Prison brake

The Labour-led coali­tion has an­nounced sweep­ing changes to re­duce in­mate num­bers. A paroled of­fender tells Ju­lian Lee sup­port sys­tems must be in place to stop pris­on­ers from re­turn­ing to jail.

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS | CRIME & JUSTICE -

Ja­cob Skilling says com­ing out of prison af­ter seven years is to ex­pe­ri­ence a grim ver­sion of time travel.

‘‘You get out and ev­ery­thing has changed. Cars have changed, peo­ple have changed, the style has changed. I never thought I’d wear bloody shoes like this I’ll tell you. This is what peo­ple wear? Skinny jeans? I’m think­ing, do I have to wear this? Is this how you look good? ’’

Ja­cob Skilling was 19 when he was jailed for nine years for wound­ing with in­tent to cause griev­ous bod­ily harm. He was paroled in 2016 and since then has had the sup­port of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres, which have helped him get on his feet. Claim­ing to have turned his life around, Skilling, now 27, is turn­ing his at­ten­tion to the ways others can, too.

Be­ing in jail is like be­ing frozen in time, he says. The world keeps mov­ing but you’re stuck at the mo­ment of sen­tenc­ing, emerg­ing from jail in a fu­tur­is­tic world of skinny jeans and iPhones.

Skilling says pris­on­ers like him are be­ing re­leased into worlds for­eign to them. For decades, this hasn’t worked to re­duce re­cidi­vism. Now, the Govern­ment is chang­ing tack with a prom­ise to re­duce the prison muster.

But Skilling says that de­spite all the good in­ten­tions in Welling­ton, in­mates are ripe for re­of­fend­ing the mo­ment they leave the prison gates.

‘‘They’re start­ing to in­crease help around ac­com­mo­da­tion and things like that, but there’s still not enough of that ei­ther. Some peo­ple just walk out of the gates and go to a friend’s house and sleep on the couch.’’

In 20 years, nei­ther Na­tional nor Labour has made a dent in prison num­bers or re­of­fend­ing rates. Now, the pris­ons are al­most full.

To add heat to the fire, the prison sys­tem comes equipped with a well­lu­bri­cated re­volv­ing door.

Re­of­fend­ing rates have climbed steadily in the past 20 years. Most re­cent data shows that be­tween 2015 and 2016, 45.5 per cent of in­mates were re­con­victed within 12 months of re­lease.

Skilling says he was al­most des­tined to end up in prison. Born in In­ver­cargill and raised in Nel­son, he says he was ex­posed to years of phys­i­cal and sex­ual vi­o­lence, drugs, al­co­hol and ties to the drug world.

He takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for his crimes but be­lieves he had only a slim chance of es­cap­ing the fu­ture set out for him.

‘‘I was quite ag­gres­sive and an­gry pretty much my whole life. I was

di­ag­nosed with ADHD, de­pres­sion, dys­lexia and as I’ve grown up and talked to more doc­tors, PTSD (post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der).

‘‘I set the car­pet on fire, tried to burn the house down, (was) al­ways fight­ing with my sib­lings, fight­ing at school, run­ning away, smok­ing cig­a­rettes at five, six-years-old.

‘‘I ac­tu­ally tried jump­ing from the CYFs (Child, Youth and Fam­ily) build­ing in Grey­mouth and I tried com­mit­ting sui­cide from a mas­sive build­ing next to a home in In­ver­cargill at the ages of five, six, seven, and for some­one at that age to do that, when I think about it, what was wrong with me? I must have had some dys­func­tion in my brain or some­thing like that.’’

Af­ter a string of petty crimes and an ag­gra­vated rob­bery as a teen, Skilling grad­u­ated to the ranks of adult pris­oner in 2010 when he was jailed fol­low­ing an as­sault at Christ Church Cathe­dral in Nel­son.

The court found Skilling and another ac­com­plice mis­took a man for some­one else and beat him so badly he could not re­turn to work for more than a year.

Skilling’s promis­ing rugby ca­reer was over. He was once con­tacted to join the Ju­nior All Blacks de­vel­op­ment squad, but his of­fend­ing put a stop to that.

Once re­leased, pris­on­ers who have spent more than 31 days in­side are en­ti­tled to a con­di­tional $350 Steps to Free­dom Grant. Work and In­come has a one-week stand down pe­riod for the Job­seek­ers’ Benefit af­ter in­mates leave prison, which is cov­ered by the grant.

Ten weeks prior to re­lease, pris­ons give Work and In­come a pris­oner’s CV, com­plete with their record of learn­ing dur­ing their sen­tence. Work and In­come staff then work steadily to dis­cuss ex­ist­ing job op­por­tu­ni­ties with the in­mate, help set up in­ter­views with prospec­tive em­ploy­ers and match pris­on­ers to lo­cal jobs.

Skilling says pris­on­ers have skills that can be put to good use, but af­ter years of de­pen­dence on the state they’re left to their own de­vices. Many suc­cumb to the dif­fi­cul­ties of adapt­ing to an un­fa­mil­iar, non-crim­i­nal life­style. Crim­i­nal as­so­ci­ates are often their only con­tacts out­side of prison.

Skilling is for­tu­nate to have found a spot at Odyssey House, an in­ten­sive rein­te­gra­tion cen­tre in Christchurch, as part of his sen­tence. He at­tributes much of his turn­around to Odyssey. Af­ter­wards it took him 18 months to find per­ma­nent ac­com­mo­da­tion. Some­times, he slept in his car. Even­tu­ally he found a cold, twobed­room apart­ment for $310 a week.

‘‘I had to take that be­cause it’s the only one I had been able to build up a rap­port with and I thank that lady for the op­por­tu­nity that she has given me, that’s amaz­ing.’’

Skilling’s so­lu­tion for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is sim­ple: Give peo­ple a chance.

‘‘(We need) more places that are go­ing to rein­te­grate them into so­ci­ety and give them the op­por­tu­nity. This place (Odyssey) challenges you on ev­ery­thing about your life. It challenges you on all your core be­liefs. You learn to be as­sertive, you learn to com­mu­ni­cate,’’ he says.

Re­cidi­vism is not dis­puted at a po­lit­i­cal level. On Wed­nes­day, af­ter a year of ne­go­ti­a­tions, Cor­rec­tions an­nounced it is part­ner­ing with re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion, The Nav­i­gate Ini­tia­tive, to cre­ate New Zealand’s first prison-based rein­te­gra­tion unit.

It’s a re­sponse to the grow­ing so­cial and fi­nan­cial cost of failed re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. The $100,000 a year Cor­rec­tions spends on each pris­oner alone is the most ob­vi­ous cost. The costs to so­ci­ety from crime in gen­eral far ex­ceed the Govern­ment’s en­tire law and or­der bud­get of $4.4 bil­lion which cov­ers po­lice, court, Cor­rec­tions and the rest. A fig­ure of $9b was es­ti­mated by the Govern­ment in 2004 – more than $12b in to­day’s dol­lars.

Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Peters was at the Youth Unit of Christchurch Men’s Prison this week – where Nav­i­gate will launch – to con­grat­u­late grad­u­ates of a pe­nal re­form or­gan­i­sa­tion Howard League programme, Sto­ry­book Dads, where pris­on­ers learn to read and record a story on a DVD to be sent to their child.

Peters is known for his rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing tough on crime but he’s tougher on failed re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

‘‘We have to turn this around. We have gone and de­vel­oped a ten­dency over the past few decades of greater and greater im­pris­on­ment and in­car­cer­a­tion and it’s not work­ing.

‘‘The most fool­ish the­ory is to be tough on crime, you have to throw them in prison and throw the key away. You do that, you got a wasted life, wasted fam­i­lies and mas­sive cost to the tax­payer. We can’t af­ford that,’’ Peters told Sun­day Star-Times at the grad­u­a­tion.

‘‘We’re not spend­ing enough money and time and effort in re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. We’ve got to do far more of that and that’s what our new, re­formed prison ser­vice will be do­ing.’’

Skilling said prison was much like what peo­ple saw in the movies, ex­cept with long, me­nial breaks in be­tween quick, spon­ta­neous vi­o­lent acts.

Dur­ing his time be­hind bars, Skilling has met some of New Zealand’s most hard­ened crim­i­nals.

Still, he is con­vinced every­one is ca­pa­ble of redemp­tion, given the op­por­tu­nity.

At­tempts to reach Skilling’s vic­tim were un­suc­cess­ful, but vic­tim ad­vo­cate Ruth Money said Skilling ap­peared to lack in­sight into his of­fend­ing.

‘‘Ev­ery­body de­serves some re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, how­ever what Skilling is claim­ing hap­pens to him – he’s been looked af­ter by the state and then noth­ing af­ter­wards – the vic­tims don’t even get looked af­ter by the state,’’ Money said.

‘‘There’s no on­go­ing care for the vic­tim, who never chooses to be a vic­tim.

‘‘The of­fender al­ways chooses to act in such a way, but the vic­tims are al­ways, sadly, col­lat­eral dam­age if I can use that term.’’

We’re not spend­ing enough money and time and effort in re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. We’ve got to do far more of that and that’s what our new re­formed prison ser­vice will be do­ing.

Win­ston Peters

Ja­cob Skilling spent seven years in prison af­ter be­ing con­victed of wound­ing with in­tent to cause griev­ous bod­ily harm. JOSEPH JOHN­SON/STUFF

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This week Cor­rec­tions an­nounced it will work with The Nav­i­gate Ini­tia­tive, a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion, to cre­ate New Zealand’s first prison-based rein­te­gra­tion unit.

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