RePAIR-ing the growth in prison violence

12 April 2018

Dr Armon Tamatea

Violence in prisons is growing, along with prisoner numbers. Between 2010 and 2017, violent incidents and aggressive behaviour nearly doubled. A researcher at the University of Waikato is finding ways to curb that growth and possibly de-escalate it.

Dr Armon Tamatea is working on Project RePAIR: Reducing Prison Aggression and Institutional Risk. It is a series of research segments designed to cut the risk of violence in prisons around New Zealand. The three stages are examining the nature of violence,  gangs as a culture and community,  and  prisons as environments.

The escalation over time of violence in jails is not surprising, given that the volume of inmates is increasing as the general population increases. Dr Tamatea says it is not necessarily the case that Corrections staff are less effective at managing violence, it is because they have more people to contend with. The number in custody is over 10,000 for the first time in history. He says that is not a number we should be proud of, but a milestone nevertheless. “Prisons are toxic spaces. They are hard places with challenging people, a challenging environment, and staff doing challenging jobs. On top of that are legislative constraints and organizational changes. There’s nothing easy about them.”

The Department of Corrections has provided a wide set of data from the last decade, and Dr Tamatea has already started work on the first stage of the research. He is analysing where, when and what kind of violence is taking place.

Looking at the nature of prison violence, he says the data will allow him to see where the hotspots are, not just which prisons, but down to units, and spaces. Dr Tamatea is looking at what can be learnt about those areas, and whether there are specific problems, such as design issues, which can be addressed.

“When I first started working in the prisons years ago, everyone knew about the ‘black-spots’ where the cameras couldn’t see. So that’s where fights would take place, particularly staged fights. In that respect the environment shapes the behaviour. The solution might not be to have lots and lots of cameras, as that could bring up more problems, but perhaps modifying the environment in some other way. Prisons are very concrete, even symbolically, they’re hard buildings designed for hard wear. Changing the overall design is a big ask, but modifying parts of the existing design might not be: Changes in lighting and air flow, or even just introducing plants, and more natural features.”

The data will let him see the participants in the violence, and their behaviour, as well. Among other things he will be able to establish whether younger men are at risk, and whether women are also more at risk. There is another new statistic we should not be proud of: the number of women in jail is significantly up, and now in the hundreds.

The second part of the study is one that is under-researched: the culture of gangs within prisons. Dr Tamatea plans to develop a clear theory around it, and see how gangs impact on the frequency and shape of violence.  He says there is a magic number prison officers anecdotally refer to. “They say if you have three or four members of, say, two gangs in a unit of 50, then you’ve got trouble. But if you have under that it seems to be ok. It may be because when the number of gang members is lower there is less pressure to try and take over a place -- but we just don’t know.” One question is to explore the relationship between density of gang members in a unit and interpersonal aggression. If such a threshold exists, then there will be clear implications for managing prison resources such as training and cell allocation.

Dr Tamatea’s third stage focuses on the environment and systemic issues. He refers to the ‘Popcorn Model’ where the kernels of corn are the inmates, the prison is the pan, the oil is the policies and practices, and the heat is the stress in that context, like bad news from the outside. It is a loose metaphor, where the environment is an active player in the violence. “It’s not just the inmates; sure they are there for a reason, but the prisons have a role to play in the continuance, inhibition, or shape of the violence.”

The aim of the research is to significantly reduce violence in prisons.  Dr Tamatea hopes to have results starting to come through in about two years. “Hopefully we can also develop a predictive tool, so we can anticipate the incidents, and get in before they happen. Our goal is to turn the tide on the escalation of violence.”

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