Story: Prisoner support and advocacy

Page 2. The Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Societies

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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.

  1. 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
How to cite this page:

Kathy Dunstall, 'Prisoner support and advocacy - The Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Societies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 May 2022)

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