The Prison Information Service (PIS) is collaboration between the Howard League and Community Law Canterbury coordinating dedicated volunteers from the University of Canterbury. These volunteers are drawn from different disciplines including law, sociology, and criminal justice. PIS provides legal and welfare information to prisoners located at Christchurch Men’s, Christchurch Women’s, and Rolleston Prison.
PIS volunteers meet with the prisoner in person or respond to letters and phone calls. Research is done on the issue raised and the client is provided with a written response. If they have difficulty with reading or writing, the service will arrange to meet with them again. If the matter requires advocacy, the volunteer refers the matter to the Howard League Canterbury where the case will be taken up by the advocate.
The advocate works with the Department of Corrections to resolve the issue. Most issues that are brought to the advocate affect more than one prisoner (for example the temperature inside prison cells over summer). So by solving one prisoner’s issue, more will often benefit and it can result in systemic change within the prison.
Is the Prison Information Service really necessary?
For any change to work the person who must work hardest is the one who is trying to change. Frustrated or alienated prisoners disengage, and for any rehabilitation to work you need engaged prisoners. Sometimes we are able to explain a decision they didn’t understand. On other occasions a genuine violation of there rights or unfairness has taken place. In such instances a remedy fixes not only the presenting problem but also reengages them with the system.
The PIS is a much needed part of the complaints process. The Ombudsman is crazy busy, and the internal complaints system has an incredibly low degree of trust among the prisoners. PIS volunteers are independent and accessible. However, despite being independent we have a good relationship with Corrections and operate with a ‘no surprises’ policy. The Howard League has been asked to set up a Prison Information Service in other prisons around the country. However, being an advocacy and reform organisation that accepts no government money, this currently not possible.