Prison rethink required

A radical overhaul of the way we view crime and punishment in New Zealand is needed, writes Judith Cowley.

Every few days another piece of research evidence or personal testimony heaps criticism on the ineffectiveness of our prison system in reducing reoffending. The latest is Corrections' failure to meet its 2017 goal of reducing reoffending by 25%: there has only been a 4.5% reduction.

Taxpayers now spend a whopping $100,000 per year to keep one inmate in prison. Why is our Government so dedicated to building more prisons to accommodate more prisoners when criminologists know imprisonment does not effect positive change?

In Denmark, criminal justice policy is rarely subject to party political debate; decisions about best practices lie with criminal justice professionals and the media do not sensationalise crime; in fact they rarely report it, unlike our politicians and media.

With fewer people imprisoned, Denmark nevertheless has a lower incidence of crime and recidivism than New Zealand, as has California, which reduced its prison numbers by 27,000 in 2011 with no subsequent spike in crime.

To accommodate more people being remanded in custody, Corrections will spend $1billion on a new remand prison. Such places are described as ''cesspools of crime'' and gang recruitment centres, where the occupants reinforce each other's wrong-headed thinking.

So why else is imprisonment so damaging?

When I first went to live in London, for weeks I never touched another human being. No handshake, no hug, no physical contact whatsoever. As I walked through Pimlico, I began to have the urge to fling my arms round the first passing stranger to reassure myself I was still a human among humans.

I became aware how psychologically disturbing the absence of touch was, yet New Zealand doggedly follows the American practice of non-contact visits behind plexi-glass windows for prisoners considered badly-behaved.

I question whether such a procedure improves the attitude of a difficult inmate or ''maintains the family and social relationships of the prisoner in order to promote the prisoner's reintegration into the community on release'', a stated aim of Corrections, as is placing inmates in prisons accessible to families and friends.

Understandably, dangerous offenders need to be accommodated in Auckland Maximum Security Prison, but the cost of contact for them is telephone calls at 80c per minute.

Apart from a few heinous offenders who need to be kept behind bars permanently, the majority of prisoners will be released into our communities.

Having made no decisions about what to wear, when and what to eat, exercise or sleep, upon release they are faced with the huge stress of everyday choices we take for granted. Forty-three percent of prisoners are Maori, a shocking statistic. Labour MP Kelvin Davis has wisely suggested we should try running one of our prisons along tikanga Maori lines to improve outcomes.

Many prisoners are incarcerated for crimes associated with alcohol and drug dependency, many have mental health problems and, shockingly, these issues can often be traced to the sexual and physical abuse suffered in Social Welfare homes from the 1950s to 1980s.

Victoria University criminology lecturer Elizabeth Stanley's book The Road to Hell has documented such horrors together with a description of the daily demoralisation of young people by staff. If we are told we are worthless often enough, we will come to believe it and act accordingly.

Therapeutic programmes exist in prison but within a toxic environment. Community-based programmes are far more effective when buoyed up by the support of family and friends.

At the current rate, Corrections is on the way to becoming the largest government department with the greatest failure rate. Radical change is needed.

-Judith Cowley has worked in the Probation Service in Otara, Disputes Tribunal Otahuhu, PARS Otago and Stopping Violence Dunedin.

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