Our Story

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Our Story2017-05-17T03:38:36+00:00

Inspired Beginnings

The first Prison Fellowship national organisation (PF) was founded in the United States in 1976 by Charles W. (Chuck) Colson, following his release from prison after serving a sentence for a “Watergate” related crime. Prior to his imprisonment, Mr. Colson had served as chief counsel for President Richard Nixon.

Prison Fellowship was founded for the purpose of bringing together men and women from various Christian churches to share their faith and the love of God with prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. Through Mr. Colson’s activity and writings the work of Prison Fellowship became widely known, attracting interest across the United States and around the world. In 1979, representatives from Prison Fellowship groups that had sprung up in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, and Bahamas met in order to form Prison Fellowship International as an association of national Prison Fellowship organisations. The purpose of PFI was to develop and serve national Prison Fellowship organisations.

New Zealand Origins

Prison Fellowship New Zealand was born through the combined efforts of a group of Christian business and politicians. Businessmen Keith Hay, Keith Blaxall and Sir Peter Tait worked with Sir Richard Harrison, the then Speaker of the House, with the support of Sir John Marshall. Prison Fellowship New Zealand was registered as a charitable trust in 1983, and opened its first office in Auckland. The office moved to Upper Hutt in 1995, and Graeme Taylor was appointed as a part-time National Director. PFNZ has subsequently had three National Directors. Kim Workman from 2001 to 2009, Robin Gunston from 2009 to 2013 and the incumbent, Phil McCarthy, who took up the role in October 2013.

Early Days

Prison Fellowship New Zealand functioned as a purely voluntary organisation for the first twelve years. There were no fulltime staff, and as the word spread among Christian volunteers, local committees were formed, to organise in-prison visitation and chaplaincy support. Sir Richard Harrison, held the position of Patron from 1990 until his death in 2003. Sir Richard was succeeded in 2004 by the Right Revd Sir Paul Reeves who died in August 2011. Ian Elliott chaired PFNZ for over 20 years before being replaced in 2012 by Gregory Fortuin. After a period as Deputy, Ian is now Chair of the Board of Directors of our international parent, Prison Fellowship International.


From 1997, PFNZ started to change its shape. The introduction of the Sycamore Tree programme in 1997 was followed in 2001 by the appointment of its first full-time National Director. From 2001 to 2005, Prison Fellowship provided training for around 800 prison volunteers annually. By 2003, He Korowai Whakapono (the faith based unit) and an associated reintegration programme (Operation Jericho) had been established and PFNZ began delivering up to 20 in-prison victim offender conferences annually.

A developing influential voice for criminal justice reform was consolidated by the establishment in 2007 of the Rethinking Crime and Partnership initiative, in partnership with the Salvation Army. This operated as a joint venture between the two organisations until 2010, when a new umbrella, the Robson Hanan Trust was established to assume Governance responsibility for rethinking, and its youthful offshoot JustSpeak. Challenging Criminal Justice Conferences were convened in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 addressing key issues and bringing practical solutions.

A New Era

A shift in direction at the Department of Corrections has precipitated considerable change for PFNZ over the last few years. Funding for both He Korowai Whakapono and Sycamore Tree was withdrawn, Corrections assumed direct management of volunteers, and PFNZ’s formal relationship with Corrections was re-focused on prisoner reintegration.

The long-standing Angel Tree programme has for many years seen PFNZ working with prison chaplains and church communities to get 3,000 to 4,000 Christmas presents into children’s hands every year on behalf of incarcerated parents. As PFNZ recognised the acute needs of these children and their families for year-round support, Angel Tree has grown to provide an enhanced range of activities. The core Christmas giving continues but is now supported by children’s camps and caregiver weekends, other socialisation opportunities and ongoing support for some of the most marginalised in our communities. In all of this we partner closely with Churches and volunteers throughout the nation, and with other organisations including SUNZ, Family Works, Te Mapua, and Alpha.

In early 2016, Board and Management completed a strategic review process. The organisation re-committed to a holistic ministry in support of prisoners, former prisoners, their children and families. We have also re-stated our commitment to work collaboratively and in partnership wherever possible. Most significantly, we have re-emphasised our volunteer heart and seek to support and challenge the church to work with some of the most marginalised people in our communities.

But we recognised that the Committee structure that served us so well throughout the 1980s and 90s was no longer fit for purpose in 2016. Our ‘Towards 2020’ strategy promotes the establishment of area ‘Clusters; a more flexible and dynamic approach to welcoming, equipping and supporting local volunteers for the work and challenges of today and tomorrow. The intent is to more readily connect needs and response and to create a sense of PFNZ ‘family’ in an area, effectively linked through today’s social media and other technologies. Read more about our strategic direction here.