Preventing Prison Violence

A scathing report by the NZ Ombudsmen shows that almost half the prisoners at Hawkes Bay prison have been assaulted during their sentence. Public discussion has centred on mismanagement of the high security unit and lack of a coherent gang strategy at the facility. Yet problems of prison violence stretch well beyond Hawkes Bay. Inspections at three other prisons last year found similar levels of victimization. The rates of assault at Manawatu prison were higher.

When we send people to prison we expose them to violence. It is a normal and expected part of doing time – just ask anyone who has been there. The violence of prisoners is intimately connected to the violence of the institution: to control people inside, prisons unavoidably rely on coercion and physical force. There are 110,000 strip searches a year in our prisons, 300 every day. These violent incidents are not aberrations but a routine part of the daily rounds. 

There is a contradiction at the heart of our criminal justice policy: we use a violent institution as a tool of “corrections” to try and reduce violence. It is a contradiction that unfolds in the record numbers of people cycling in and out of prison, not only uncorrected but severely damaged by the experience. Around 85 percent of those released from prison are convicted of new crimes within five years.

There are many who cling to the idea that harsh punishment is a good way to prevent violence. Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust wants to bring the chain gangs of Arizona to New Zealand. He says the crackdown should start early in life with corporal punishment in schools and families, and claims his own experience of regular canings at Napier Boys’ High was “fantastic. I’ve been back and thanked the headmaster for them… I’d be in jail now if I hadn’t been beaten.”

There is a long research tradition that examines the effect of parenting style and disciplinary practices on children. It shows unambiguously that the more severely kids are punished, the more violent they become, both during childhood and later as adults. This should not be surprising, for physical punishment is itself an instance of the behaviour it aims to eradicate. And children – indeed all people – learn largely by example and imitation. When treated violently they learn most of all to treat others violently.

The same goes in criminal justice. Whether in a family home or a prison, violence is contagious, spreading quickly through the method of teaching by example.

The problems at Hawkes Bay prison appear particularly bad, and the ombudsmen recommends specific steps be taken there: develop a gang management strategy, form working relationships between staff and prisoners, improve the living conditions of inmates.

Another approach would be to put less people in prison in the first place. New Zealand has built five prisons in the last decade. The system is chronically overcrowded, with prisoners in cells made from shipping containers and emergency beds intended for disaster readiness. The government has plans to build another new prison.

It is time to stop responding to the kind of violence we call crime with the kind we call punishment.

Liam Martin is a criminologist at Victoria University in Wellington. One of his areas of expertise is the social impact of large-scale incarceration. This commentary was first published on Stuff News, 12 July 2017.

Share This: