interests.”

The Minister of Justice referred us to an academic article, Goldingay (2007), to justify this lack of provision. The article noted that at present in Aotearoa New Zealand, young female prisoners aged 14 to 19 years are either mixed with adult prisoners, or kept separate from them within the mainstream environment. Due to the practical difficulties of keeping young women separate in this environment, they may have few opportunities for participating in rehabilitative and therapeutic programmes or education, and may face extended lock-up hours.

We did not agree that this practice is optimal. We believe best and agreed practice, as asserted by the United Nations, needs to be followed irrespective of costs, and that young females need to be treated the same as young males in custody. Young male prisoners (14 to 17) are placed in Young Offender Units, where they are provided with age-appropriate services and interventions. It is our belief that female prisoners may be receiving a less satisfactory experience than their male counterparts.

This is just a small snapshot of the complete index and our findings as a team, but already I hope you can see the points of concern for our youth in custody. The index is not at all a critique of the people working in our prisons or youth units or in rehabilitative programmes. I know that those who work with these youth are passionate about their wellbeing, because I’ve seen it in action. The index aims more to shine light on flaws in policy, practice, and spending – things like the lack of provision for young female offenders.

Something often encountered when bringing up this topic in conversation or when people ask about it is a sour face and a scowl. People often say, “Why should we spend more money on kids who made bad choices?”, “Why should my taxpayer dollars support idiots?” or things along those lines. As my last column hopefully showed, it’s usually much more complicated than one bad choice. If the changes made in response to the points of concern found by last year’s index cost more in government funds, then so be it. Solving problems badly only creates more problems, and will cost more in the long run. We know the earliest possible intervention works best and costs the least. For me, it’s common-sense compassion – our society places the emphasis at the wrong age. We are driven by fear and lock people up, rather than being driven by compassion, and seeking earlier interventions that will change young offenders’ trajectory.

Seventeen-year-old Nuku Tau (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is a Year 13 student at Christ’s College.