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Prisoner support and advocacy

by Kathy Dunstall

Imprisonment is difficult for prisoners and their families and friends, and after release prisoners can face problems in finding employment and accommodation. Since the 19th century prisoners’ aid societies have provided support to inmates and their families.

Supporting prisoners and their families

Imprisonment rates

In 2017 New Zealand’s imprisonment rate was higher than most other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries – 210 per 100,000 of population, compared with Australia (162), the United Kingdom – England and Wales (145) and Canada (114).The United States imprisonment rate was 666 per 100,000. Between 1950 and 1990 there was a sevenfold increase in the number of Māori in prison – four times the increase in non-Māori imprisonment over the same period. This situation has been described as a ‘catastrophe for Maori as a people and … for New Zealand as a whole’.1

Challenges for prisoners and their families

Imprisonment is difficult for prisoners, their families and friends. Prisoners face separation from family members, lack of privacy, restrictions on visits and telephone contact, limited access to rehabilitation programmes or work, overcrowding, difficulty accessing physical and mental health services, scarce home leave and community contact, and limited support on return to the community. Finding employment or accommodation after release can be difficult, and many people treat released prisoners with suspicion.

Families of prisoners often experience loss of income and negative reactions from people they know, as well as being separated from their imprisoned family member. They may have to travel long distances to visit the prison. Imprisonment may also lead to the breakup of relationships.

Prisoners’ advocacy organisations

Providing practical support and advocating the decent and humane treatment of prisoners and their families has a long tradition in New Zealand. Organisations involved in this work include:

  • the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Societies
  • the Howard League for Penal Reform
  • Prison Fellowship New Zealand.

These groups began as voluntary community organisations run by people with first-hand contact with the prisons. They have also received state or community trust funding and include paid staff as well as volunteers.

Unpopular work

Prisoner advocacy and support work is not popular with the public. Many people have little sympathy for those sent to prison, and their families are generally forgotten. Public views about crime are largely shaped by the media’s focus on serious violent crime. People become fearful, and some politicians and interest groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust react by calling for more severe responses to crime – more police, less bail, longer sentences, less parole and more prison space.

    • Over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system. Unpublished report. Wellington: Department of Corrections, September 2007, p. 6. Back

The Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Societies

Early beginnings, the 19th century

Prisoners’ aid and rehabilitation work began in Dunedin in 1877 as the Patients’ and Prisoners’ Aid Society. The religious instruction of prisoners was an early guiding principle. The society also offered visiting, letter writing, clothing, and fares home for discharged prisoners. This work coincided with a 19th-century emphasis by the government on prisoner rehabilitation. From the 1860s approved prison visitors were considered helpful in reforming prisoners.

Expansion of prisoner advocacy, 1910–1940s

By 1910 several new prisoners’ aid organisations existed in the main centres, running accommodation hostels and prison-gate missions. These independent and mainly religious groups had close ties to New Zealand’s religious social-service organisations: the Salvation Army; the Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist city missioners; and the St Vincent de Paul Society. Individual priests, church deaconesses, temperance workers and a visiting justice to the prisons were also active in providing support to prisoners. Close links were formed with government officials, but little financial support was available. The first probation officers, licensed by the Justice Department in 1913, were voluntary workers. Most were associated with prisoners’ aid societies.

In the late 1920s prisoners’ aid societies and religious social-service organisations could be found in all the main centres and some smaller towns. Prison officials regarded this work as of mixed quality: it depended upon the energy and experience of those involved. Small government grants were available to the six prisoner-aid societies active at that time.

Barred from behind bars

Criticising the prison system held dangers. Reverend George Moreton, who combined his chaplaincy at Mt Eden Prison with his work for the Auckland Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, was dismissed as chaplain after publicly describing the prison as a ‘human zoo’.1

Formation of NZPARS, 1950s–1960s

In the late 1950s the duplication of organisations helping with prison educational and craft activities, and job placement and accommodation on release, led officials to suggest rationalisation. In Christchurch, three groups amalgamated to form the South Island Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Society. The Wellington Prisoners’ Aid Society, buoyed by new members from Britain, expanded its prison visiting teams, modernised the society’s objectives and fostered the development of smaller societies elsewhere.

Encouraged by Department of Justice officials, a national structure and centralised body – the New Zealand Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society (NZPARS) – was incorporated in 1959. More government funding was received, and NZPARS worked closely with officials at local and national levels, collaborating in the 1960s on the extension of community-based sentencing, prison visiting and support for prisoners’ families.

Challenges and changes, 1970s–1980s

In the 1970s and 1980s NZPARS employed more fieldwork staff. However, it also encountered some challenges. NZPARS advocated rehabilitation, but official optimism about rehabilitation programmes had waned. NZPARS was criticised by the Auckland Māori Council for being monocultural in structure, personnel and approach, at a time when Māori were an increasing proportion of prisoners. Action was taken in 1986 to promote Māori issues and perspectives. Bicultural training began, a kaumātua was appointed and Māori participation was actively sought. In 2002 some 50% of staff and volunteers were Māori.

A notional partnership between the government and NZPARS lasted from the 1960s until the mid-1990s. In 1992 NZPARS received $1.6 million from the Department of Justice to fund its programmes.

Contracts with government, 1990s onwards

In 1995 NZPARS services were redefined by officials and increasingly funded under contracts which focused on prison visiting, and did not cover services provided in court buildings, or support to families, whānau and released prisoners. Post-release hostels owned by the Department of Corrections but run by NZPARS were sold. Some NZPARS members felt constrained from criticising the prison system because of the contract with a government agency.

In the early 21st century NZPARS continued to focus on assisting prisoners and their families in coping with imprisonment. Field workers routinely visited prisons. Support included information and advice, practical and material support, family travel costs, child access visits, and support for sustaining family relationships.

However, concerns over the financial viability and internal unity of NZPARS led to the withdrawal of the contract with the Department of Corrections in March 2010, and the national body’s closure later that year. Another national organization, Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Trust (PART) was formed but funding remained uncertain and PART closed in 2014. Regional groups, such as PARS Inc. which is based in Mt Eden, Auckland, continued to offer rehabilitation services. Their work is mainly funded by government, private prison contracts and donations.

    • Quoted in Margaret Tennant, Through the prison gate: 125 years of prisoners’ aid and rehabilitation. Wellington: New Zealand Prisoners’ Aid & Rehabilitation Society, p. 42. Back

The Howard League for Penal Reform

Early years

The Howard League for Penal Reform takes its name from the 18th-century English penal reformer John Howard. It grew out of the Howard Association, set up in Britain in 1866 to advocate humane treatment of prisoners, and the Penal Reform League, founded in 1907. Blanche Baughan, an advocate for prisoners in Christchurch, read about the Howard League in the London Spectator, and worked with others to establish a New Zealand branch of the league in 1924. Seven other branches were soon established across the country, with Baughan as national secretary.

The league’s efforts to educate the public were based on the new disciplines of psychiatry, psychology and criminology. A campaign was mounted for probation in the community as a more constructive sanction than prison. The first full-time probation officers were appointed in 1927. Baughan’s book People in prison fiercely criticised the inhumanity of the prison system and its failure to reform offenders. It asserted a need for psychologists and trained ‘social servants’.

Campaigns against harsh punishment, the 1940s

Members of the Howard League challenged Prison Board reports and strongly criticised the use of the indefinite sentence of reformative detention. Successful campaigns were mounted against capital punishment and the use of flogging in prisons; both were abolished in 1941. When capital punishment was reinstated in 1950, the league mounted another campaign against it, setting up a second organisation for the purpose. Capital punishment was finally abolished under the Crimes Act 1961.

An eye for an eye makes everyone blind

In its submission to the parliamentary select committee on capital punishment in 1950, the Howard League stated: ‘The crime of murder should be dealt with in a way that will encourage respect for human life and personality … We hold that not the imposition of the death penalty, but the refusal by society to imitate the murderer’s action is the most emphatic repudiation of murder. The death penalty is harmful to the whole community because periodically it stirs up unhealthy emotions and concentrates public interest on brutality, violence and vengeance.’1

Throughout the 1940s the league objected to a wide range of restrictive and inhumane practices in the new borstals, detention centres and prisons. They highlighted mail restrictions, non-association, solitary confinement on bread-and-water diets, the lack of vocational guidance for youth, the lack of classification based on psychological treatment and the need for more social-security help for dependants.

Pacifists and conscientious objectors who had experienced detention or imprisonment during the Second World War worked with the league. Methodist clergyman Ormond Burton was the most notable. The league produced a stream of articles, pamphlets, submissions and booklets, and sought regular meetings with the minister of justice.

A new era, 1949–1989

In 1949 Samuel Barnett, the new head of prisons, ended a period described as notable for ‘its rigidity, its parsimony, and its want of vision’.2 The Howard League was invited to meetings with state officials. Welcome reforms included open prison farms, special treatment for different classes of prisoners, a classification board, more probation officers, prison welfare officers, meals in prison dining rooms, visiting debating groups, and the promotion of the New Zealand Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society (NZPARS). In the 1950s and 1960s many members of the League were optimistic about penal reform.

While troubled over the treatment of women and young offenders, and the small numbers of probation officers and psychologists, the Christchurch branch of the Howard League went into recess in 1974, believing that these matters were in hand. Peter Williams QC continued to lead the league in Auckland, providing advocacy by way of media interviews, public demonstrations and meetings, submissions on penal policy, and campaigns about substandard conditions at Mt Eden and Pāremoremo prisons.

Resisting calls for harsher sentences, 1998 onwards

In 1998 the Canterbury branch of the Howard League was re-launched. Together with the Auckland branch, it sought to counter a rising tide of public demands – and political will – for longer sentences and harsher treatment for offenders.

Since then the league has worked to promote open and rational debate on issues of crime, punishment, rehabilitation and alternatives to prison. It has campaigned about the overuse of imprisonment, the use of force in prisons, the treatment of mothers and babies, and restrictions on prison visiting by family and friends.

The league continued to produce regular fact sheets and newsletters, made submissions on relevant legislation and official investigations, wrote articles, and gave media interviews and public talks. A Christchurch office was established in 2004 and a part-time advocate employed in 2005. Funding came from members and community trusts.

Alongside this broader advocacy, members of the league had daily contact with prisoners and their families, which informed their opinions and statements about specific prison conditions and treatment. Members of the league could apply for specified-visitor status, which enabled them to visit as volunteers, and interested-party status at coroner’s inquests into deaths in police or prison cells.

    • Memorandum submitted to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Capital Punishment, 1950, by the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform, 2 October 1950. Box 5, New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform Records, Macmillan Brown Library. Back
    • Greg Newbold, Punishment and politics: the maximum security prison in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 6. Back

Other support and advocacy organisations

A number of organisations around the country provide support and advocacy services to prisoners, either while in prison or on their release, and to their families.


PILLARS provides support services to the families and children of prisoners. It originated in 1988 in Christchurch, when a small group of prisoners’ family members began meeting for mutual support, and offered help to other families, including accommodation for out-of-towners, transport to prisons, assertiveness training and family camps. Within a year 55 families were part of the PILLARS network, and initiatives included a radio programme, publications, and a recreation group for prisoners’ children.

The agency expanded in the 1990s, establishing a home for visiting families and an Auckland branch. In the early 21st century PILLARS was contracted by the Department of Corrections to address the reintegration needs of released prisoners and their families. However, the contract ended in 2006, and PILLARS downsized.

When Dad went to prison

Lisa, who established the Just-Us Youth programme at PILLARS, was eight years old when her father was imprisoned. ‘I felt so humiliated that I used to tell people that Dad worked for the Government. I didn’t think that was lying because he worked on the prison farm.’ One day, under pressure from a friend’s father, Lisa blurted out that her dad was in prison. ‘[M]y friend’s father got up, yelled at me and blamed me for embarrassing him in front of his friends. He ordered me out of his house and told me that I was never to come back and I was to no longer associate myself with his daughter. I was so upset and ashamed.’1

In the 2010s PILLARS provided services in Christchurch and South Auckland, including a nation-wide free to call telephone helpline, social work support to prisoners’ families and mentoring for prisoners’ children. It has also researched the effects on children of having a parent in prison.  Research highlighted the emotional impact of parents’ imprisonment, financial insecurity, poor educational achievement, and a tendency to engage in risky behaviour. The stigma of having a family member in prison includes the expectation that these children are potential criminals. This increases their risk of becoming prisoners.

Prison Fellowship New Zealand

Prison Fellowship New Zealand is a national volunteer movement with a strong Christian focus, which works to support prisoners, their families and their victims. Prison Fellowship was founded in the United States in 1976, and the New Zealand organisation was set up by Christian businessmen and politicians in 1983. It began as a purely voluntary initiative, but in the 21st century was a national organisation with a number of paid staff. In the 2010s its programmes included:

  • prison visits
  • mentoring for prisoners released from the faith unit
  • the Sycamore Tree Project, which facilitates meetings between crime victims and offenders
  • the Angel Tree Project, which provides Christmas gifts to prisoners’ children.

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army has worked with prisoners since the 1880s, when it established prison-gate ministries. Inmates being released from prison in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington were met by Salvation Army officers, who worked with them to support their transition back into society. Men’s hostels were set up in Auckland and Christchurch. These continued to provide accommodation, including for newly released prisoners, in the 21st century.

The Salvation Army was also contracted to the Department of Corrections to provide housing and reintegration programmes for released or paroled prisoners. It had houses in Christchurch, Wellington, Hawke’s Bay and Invercargill, where released or paroled prisoners could stay for 11 weeks, under the guidance of support workers. Further support was available as the former prisoners settled into their own accommodation.

Rethinking Crime and Punishment

Rethinking Crime and Punishment (RECAP) was established in 2006 as a partnership between the Salvation Army and Prison Fellowship New Zealand. It encouraged informed public debate about criminal justice reform, argued that a range of social, economic and political reforms were needed to prevent crime and social harm, and promoted alternatives to retributive justice. In 2010 RECAP became part of the Robson Hanan Trust, a charitable trust formed to progress criminal justice reform.


JustSpeak emerged as a youth-led branch of RECAP in 2011, and in 2013 it became the public face of all Robson Hanan Trust operations (with the support of RECAP co-founder Kim Workman). Through advocacy, hosting public events and workshops, publishing reports, and collaborating with external organisations, JustSpeak aims to empower young people from all walks of life to think independently and speak out about justice issues.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa

People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) is a prison abolition and prisoner advocacy group, originally formed in 2015 as No Pride in Prisons. PAPA works to improve the immediate well-being of incarcerated people while challenging the criminal justice system itself. It also runs the Prisoner Correspondence Network, a pen-pal service that fosters friendship and support between prisoners and the wider community.

Other agencies

Prison Care Ministries is a Hamilton-based Christian organisation, established in 2004. It provided support services including counselling and budgeting advice, group accommodation for released prisoners, and camps for prisoners’ families.

The Pathway Trust, a Christian agency based in Christchurch, supported released prisoners by offering employment, restorative justice meetings and mentoring.

In the 21st century several iwi authorities around the country worked in partnership with prisons as kaitiaki (guardians), to support a tikanga Māori approach and to help with reintegration of released prisoners. Orongomai marae in Upper Hutt ran a reintegration programme for inmates being released from Rimutaka Prison, providing counselling and helping them find jobs and accommodation.

Other organisations that provided services to prisoners in the early 21st century included Alcoholics Anonymous, Toastmasters, the Books in Prisons Trust and the Quilters Guild. Individuals also visited prisons as volunteers, working with prisoners in a variety of ways, from helping with reading and writing to playing indoor bowls to teaching meditation.

    • PILLARS Post, Spring 2009, p. 1. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kathy Dunstall, 'Prisoner support and advocacy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 October 2019)

Story by Kathy Dunstall, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 May 2018