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.
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.
Jacob Skilling spent seven years in prison after being convicted of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF
This week Corrections announced it will work with The Navigate Initiative, a rehabilitation organisation, to create New Zealand’s first prison-based reintegration unit.