THE CASE FOR CLOSING PRISONS
We’re at a Corrections crossroads, argues Paul Little. New Zealand already has the second-highest incarceration rate in the Western world, so do we keep building prisons – or do we change direction now to a less punitive, truly rehabilitative justice and
THE CASE FOR CLOSING PRISONS New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world – is it time for a rethink on crime and punishment?
We all know what prisons are for – deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation and keeping law- abiding people safe. But despite general consensus over their purpose, prisons are a hot issue, guaranteed to polarise the public and provide a store of political ammunition for all sides.
That’s why the decision not to build a $1 billion prison at Waikeria, but a smaller and cheaper alternative with mental health treatment facilities, was so controversial. It’s also why a recent attempt to repeal the three-strikes law failed at the last moment.
But what can’t be argued is that, with about 220 prisoners per 100,000 people, New Zealand has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the OECD – and the second highest among Western countries, behind the United States. Or that the cost of keeping people in prison – roughly $110,000 per inmate a year, according to Corrections – is an economic drain. Or that our harsh bail laws mean 30% of people in prison are there on remand, awaiting trial, even though 25% of those will not be convicted. Or that our recidivism rate means more than half of those who do serve time are reconvicted within 24 months of being released from prison.
The voices proclaiming that locking people up isn’t the answer are growing in number and volume, while those who have long controlled the debate and advocated ever more punitive policies
are being marginalised by a reformminded government. This is why Justice Minister Andrew Little has convened a summit to canvas various points of view and look for some solutions. And if we want a system that does a better job than the current one, alternatives aren’t hard to find.
LIFE BEFORE PRISON
The best alternative to prison is crime prevention, which has to start in early childhood. “Whatever we do in the prisons, we are only tinkering around the edges,” says University of Canterbury sociologist Jarrod Gilbert. “Many people are in prison because they have been failed by family, community and state. If we want to reduce the prison population, we have to reduce crime in the community and that means addressing the drivers of crime.”
Among those, he cites: “Intergenerational poverty, [lack of ] educational achievement, and violence in the home”, which normalises violent behaviour and makes someone more likely to go on to commit serious violent crime.
Gilbert and others maintain only a coordinated effort in the early years of life will achieve results. That saintly teacher who sets a kid on the straight and narrow can’t do it alone. For one thing, half of children who offend aren’t even going to school. Parents, teachers, police and wider whānau are among those who need to be cooperating to prevent kids growing into criminals.
“If your parent is in prison, your chances of going there increase tenfold,” says John Sinclair of the Howard League for Penal Reform. “The people who will go into prison in 10 years are currently with CYFS [now Oranga Tamariki]. They’re kids in school who aren’t learning to read, or who have hearing problems. It’s not hard to find these people. All the social problems we’re not fixing are feeding the prison population.”
Lawyer and Māori Legal Service director Moana Jackson has interviewed hundreds of former prisoners. “More than 80% were taken from their whānau and placed in care,” he says. “And of that group, more than 70% were abused in care. That’s the pipeline people talk about: if you have a man raped at six years old, and consistently raped and abused through the Department of Social Welfare institutions and justice facilities, he becomes a rapist. So, when he can’t understand the harm of his raping, it’s because he blocked out the harm that was done to him.”
Former Prison Service head and research fellow at Victoria University’s Institute of Criminology Kim Workman says the treatment programmes favoured in prison are flawed because they take no “cognisance of the fact those people will live in families when they leave and will have to relate to those families. In some cases, those families are seriously dysfunctional and in some cases not. Unless we engage the whānau and their existing community, we are doomed to fail, regardless of any great programme in the prison.”
One group in particular that needs to be targeted by reforms is Māori, for whom, notoriously, so many social indicators are worse. “The first people imprisoned in substantial numbers were Māori,” says Jackson. “Then prisons became part of controlling and subordinating those Māori who refused to give up their land and their authority.”
Gilbert says the discourse that New Zealand has a relatively high overall incarceration rate by world standards misses the mark. “It’s the internal comparison, between Māori and nonMāori that is more interesting, and more
troubling, for New Zealand. It’s more accurate to say New Zealand has pockets of incarceration rates at such high levels in its indigenous population that they distort the national picture.”
LIFE IN PRISON
Asignificant number of people are in jail because of recent law changes in response to calls for a tougher approach to crime. Since the Bail Amendment Act of 2013 made it harder to get bail, the number of people in prison on remand has doubled. In the 2018 fiscal year, of the 11,201 total prison population, 3455 were awaiting trial.
“Even some people who are charged with what I call offences of poverty, like benefit fraud or shoplifting, who’d normally have been remanded on bail, are now remanded in custody,” says Jackson.
People who have not been convicted of a crime – and might expect to have a presumption of innocence until proven guilty – now make up 28% of the prison population. Not only does this add to the number of inmates now, it’s contributing to the future muster. According to the recent report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Using Evidence to Build a Better Justice System: “It is well documented that pre-trial detention has a ‘criminogenic’ effect on those remanded (that is, people lose jobs, homes, relationships, acquire more criminal skills and build more offender-based social networks when imprisoned).”
Approved housing is now a requirement for bail and parole. You can’t get bail if you’re homeless or live with a gang, which adds yet another cohort to the number who are in prison, not because they have been convicted of a crime but due to circumstances over which they have little or no control.
Within prisons, there are numerous educational, psychological, career training and other programmes available to help prisoners. There are some impressive numbers in Corrections’ last annual report: 1000 prisoners completed intensive drug and alcohol treatment programmes, 1443 received intensive literacy and numeracy support, and there were 2226 work placements. But resources are still stretched thin and the programmes can be hard to access.
Workman says prison should reflect the outside world. “If you want people who offend to live productively in society when they leave prison, you have to replicate the conditions of the external community within the prison.” That could mean “things like open prisons in the last six months of the sentence where prisoners could stay in the prison but work in the community, as they do in Holland and other places”.
Open prisons are operated successfully in Scandinavia and some European countries, with offenders often transferred there for the final section of their sentence as part of the transition. “They look like a school campus,” says the Howard League’s John Sinclair. “Guys live there, do public works stuff and access normal services such as dentists or doctors out in the community.” People are sentenced locally so they’re close to family and can look for work where they’ll be living.
“They still have maximum-security prisons [in these countries], but most of their prisons are designed around reintegration. We have nothing of this sort, even though 50% of our prisoners are classified minimum or low security.”
In 2002, our parole laws were amended to make parole dependent on an assessment of risk, effectively meaning more people serve more of their sentences in custody. Future changes to the legislation could be made to reduce the number of prisoners just as swiftly and simply. However, tough-on-crime advocates have made the relevant authorities parole-shy. “For the Parole Board, the dilemma is it doesn’t have the ability to be sure there’ll be adequate controls around a person in the community to let them out with any confidence,” says Devon Polaschek, Waikato University professor of psychology and of crime science. “As long as we pound the board every time someone does something conspicuous, they won’t take more risks.”
Ironically, this may be counterproductive. According to Polaschek, the longer people spend on parole – ie, out of jail but under supervision for the balance of their sentence – the better they do in the long term. People who were paroled closer to the end of their sentences did not do so well. She’s not sure why. “But the more the person’s probation officer tries to create that positive relationship and to treat that man fairly and convey a sense that they care how well he does, that affects reconviction and re-imprisonment,” she says.
There’s a precedent for such a change: in 1985, parole conditions were relaxed and roughly a third of prisoners were released. This was a time when the total prison population of around 3000 was regarded as far too high. It’s since mushroomed to more than 10,000.
A model poses in an exercise area inside Auckland’s Mt Eden Corrections Facility, which opened in 2011. The multistorey men’s remand prison replaced the 120-year-old Mt Eden Prison and cost the government more than $200 million to build.
Top: Inside an accommodation block at the Mt Eden remand facility, 2011. Above: A visiting journalist tries out a cell in the container block at Rimutaka Prison in Trentham, 2010.
Mongrel Mob members during a vigil outside Paremoremo maximum security prison, north of Auckland, in support of jailed gang brothers, 1988.