Currently, we think of offenders as being accountable to the state, a concept they often cannot comprehend.
Once a prisoner is freed, careful planning can make a big difference as to how successfully he or she will fit back into the community. But such planning should start on the first day of the sentence.
In some countries, says Workman, “on the first day of entering prison [the authorities] are working on your re-integration plan. In New Zealand, if someone goes to prison for two-and-ahalf years, they’re likely to get two visits from a case management officer in the first 10 months, and all they’re doing is making a list of things they might have to do at the end of the sentence.”
Polaschek reels off a list of what prisoners need and all too often don’t have by the time they are released:
“Somewhere to live. Ideally, some work. Some positive, pro-social people to support them. How to get hooked up to a benefit. What to do if you have no transport and need to get to an appointment. What to do if you’re having a problem with a guy and want to hit him but know that’s not right. What to do if you bump into your anti-social mate who invites you to get into crime...”
She says we also need a boost in the number of halfway houses or supervised hostels to bridge the gap between being confined in prison and being out in the community.
The establishment of the Christchurchbased Pathway Trust is a hopeful sign. It takes an integrated approach to helping newly released prisoners find accommodation, work and the sort of support that’s essential for someone just out of jail. The trust’s 2017 annual report states men it’s worked with are 43% less likely to be re- imprisoned within 12 months than those who haven’t been on the programme.
There is no shortage of impediments to prison reform. Conspicuously, there’s the moral panic to hose down. Scaremongering in defiance of the facts has driven public debate on crime and punishment for the past few decades. “If it’s the only thing you’ve been told, that’s what the public will believe,” says Jarrod Gilbert.
However, statistics for the 12 months to May 2018 show a 3.9% decrease in criminal acts against property and people, while a report released in August found the number of crimes commited by those aged 19 or younger has fallen 30% in the past four years.
The consequence of this gap between perception and reality means prisons are an easyto-press political button. Kim Workman says both National and Labour have found there are votes to be had in taking a firm line on prisons and promoting their use. In the past six years, he adds, “there have been something like 15 pieces of legislation introduced – 11 relating directly to prisoners and offenders – that have breached the Bill of Rights.”
When considering those suffering from the exploitation of crime and criminals for political gain, we should also spare some thought for the Department of Corrections, faced with the impossible task of keeping up with the increasing demands of their political masters. Their efforts to provide vocational training and other assistance to prisoners, for instance, must be made in the face of political and public indifference, if not downright hostility.
It’s not as if they don’t know what works. Just ask Stephen Cunningham, the department’s director, offender employment and reintegration: “How does Corrections stop people coming to Corrections? The best thing is, while they’re engaged with us, to work on their rehab, education, alcohol and drug dependency. And more support to reintegrate later.”
The end may be in sight. Justice Minster Andrew Little is clearly reform-minded and knows he has to bring the public with him if he is going to change anything. To that end, he has convened a Safe and Effective Justice Programme Advisory Group, featuring a wide range of authorities and advocates, and is holding a Criminal Justice Summit starting on August 20. “As well as victims’ voices, there will be those who’ve served sentences, psychologists and other specialists,” says Little. “I don’t want to do too much in the way of reforms and new laws until we’ve had the debate.”
His plan to repeal the three strikes law was shot down due to opposition from New Zealand First – which would have made the throw-away-the-key brigade happy. Little understands how people feel. “There are legitimate concerns,” he says. “People want to know they will be safe. The discourse of the last 30 years has played to that. It tends to focus on isolated and dramatic cases. But most offenders in prison aren’t at that end. We also have to acknowledge the voice of victims and the fact that the system hasn’t accommodated them very well. I’m confident there’s a lot more we can do. There will be a lot about victims.”
In a reactive political environment, Little will have to fight for vital cross-party support, but he’s sure there are many National MPS who can put the public good first. The appointment of former National MP Chester Borrows to chair the advisory group may serve to encourage the others. “I’ll certainly be reaching out and involving them in the discussion,” says Little. “Ideally, we’ll get to a point where we get as much cross-parliamentary agreement as we can.”
And then, perhaps, with goodwill, smart thinking and hard work, there’ll be fewer places in prison for people who shouldn’t be there.
Families and friends of crime victims gather outside Mt Eden Prison in June 2008 as part of a demonstration organised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust.