Appeal to Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis to stop transfer of prisoners from Arohata

Arohata Women's Prison in Wellington.  Advocates say the transfer of prisoners will divide families.

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

Arohata Women’s Prison in Wellington. Advocates say the transfer of prisoners will divide families.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has essentially ruled out a last-minute attempt to stop a prisoner transfer that advocates say will split families.

Davis was speaking on Wednesday morning after prisoner advocacy groups The Howard League, JustSpeak, People Against Prisons Aotearoa and Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand wrote an open letter asking him to stop the transfer of some female inmates from the prison for women from Arohata in Wellington to facilities in Auckland and Christchurch. .

Corrections confirmed earlier that some inmates would be moved from the jail, north of Wellington, to focus staffing resources on men at Rimutaka jail. Justice advocates said the transfer could jeopardize the women’s rehabilitation.

Davis said it was an “operational” decision – meaning it was up to the Department of Corrections, not him, to make. The Department has already begun the transfer and successfully won a provisional lawsuit to pursue it.

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He alleged that some of the information in the letter was wrong and that some transferred women were getting closer to whānau. They could still participate in prison programs, he said.

The movement of prisoners – prompted by understaffing in New Zealand prisons – would accelerate the resumption of in-person visits to prisons, he said.

MONIQUE FORD / TIPS

A first-of-its-kind learning exhibit at Arohata Prison in Wellington has proven popular with inmates and prison staff happy to have more education information available on-site (Video posted for the first time times in 2017)

Covid-19 and staffing shortages had severely hampered whānau’s ability to visit prisoners, but Davis said on Wednesday nine prisons had resumed in-person visits and three were about to restart them. He could not say when all in-person prison visits would resume.

New Zealand has 15 prisons for men and three for women. As of June 30, there were 7,290 men and 438 women detained.

The joint open letter comes after a written High Court interim decision shows why a judge sided with the Department of Corrections in authorizing the transfer.

A Prison Voices event as part of Writers & Readers 2018 at Arohata Prison.

Heather Abbott

A Prison Voices event as part of Writers & Readers 2018 at Arohata Prison.

The woman would be disadvantaged by the move, they had an arguable argument that the decision might be wrong, but the public safety risks of not moving them outweighed other concerns, Judge Justine Grice said. A substantive case is to be heard in the coming months.

Following the failed trial, prisoners’ advocacy groups implored the minister to intervene and stop the transfer, which had already begun.

The letter said the transfer was at odds with specific programs — one that sprung up due to a directive from Davis — to improve whānau connections.

Barbed wire at Rimutaka Prison, Upper Hutt, where some Arohata staff will be relocated.

Ross Setford

Barbed wire at Rimutaka Prison, Upper Hutt, where some Arohata staff will be relocated.

“Traveling away from whānau can create significant financial barriers making visitation unaffordable for many,” the letter states.

“It will be heartbreaking for many women who are mothers, especially now that visitation at all facilities will likely be reinstated given that Covid-19 restrictions have ended.”

Video calls were not an adequate substitution and some women’s whānau in prison did not have the technology to use them. He said there was no idea how long the “temporary” move would last.

Amanda Hill, one of the attorneys representing the prisoners, pointed to specific instances where there would be distance between them due to the transfer.

One, a grandmother from Gisborne who had cared for her moku since birth, would not be able to see her as her partner could not afford to transport the 9-year-old to Christchurch. A mother, from Hawke’s Bay with four children under the age of 15, showed them around on special occasions before the pandemic.

“She has a strong bond with them and knows she won’t see them in person when she moves to Christchurch,” Hill said.

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