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

North & South - - Con­tents - BY PAUL LIT­TLE

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.


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.”


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.

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