In the fifth blog reflecting on the observations of our #JusticeSolutions tour of New Zealand, Jesuit Social Services’ Executive Director – Advocacy and Strategic Communications CATH NEVILLE writes that the Korowai Manaaki youth detention centre has a strong emphasis on experienced staff and education.

On Friday 5th April, we went to the Korowai Manaaki youth detention centre, around half an hour south of Auckland. We were welcomed into a colourful waiting area and signed in. No iris scans, no airport security machines, no wand detectors, no guards and no guns. The waiting room had beautiful art  and colourful posters with affirmations (mostly in Maori) – highlighting messages such as ‘love is everything’.

We then went into a meeting room with Taash (a team leader) and her sister, Arianna, a programs coordinator. They told us their mother also works in youth justice.

First up, we got an overview of the centre. There are around 46 beds, each in small units of between six and 12 beds. Taash and Arianna told us they like to make the centre ‘small and homelike’ and that children sentenced there were from as close by as possible. There are three other youth detention centres across NZ.

There is a strong focus on relationship with the children and young people, with what they call “care staff” doing regular eight hour shifts, plus a clinical team of social workers and psychologists, each with a caseload of around six young people. The clinical team is responsible for the assessment of each young person, development and implementation of an Individual Support Plan, and the plan for exit from the centre.

There is a heavy emphasis on education – each unit has a classroom with one or two teachers and often a teacher’s aide. Care staff often assist in engaging the young people in the class. As well as the classroom, there is a skills centre in a separate unit where the young people may learn specific skills such as cooking, music or art.

There are family nights, and the young people are encouraged to learn various skills, including life skills, for these – cooking, table manners, poetry, ‘dress to impress’, official welcome.

Similar to Victoria, there is a high number of unsentenced young people in there (around 70%). These kids are treated the same as sentenced – eg education, programmes, assessments and planning processes.

There is a high number of Maori young people (75%) and some, though not many, Maori staff (around 10%).

We were taken on a tour of the facility where we went to a couple of the units. There is no mistaking they are prisons, with stark cells for each child/young person – a bed and a shelf. Each unit has a particular focus – such as girls, vulnerable kids, high risk, secure. There are secure units where a young person may be placed for up to three days (with a Court order). This sounds a similar process to the Secure Welfare situation in Vic where the young people are held because they are at risk to themselves or others.

We asked about restraint. Staff were surprised to hear that handcuffs, batons, spray, dogs and/or guns were used in Australia. These are not used in NZ. Through relationship with the young person, including using de-escalation techniques, potential risk events are managed. Occasionally physical restraint has to be used.