© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2019

Outside the prison gates

Laura Grigg

Two ex-criminals believe their halfway house support is what turned their lives around. But places like these in New Zealand are rare.

James Brown knows everyone in prison. His confidence comes from a place where weakness wasn’t an option. Years behind bars has hardened him. He knows the prison culture. He’s watched gangs grow in prison. But most importantly, he knows you can’t get much help in there. 

James was first sentenced to prison aged 37 for violence. Now 52, he has been in and out of prison 14 times. But is determined not to go back. 

John* (49), another re-offender is less confident and still struggles to speak of the crime he committed when he was 18, his voice becoming quieter, as the guilt still weighs heavy on his shoulders. He talks of a fight outside a bar all those years ago that turned fatal. 

He was first sentenced to life 30 years ago, for manslaughter, and went on parole in 2001. But since then he had been re-called back inside seven times.

These are two completely different stories and while never crossing paths when doing time, they do have one thing in common now. 

Salisbury St Foundation, located in the heart of Merivale, is a residential centre that supports prisoners to reintegrate into society. It is the only one like it in New Zealand, and there is a need for more.


They are the lucky ones. With only 11 beds compared to a men’s prison population in Canterbury of nearly 1000, they both believe there needs to be more places like it.

The Salisbury Street Foundation director, Lyn Voice says their focus is on reintegration rather than rehabilitation.

Within two years of release from prison, 43% of ex-inmates are back behind bars. 

“The research shows if someone is employed, has a place to live and their basic needs met, they are more likely to succeed in not re-offending,” says Lyn.  

This is especially seen through community based accommodation so they can start building different relationships, away from the group they have always known. 

Corrections referred 7,439 offenders to reintegration service providers in 2017 and 2018. They also contract out about 1,000 places for short and medium “supported” accommodation.

But Salisbury St is the only place in the community which really focuses on both.

Overseas there are large and well-established halfway houses and parole houses for reintegration.

Residential community centres and halfway houses overseas

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Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and American run Delancey Street Models claim positive benefits from their community based residential facilities by finding lower recidivism rates of graduates from their programmes.

This need for more halfway houses isn’t one that has just come up recently.

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An investigative report on our justice systems carried out in 1989, concluded that a system separate from the prisons, in the form of reintegration centres, would offer inmates realistic opportunities to make changes.

30 years later, Prisoner Aid and Rehabilitation Support manager, Helen Murphy, still gets calls everyday from people in prison needing help to find accommodation, bail addresses and post-prison support. Department of Corrections says fifteen thousand people leave prison annually and it is estimated around 700 have unmet housing needs.

Helen has been involved in prisoner aid services for 26 years. She also had a partner who went to prison and knows reintegration is vital.

“There are a lot of different rules in prisons and you learn social skills so you survive. However, when you come out, those skills aren’t going to be much use for you,” says Helen.


Helen believes there are huge barriers for whānau to stay in touch with loved-ones in prisons. In her view, family support is what will reduce our high re-offending rates.

“There used to be a bus service out to the Christchurch Men’s Prison at visiting times but there’s not that anymore,” she says.

Chester Burrows who is head of an advisory group on justice reforms agrees there is a lack of family support.

“A lot of people find Jesus in prison but when they get home they realise the family isn’t on the same journey,” says Chester.

He believes this could be helped with a more staged release from prison that involves the whānau.

Corrections Minister, Kelvin Davis, says they are trying to do things differently and they do spend $200 million on rehabilitation and reintegration, from their $1.5 billion expenditure (2018).

“Our investment in accommodation and support services has increased to $7 million from $3.8 million,” says Kelvin.

But he does know the lack of accommodation is something they need to address.

“Bearing in mind corrections job is mainly to care for people inside the prisons, we do realise the lack of accommodation is a barrier for proper re-integration," he says.

The government gives $350 (Steps to Freedom grant) when people leave prison, but this hasn’t changed since 1991.

“It’s supposed to get you through a stand down period of 2 weeks, secure your accommodation and keep you fed,” says Chester.

When asking corrections about why the grant hasn’t changed with increasing cost of living, they advised it is a Ministry of Social Development policy. But MSD says they administer the grant, and it was a government decision to set the $350 rate.

John* has never been recalled into prison since being involved in Salisbury St, and James wouldn’t have left his life of crime behind without the halfway house support.  

“It’s a consequence of our crime that we have to be there [in prisons], but it doesn’t in any way prevent future criminal activity, in some ways it can make it worse,” James.

*Name has been changed due to privacy reasons.