Transparency key to cleaning up prisons

Following a Serco fight-club scandal that left Corrections reeling, a new woman has been placed in charge of keeping tabs on New Zealand’s prisons. Shane Cowlishaw meets the chief inspector.

Not many interviews end with a Winston Churchill quote.

But then, Janis Adair is not the average interviewee.

The passage in question is lengthy, she says as she passes a copy over, but it is one of her favourites and particularly poignant considering her new role as the chief inspector of our prison system.

“We must not forget that when every material improvement has been effected in prisons, when the temperature has been rightly adjusted, when the proper food to maintain health and strength has been given, when the doctors, chaplains and prison visitors have come and gone, the convict stands deprived of everything that a free man calls life,” Churchill said.

“We must not forget that all these improvements, which are sometimes salves to our consciences, do not change that position.”

Adair has come a long way, both in distance travelled and in terms of her career, since growing up in Belfast, Ireland, as a teenager.

On her way to accepting her new role in charge of a beefed-up Corrections Inspectorate she spent seven years as a nurse in the British Army before joining the police force.

Based in Hampshire for 15 years, she worked in the criminal investigation department dealing with drug investigations, major crime, and a stint as second-in-charge of a “blue-on-blue” anti-corruption unit.

Then in 2004 she fulfilled a promise to her New Zealand-based father and took a sabbatical to the Antipodes.

That led to several years working at the Commerce Commission, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), and finally the Ombudsman.

Following a few years back in the United Kingdom working on the government’s inquiry into state child abuse (something she won’t say should or shouldn’t happen here, but describes as an “extremely powerful” vehicle) Adair has returned to take up a role she says was made for her.

“When I saw this role I absolutely with every part of me knew that I had to apply … I felt that I could make a difference in that role and that it was something I simply had to apply for.

“If I wasn’t the successful candidate I would wish him or her well in that regard, but I saw this as too good and too important an opportunity that I wanted it, and I wanted to grab hold of it.”

That role is chief inspector at the Office of the Inspectorate, Corrections’ in-house unit in charge of monitoring prison conditions, dealing with prisoner complaints, and investigating deaths in custody.

In March, Corrections Minister Louise Upston announced the Inspectorate would be strengthened, with eight new inspectors taking the team’s total to 16 staff and introducing rolling inspections of each prison every 20 months. The prison muster is currently at a record high 10,200 in 18 prisons. Upston has asked Corrections for advice on reducing prison numbers, while Corrections is building a new 1500-bed prison at Waikeria by 2020, as Newsroom reported last week.

Adair began her role at the beginning of July, hopeful that her experience working at organisations tasked with investigating those in authority and power will put her in a prime position to bring about change.

Policing from within

To do that, Adair says one of the most important aspects will be transparency.

Corrections have not exactly been open with the public in the past, refusing to release reports including many of those by the previous Inspectorate.

That is set to change, with a summary of each prison review Adair’s team completes posted online.

“I think it’s absolutely important that we’re visible, we’re transparent, about the work we’re doing.

“It’s something that I personally value ... I want people to know what they can expect from me and this office as we move forward. If you don’t know what’s happening within an environment then it allows people to be distrusting or mistrusting, it weakens confidence.”

It follows a similar move from chief ombudsman Peter Boshier, who has decided to also publish reports of his office's unannounced inspections of prisons.

The most recent, on Hawke’s Bay Prison, revealed a mixed-bag of results with praise for establishing itself as a working prison alongside serious concern about the level of violence in the facility.

The inspections by the Inspectorate will be scheduled, not unplanned, but Adair sees her department’s work complementing the Ombudsman’s rather than overlapping.

She believes the Ombudsman could act as a check on their own work, ensuring they were getting things right, while she had not ruled out doing her own unplanned inspections to make sure things didn’t get too predictable.

Following high-profile incidents such as the fight clubs and Springhill riot, some politicians and commentators have questioned whether the Inspectorate should be independent of Corrections.

Upston has chosen for the time being to keep it within house, but at a recent Select Committee hearing said she was open to revisiting the idea.

Adair is clearly expecting to be asked her thoughts and answers diplomatically.

She says the decision is not one for her to make, but when pressed about whether she would resign if pressured to take a particular view confirms she would “seriously consider her position”.

“I’ve been here for 11 days, I’ve had a number of meetings with the senior executive team here that have purely been on the basis of what do I need in order to perform my job. I’ve had no sense at all that there will be any pressure exerted on me.”

Adair backs herself, and her fiercely independent mindset, to make the challenging and difficult decisions awaiting her.

They will likely be numerous, considering the difficulty in managing prisons, and will include areas such as mental health care of inmates.

This is an area the Ombudsman has already signalled he is concerned about and Adair agrees it is a problem area.

To address this there can be no shying away from making strong recommendations or binding directions, even if unpalatable.

“I remember very well going back to my policing days being interviewed for a role and the detective inspector asked me how I would define integrity and I’d read a quote in preparation for the interview, as you do, and it resonated with me then and it still does now, and that is ‘integrity is what you have when no-one else is watching’.

“I think coming into this role you have to be prepared that whatever the outcome you follow the facts and follow the evidence and have the courage to make the right decisions, that equation or that recipe has never let me down.”

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