Keep calm and reform our prisons

As the country faces a major prison crisis, one group which has spent decades advocating for a rehabilitative penal system knows change is needed now more than ever. Teuila Fuatai meets Lady Heeni Phillips-Williams, who is continuing the work of her late husband Queen's Counsel Sir Peter Williams as head of the penal reform charity named in his honour. 

Lady Heeni Phillips Williams, as an experienced criminal barrister and long-serving member of the Sir Peter Williams QC Penal Reform League, you’ve spent a large part of your life working with those in the prison system. Have things changed much over the years?

Right now, we have a coalition Government that is very receptive to big changes, including repealing the three strikes law, reducing the prison population and more rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners into the community. They seem to want to do some good work in this area but they need to get a move on. First, to reduce the prison population, the Government needs [fewer] people coming into prisons. The law to do that must be dealt with, because in the meantime, the judges are still going to be giving out these lengthy sentences. At the moment, we have a very high rate of imprisonment coming in the top seven of OECD countries - it is on par with Turkey and the Czech Republic. Those are tinpot countries which may have military and tanks in their streets.  In this ‘dear old’ country of New Zealand, do we really want to be seen like that? We should be more civilised.

What about attitudes towards prison reform and prisoners?

Overall, I think it has changed for the better. We’ve got social media coverage that is helping change attitudes, particularly among young people. You’ve also got people who are very interested in human rights, and young people are more receptive to that these days. Before, you had these die-hards who wanted to lock people up and throw away the key - but that’s old fashioned thinking really. There is no rationale for this red neck, Sensible Sentencing Trust, throw away the key, Judith Collins-type approach to crime. More people are understanding it doesn’t work. There are still those around who come out as alarmists when the timing suits - but we really just need to calm ourselves down, think rationally and look at the bigger picture.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I am overseeing a programme that puts newspapers in prisons. Ensuring that programme works is part of my role as the president of the Auckland chapter of the Sir Peter Williams QC Penal Reform League - formerly NZ Howard League.The league was renamed in honour of my late husband after his death in 2015. Peter was head of the league for three decades.

Newspapers for prisoners - that’s an interesting idea. How did that come about?

It was actually brought to us by a very generous benefactor of the league. That benefactor saw there was a ‘gap’ in the system, and wanted to facilitate getting newspapers to prisoners. We believe newspapers can be used for educational purposes, employment purposes, and for improving reading. There is a high rate of prisoners who are unable to read, or need assistance with reading, and this is one of the additional tools that prisoners can use to better that. It is also an important link to life outside prison. 

How is it going so far?

Next month will mark 12 months since newspapers arrived at the Northland Correctional Facility in Ngawha. Ngawha was the first prison where the programme was rolled out, however it is now active in all prisons. So far, there seems to have been an erratic approach to the programme’s implementation. At Christmas, I did have a complaint from one Arthur Taylor who said the newspapers were being taken by the prison officers [...] I did my best to rectify the situation, but it’s a work-in-progress. We know it is happening in other prisons too, and it is something I’m trying to get to the bottom of by visiting different facilities. I don’t want to be looking like a check-up Charlie when I go to each prison, but it’s just not good enough. The newspapers are for the prisoners, not the prison guards - they can buy their own copy before they get to work.

What else is on the horizon for prisoners and the news?

We’ve had early discussions about becoming ‘digitalised’ and possibly getting some kind of prisoner-produced newsletter. That would involve making electronic copies of articles available on a central computer at a unit at the prison. The prisoners could then print these out, and use them to put together their own version of the news, which would be a useful learning tool. It would also circumvent the problems we’re having with prison officers holding back newspapers. Our benefactor is also willing to pay for that initiative - which may be very useful to a Corrections Department bereft of funds.

Lady Heeni Phillips-Williams still practises law in Auckland. She has been involved in high-profile criminal and human rights cases in New Zealand and overseas. Like her late husband, Sir Peter Williams, she is committed to achieving a rehabilitative approach in the criminal justice system. Phillips-Williams comments have been edited for style. 

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