Prisons are tough, but still serving an important function

Chris Trotter painted a grim picture of New Zealand prisons (Opinion, 8.1.21). "Unceasing emotional and physical violence and unrelieved despair." It was an unbalanced but common view of commentators who condemn prisons, mental health institutions and child protection services as a matter of course.

Usually, they have never worked with criminals or been in a prison, and never lived anywhere near communities where criminals, most problematic mental health patients, and abusive parents tend to reside. They don’t shop or send their children to schools in those communities either. They comment from the sidelines.

Trotter could only have been guessing about the conditions in Waikeria prison and the motivations of the rioting inmates. But he gave the impression of being informed.

I have worked in a prison as an instructor/prison officer, and later, in a different prison, as a probation officer. Of course prisons are awful places. The prisoner is stripped of all decision-making related to individual freedom and independence.

Prison is an undesirable abode and the company’s not the best, either. Many prisoners are unpleasant, intimidating and violent. Others are extremely irritating, boring, coarse and stupid. However, a surprisingly large number of inmates are passive and co-operative, and some are pleasant and intelligent.

Inevitably, prison is boring. And yet, some young men can’t wait to get there. Their ambition is usually thwarted for a considerable period by judges who bend over backwards handing out community-based sentences, until all warnings are used up and the young offender has his wish.

Many young men feel so comfortable in prison they keep going back for more. After all, once you know the ropes and play by the rules, a term of imprisonment is far from "unrelieved despair."

Prison is too comfortable for a considerable number of young men. It would make more sense for judges to send them to prison the first time they commit an imprisonable offence, not for six or nine months but two to three weeks in solitary confinement. Deterrence can work for some people. Think back to that speeding ticket.

"Most criminals are victims of circumstances." This is true. Poor parenting has much to answer for. Many prisoners have a background of neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. And I predict the callous policy of doubling up in cells is an opportunity for further abuse. However, some are from good homes and prefer the "buzz" of offending (and occasional time inside) to the discipline of working for a living.

Comments on rehabilitation are often misleading. I recall sitting in on a rehabilitation course in Invercargill Prison; an excellent course called "Straight Thinking". But it could not get a sufficient number of applicants. And many drug- and alcohol-addicted prisoners are not interested in changing. Those who are can benefit greatly.

People say, "Prison doesn’t work." But it works to isolate dangerous people and less serious offenders who refuse to take community sentences seriously.

Society expects too much of institutions with an enforcement role. Should rehabilitation even be a task of prisons? Would it not be better to confine "treatment" to community-based sentences and parole?

The function of a prison is first to protect society, while protecting prisoners from one another.

Christopher Horan is a Lake Hawea writer and retired social worker.

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