The report Corrections withheld for three years

Corrections withheld a report on double-bunking, which included links between cell-sharing and gang activity.

The 2015 Northland Region Corrections Facility Double-bunking Review, which was released following an Ombudsman’s ruling in December 2018, outlined both positive and negative impacts related to double-bunking.

While cell-sharing could help reduce loneliness and promoted tikanga Māori, the review also found there was a perceived increase in violent incidents, and increased administrative pressure on staff who had to assess prisoners’ compatability.

The report also said while gangs were active in prisons, regardless of bunking status, staff and prisoners “generally perceived that double-bunking facilitated gang-related activities”.

Part of this section of the report was redacted, but it went on to say: “Quantitative data indicate that there has been an approximate 10 percent increase in gang membership since the expansion of double-bunking.”

Those working in this space, including Corrections, politicians on both sides, and advocacy group JustSpeak, said there was not enough evidence to clarify whether the increase in gang activity was caused by double-bunking, or merely a correlation.

Gangs in prisons

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said gang activity in prisons – and wider communities – had been on the rise for the past 30 years.

It wasn’t clear whether sharing cells contributed to gang activity or recruitment, but as gang activity was on the rise, so was the prison muster – meaning cell-sharing became incresingly prevalent.

Corrections consistently raises the issue of gang-related activity and gang recruitment in prisons. Those working in the corrections and criminology space often estimated a third of New Zealand prisoners were affiliated with gangs.

National Party corrections spokesman David Bennett said gangs used prisons as a recruitment mechanism, no matter the accommodation arrangement.

Corrections had plans in place to manage gang activity in prisons, including segregating gangs, he said.

Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales said the department had never disagreed there were some negative aspects to cell-sharing.

And in a perfect world, most people would like to see less of it. 

“All of us will cheer that day if we only ever have to use single cells, but I think we have to be realistic and practical about this and accept that double-bunking is going to have to be a feature of our operation for a long time.”

Beales said while there were some adverse effects, none of them – including gang activity – came down to double-bunking as the single causal factor.

“It’s one part of a much wider, complex story. And prisons are very dynamic places, and things can change very, very quickly,” he said.

“It’s important for people to know and understand the majority of our prisoners – regardless of single cells or double cells – are just getting on every day with their sentence.”

JustSpeak director Tania Sawicki Mead said the evidence was not conclusive, but she questioned Corrections' decision to hold onto the report for more than three years, saying it seemed "unreasonable". 

Both Beales and Davis said they didn't know why the report was not publicly released, with Davis adding that, as an issue of high public interest, it should have been released a couple of years ago.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis says he would prefer to have no need for double-bunking. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Assessing risk in double-bunking

The review also raised concerns about the use of the Shared Accommodation Cell Risk Assessment (SACRA) – a tool used to assess whether someone is suitable to share a cell, and to find a compatable cell mate.

Corrections staff said while they operated at 105 percent capacity, there was more administrative pressure with double-bunking, which was compounded by having to complete SACRAs for a higher number of prisoners.

In some cases, staff said they cut corners due to the workload.

The SACRA was created following a fatal incident in a shared cell in the UK in 2000, where Zahid Mubarek was killed by his cellmate the night before his release.

But since its use began in New Zealand, there have been some high-profile incidents of inmates being unsuitably paired. These include the case of William Katipa who raped three of his cellmates, using violence and threats of violence to force them to have sex during lockdown.

Davis said until the prison population was low enough to allow for an end to double-bunking, Corrections would need to rely on the SACRA.

“As soon as we start cutting corners or taking short cuts then we have the potential for something to go wrong.”

Corrections’ Beales said a review of the tool in 2017 found it was fit-for-purpose, but it did its job best when the staff carrying out the assessment used it properly, which included not rushing.

“It cannot ever be purported to be a one-size-fits-all cure all, it’s one tool,” he said.

But in a world where double-bunking was a reality, staff needed a tool like the SACRA.

Corrections had recently upgraded the SACRA to add guidance for staff on the subject of sexual predatory behaviour.

Beales said it was important to carry out thorough assessments, using all the available tools, but due to the dynamic environment there were some incidents inside cells.

“As soon as we start cutting corners or taking short cuts then we have the potential for something to go wrong.”

Phasing out cell-sharing

Across the board, those who spoke to Newsroom said double-bunking was not an ideal situation, but for now it was part of the system.

National’s Bennett said unless the government wanted to spend money on building new prisons, cell-sharing was the only option.

“It would be hard to maintain the Corrections system we have without the use of double-bunking.”

Over the past few years, the prison population has risen rapidly, until the later part of 2018 when it began to decline.

The population peaked at 10,820 in March 2018. On January 9 this year it had dropped to 9916. With this came a 3 percent decrease in double-bunking from the start of 2018.

JustSpeak’s Sawicki Mead said while there were some positives to sharing a cell, it was net negative.

Double-bunking in New Zealand was used to manage capacity and costs, rather than a decision based on what’s best for the prisoners, she said.

No matter what people thought about why someone was in prison, “no one deserves to be assaulted in the cell that they share”.

Davis said he planned to phase out double-bunking by safely reducing the population.

“I always prefer not to have any double-bunking at all.”

For now, it was a tool needed to deal with the prisoner population, and new modular pop-up units coming online were also equipped with cell-sharing capacity.

Mead questions this decision, saying some of the modular units in the past were not large enough to safely accommodate two prisoners, but Davis said the shared cell capacity in the pop-ups and new builds – including the major Waikeria rebuild – were necessary.

It would only take one earthquake, or natural disaster, to take out a prison, he said, adding that it was important to have buffer capacity.

While Beales said just because cells had the capacity to house more than one prisoner did not mean they would be double-bunked.

“If you look back on the past two or three years, and you see how the muster rose so rapidly, it would be remiss of a department not to build some capacity in your facilities that can account for a sudden rapid rise or a change in the law, and suddenly a muster goes up and you don’t have anywhere to put people,” he said.

The reduction in double-bunking fits in with the coalition Government’s plan to reduce the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years.

Bennett and National were skeptical about the reduction in population, citing safety concerns.

However, Davis maintained public safety was top priority and reductions to date had been done by stamping out inefficiencies, not by relaxing standards.

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