It is widely accepted among most drug policy experts that drug prohibition has caused more damage than the actual drugs the government is supposedly protecting us from.
Reform is long overdue. However, we need to think critically and carefully before lurching towards an alternative model.
After decades of frustration from the arbitrary criminalisation of some drugs, while other more dangerous legal substances (alcohol, pharmaceuticals, caffeine and tobacco) have gone under the drug radar, reform is imminent and overdue. ‘Drug Regulation’ is the popular rally call, but what does it mean?
Last week, the NZ Parliament debated an amendment to the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act which would increase penalties for supplying new psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabis from two years’ prison time to eight.
The amendment comes in the wake of the Vice documentary Syn City about those struggling with addictions to synthetic cannabis. In an interview to promote the documentary, the journalist behind it called the government’s inaction over synthetics “staggering”. And the government’s response? The tired, drum-banging rhetoric of ‘getting tough’, with its empty promise that this will actually tackle the problems related to synthetic cannabis, or any other drug.
It is a strange moment in New Zealand politics: a Labour government committed to slashing prison numbers, about to build the biggest prison the country has ever seen. A final decision will be made within a month. With each passing day, momentum grows and the build becomes more likely.
The plan is to construct a new facility next to Waikeria prison, creating an enormous prison complex holding up to 3000 people. That is much larger than even the United Kingdom’s largest prison – HMP Berwyn, capacity 2100 – four countries with a combined population of 65 million.
Six months ago, no one would have expected Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis to support the build. In opposition, he was a radical critic and favorite of prison reform advocates, myself included.
Davis in office seems drained of all imagination. Now he oversees 9000 corrections staff and a prison system filled to overflowing. Conditions inside are terrible, with prisoners double-bunked and forced into shipping containers or emergency beds intended for disaster readiness. Routine inspections report endemic levels of violence and assault. Frontline staff are stretched to breaking-point. Continue reading Countdown to the Mega-Prison→
The Department of Correction propose to build a 3000-bed prison at Waikeria which would initially house 25% of the national prison population, and be almost three times larger than the current largest prison, Rimutaka (1067 prisoners). It is also larger than similar prisons elsewhere; the Titan prisons proposed in the UK were for 2,500 prisoners, and the largest prison in Western Europe was originally built for 2,600 prisoners, but now holds 3,500.
The Waikeria Prison proposal is considered the fastest and most cost-effective way of housing the growing number of inmates; Corrections can use land it already owns and contends that a mega-prison will provide operational efficiencies. In its report, Corrections stressed urgency and identified risks to public safety, outbreaks of violence and disorder, and inability to provide rehabilitation programmes, if the proposal did not proceed. It also emphasised its obligations to operate within the law.
Kim Workman has written a discussion paper for the Hon Kelvin Davis, Minister of Corrections. It addresses the Minister’s intention to reduce the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years.
This paper is intended to feed into future discussion about a downsizing strategy for New Zealand. It describes and analyses the experience of four states (California, New Jersey, New York and Alaska) that have successfully downsized their prison population by more than 25% over ten years, and also describes the historical experience of downsizing in Canada, Finland and Germany. It considers: (a) the current New Zealand situation, (b) the strategies implemented by selected nations and states that have successfully downsized, (c) the outcomes of downsizing; and (d) the evidence-based principles which support a downsizing strategy.
The key findings support the Minister’s intention.
The Reduction of the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years, is readily achievable, and probably conservative.
Surveys show there is a public willingness for change.
Confirms that reducing the remand population is an essential and urgent step to reducing reoffending.
There is no evidence that shortening sentences increases reoffending.
There is no evidence one way or the other, that releasing prisoners early is a threat to public safety.
There is no real difference, in terms of reoffending, between prison sentences and community based sentences.
Prison based rehabilitation programmes are ethically wise, but make no significant impact on reducing the prison population.
If downsizing is the goal, rehabilitation and reintegration resources are better directed toward community-based desistance programmes.
Surveillance on its own is ineffective, and should be accompanied by treatment.
We are criminal justice researchers calling on the government to stop the build of a new prison at Waikeria. The proposal to spend a billion dollars on this venture is at odds with its explicit commitment to reduce prison numbers. To allow time for a national conversation about alternatives, we propose a moratorium on all new prison construction.
Never before have so many New Zealanders been incarcerated. Since 1986, the number of prisoners has swelled from 2,700 to 10,700, a four-fold increase. This puts us out of step with the rest of the world. While our crime rates are broadly similar to other countries in the OECD, our rate of 220 prisoners per 100,000 population is well above the OECD average.
The rapid expansion of our prisons disregards the overwhelming evidence that people sent to prison are more likely to re-offend than people with similar offending given community sentences. Contrary to the official goal of “corrections”, prisons foster criminality and often intensify the problems they are designed to address. Continue reading Stop Prison Building: An Open Letter to the NZ Government→
In recent years, politicians and senior public service managers, while openly acknowledging the differential between Māori and non-Maori, have resisted the idea that there is any deliberate ethnic bias, or evidence of personal racism in the system.
There is general agreement that adverse early-life experiences, and social and environmental factors contribute significantly to high Māori, which in turn impact on offending patterns. However, while there is evidence of structural discrimination within the criminal justice system, and allegations of personal racism, there is a general reluctance to conduct research into these areas. The absence of research thus enables politicians and senior public servants to deny that such issues exist, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary.
The idea of systemic bias within the criminal justice system has been resisted by government agencies over recent years. When the Hon Dr Pita Sharples, Co-Leader of the Māori Party, launched the party’s Justice Policy on 1 October 2011, he spoke about the structural discrimination against Māori within the criminal justice system in general, and the Police in particular. There was an expected public backlash against the comments and, when invited to comment, Rethinking Crime and Punishment issued a media release citing research which supported Dr Sharple’s view. Dr Sharples was interviewed on Q and A on the 9 Oct. On the 14th October, Commissioner Peter Marshall came to the defence of his staff in an interview on Te Karere. He did not agree there was a racial bias in Police dealings with Maori.
The issue was vigorously discussed on talkback radio, and most of the comment supported the Commissioner’s position. Some commentators reproached Dr Sharples for his claims, and the then Minister of Police, the Hon Judith Collins, publicly chastised him for being ‘out of order’. Continue reading Structural Discrimination→
As Māori society began to disintegrate, the justice system mopped up those who were deemed a public nuisance. In the 1930’s Māori “lads” were sent off to borstal “in their own interests” because they were judged to have come from bad surroundings – a practice since taken over by youth justice institutions. In 1902, Māori constituted 2.8 percent of all prisoners received – by 1934 that number had risen to 8.9 percent. Prison sucked up all types of offenders from the lower strata of society: the small time repeat offenders, drunks, vagrants, the mentally ill, and so on.
By the 1930’s, while New Zealand had very little crime, it had an average prison population three times greater in proportion to the general population, than that of England and Wales.
Prison provided social benefits: it hid our failures from view; it allowed politicians and the courts to maintain public credibility; it satisfied a public demand for retribution.  New Zealand had become a punitive and mean-spirited society. 
The impact of the Māori urban migration of the 1950’s was predictable.  Between 1954 and 1958, reported Māori youth offending rose by 50%. One of the factors that caused this increase related not to how Māori behaved in this strange and new urban world but how they were treated by non-Māori. Māori urban migrants were perceived and treated as a potentially dangerous underclass. We were outsiders.
The Police, like much of the public service in the 1950’s was unapologetically monocultural. In 1951, the Police boasted one Māori police officer, Bill Carran, who had joined the police in 1920, and retired in 1958, as an Assistant Commissioner. Carran, of mixed descent, was referred to disparagingly as ‘the Black Tracker’ by his colleagues, and survived by downplaying his Māori heritage, and emphasising his pākehā side. 
When Commissioner JB Young canvassed his staff in 1950 about recruiting Māori , he found them ‘almost unanimously opposed’. The Senior Sergeant at Taihape commented:
The average European would strongly resent being corrected or reprimanded by a Maori, particularly in some districts where the colour line is still observed. On the other hand, the average Māori appointee would be inclined to suffer from an inferiority complex when dealing with Europeans, or be imbued with authority and fail to use discretion when dealing with Maoris.” Continue reading The Impact of Race Relations on Criminal Justice→
It is widely assumed that the so called ‘war on drugs’ (the war between drugs), has been a disastrous failure, and faced with mounting evidence and criticism, governments would eventually seek legislative and policy change.
The evidence presented is largely based upon an analysis of the inability of drug prohibition to reduce the supply and demand for banned substances, supplemented by a critique outlining the widespread harms caused by prohibition. However, with a different agenda and focus, it might be that this ‘evidence’ in terms of the failure to dent supply and demand, has over time (fifty years), become secondary to other government, business and organisational interests.
This commentary deals with two recent issues that arose in relation to the New Zealand Police (NZ Police): the first is the recent ‘confession’ of the Police Commissioner that some members of the NZ Police suffered from ‘unconscious bias’, and the second is the decision by officials at NZ Police National Headquarters to designate researcher and criminologist Jarrod Gilbert as ‘unsuitable’ for carrying out research because of his gang associations.
The New Zealand Police, Bias, Racism and Bullshit
Humbug: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.
Max Black (1982)
According to the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt (2005: 1) “[o]ne of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted”. I agree entirely with Professor Frankfurt’s summation of just how much bullshit is spread around, except to add the caveat that some of us contribute a whole lot more bullshit to the pile that invariably washes over the social context. Continue reading Unconscious Bias, NZ Police and Bullshit→
In the lead-up to the recent NZ election, MP Kelvin Davis announced that Labour will work to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent. The party inherits quite different priorities in government.
There are plans to build an enormous prison complex in Waikato, part of a sweeping $2.5 billion package to expand prison capacity. It is not too late for Labour to scrap this plan in favour of the vision they bring with them to office. But with construction set to begin next year, it would have to happen quickly.
If prisons worked there would be no need to build another one. Consider the network of new prisons that already crisscross New Zealand: Ngawha prison opened in the Far North in 2005, Auckland Women’s in 2006, Spring Hill and Otago prisons in 2007, the remand prison at Mount Eden in 2011, and two years ago, a partnership with multinational Serco on old industrial land in South Auckland.
We could be using these resources to build homes for our people. Yet in the past 20 years, the number of houses owned by the government has fallen from 70,000 to 63,000. Follow the money and the current priorities are clear. The Corrections budget this year is four times that dedicated to Building and Housing. Continue reading Scrapping the mega-prison→
Private security, in one form or another, has become a pervasive feature of everyday life. But, our increasing reliance on private security has not been matched with high standards or good practice. In April 2011, the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act (2010) [‘the Act’] sought to change that in New Zealand, by replacing an obsolete regulatory framework first introduced over three decades ago.
The NZ Associate Minister of Justice announced that the Act would achieve ‘high industry standards’ and reduce ‘the significant risk of harm’ (Guy, 2010). The New Zealand Security Association (NZSA) described it as an important step in ‘raising professionalism’ and ‘driving out poor quality operations’ (Newman, 2014: 10). This new regulation covered more security operatives, including crowd controllers/door supervisors (‘bouncers’) and personal (body) guards. To ensure compliance, the government established a new ‘dedicated’ Licensing Authority (PSPLA) and enforcement agency (CIPU), while increasing penalties for unlicensed operators.
Of all of the changes, politicians saw that Mandatory Training (MT) was most likely to improve industry standards. Introduced in October 2013, MT was imposed on those ‘public facing’ personnel most likely to be involved in physical confrontations that could inflict and/or sustain physical injury. Associate Minister of Justice, Chester Burrows, claimed MT would ‘ensure security personnel have the skills to work safely and effectively’ and that ‘those employed to protect us would be suitably qualified’ (Burrows, 2013).
Threats and forcing people further into poverty will make it harder for those with addiction problems to get help.
Well, you can tell there is an election looming, as politicians run around in ever decreasing circles, tightening the noose on some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable people, including beneficiaries who use drugs. Under National’s proposed policy, beneficiaries who refuse to attend drug rehabilitation sessions face having their benefit halved, with many beneficiaries already facing benefit reductions if they fail or refuse to take a drug test.
Last week, I was honoured to represent Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP at the launch of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa’s report, In Our Own Words. Thursdays in Black is an international student-led movement focused on building a world without rape and violence.
In September and October 2016, Thursdays in Black Aotearoa undertook a nationwide online survey of 1400 tertiary students, asking about their experiences of sexual violence both prior to and during tertiary study; their experiences of sexuality education during secondary study, their access to sexual violence support services at tertiary level, and so much more.
In 2008, the US Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) brought a federal lawsuit – Al Shimari v. CACI . This lawsuit addresses the torture of four Iraqi men, held in Abu Ghraib prison during 2003-2004, by the private contractor CACI International Inc. and CACI Premier Technology Inc. The case is the last Abu Ghraib case in the system and, if it goes to trial, will be heard in the midst of the Trump Presidency.
The CCR assert “that CACI directed and participated in illegal conduct, including torture, at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where it was hired by the U.S. to provide interrogation services”. The case covers violations of US and international law – including war crimes, sexual assaults and tortures.
The four victims – Suhail Najim Abdullah Al Shimari; Taha Yaseen Arraq Rashid; Asa’ad Hamza Hanfoosh Zuba’e; Salah Hasan Nusaif Al-Ejaili – were all released without ever being charged of any crime. They all continue to suffer mental and physical injuries from their torture that included electric shocks, food deprivation, being threatened by dogs, stress positions, beatings, sexual assaults, sensory deprivation, and being kept naked.