Stop Prison Building: An Open Letter to the NZ Government

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

Structural Discrimination

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.

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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.

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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

The Impact of Race Relations on Criminal Justice

Kim Workman

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.[1]  In 1902, Māori constituted 2.8 percent of all prisoners received – by 1934 that number had risen to 8.9 percent.[2]  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.[3]

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. [4]   New Zealand had become a punitive and mean-spirited society. [5]

The impact of the Māori urban migration of the 1950’s was predictable. [6]  Between 1954 and 1958, reported Māori youth offending rose by 50%.[7]  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. [8]

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.” [9] Continue reading The Impact of Race Relations on Criminal Justice

20 Drivers of Prohibition

Do the Benefits of Prohibition Outweigh the Costs to Those in Power?

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.

Seen in a different light, the Drug War has been a major success, providing considerable opportunities and benefits: Continue reading 20 Drivers of Prohibition

Unconscious Bias, NZ Police and Bullshit

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

Scrapping the mega-prison

Spring Hill (via Google Earth)

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

Suitably Qualified, Safe and Effective?

Wikimedia CC, by Xxinvictus34535

Training Private Security in New Zealand

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).

In late 2017, the first license and certificate of approval (CoA) renewals process is underway. It is timely to investigate the impact of MT – do we now have safe and effective private security workers? Continue reading Suitably Qualified, Safe and Effective?

Driving Addiction Services Backwards

Photo by Heath Alselke, via Creative Commons

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.

All highly concerning, given research demonstrates that forced treatment for those with problematic drug use is not helpful, that coercing into treatment those who are not addicted is unethical, and that the most helpful approaches for those who have problems with their drug use are non-judgmental, harm-reduction services such as needle exchanges. These services can also offer pathways into rehabilitation and other support. Continue reading Driving Addiction Services Backwards

Sexual Violence is (or should be) an Election Issue

trigger warning

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 Our Own Words is a stunning piece of work. While the authors take care to note it is not a prevalence survey, the sample size is large enough to draw some very telling conclusions. Continue reading Sexual Violence is (or should be) an Election Issue

Seeking Justice for Torture in Abu Ghraib

Abu Ghraib prisoner, CC wikimedia.

The Al Shimari v CACI case

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.

Continue reading Seeking Justice for Torture in Abu Ghraib

Prescribing Ideology

Picture the scene: A teenager presents with a serious skin complaint. He’s had it for a while, it’s sore and, given how it looks, most people won’t go near him. The doctor, tutting through the appointment, ends up prescribing him heart disease medication and sends him on his way.

The doctor knows that the meds are not going to work. Pharmaceutical trials have shown that these heart drugs are ineffective for his skin condition, and can have multiple side-effects.

Sure enough, a few months later, the teen re-arrives at the surgery. He’s more agitated than before. His skin is hard to look at, even for the doctor. He’s suffering from extreme palpitations, depression, he says he feels angry all the time. Against orders, the boy has taken the decision to come off the medication.

The doctor examines the teen thoroughly. Being the family doctor, she knows that the teen’s mother had this skin complaint, about eight years ago, although it cleared up with topical cream and dietary changes. She decides on further medical interventions. Continue reading Prescribing Ideology

Ignoring Evidence, Rights and Safety

Khylee Quince

What a short memory this government has. This week NZ Justice Minister Amy Adams has unveiled a “serious young offenders” policy that resorts to the age-old chestnuts of militarized boot camps, targeting of parents and negative labelling of children and young people. All of these strategies fit squarely within a “tough on crime” agenda of popular punitiveness – hardly surprising in an election year, but flying in the face of both international research about what works and international standards to which New Zealand is accountable.

The “new” policy is targeted at a purported group of around 150 “serious young offenders” and will allow judges to send up to 50 of them to a boot camp at Waiouru for up to a year. Sound familiar? The National government rolled out the same rhetoric and similar initiatives with its Fresh Start policy for serious young offenders in 2009, including the Military Activity Camps, Court-Supervised Camps and Community Youth Programmes. An evaluation of the Military Activity Camps in 2012 showed a 61% reoffending rate within six months of attending the camp, with 10 offenders committing 126 crimes between them within that six month period. Young people referred to rehabilitation programmes had a 72% six month reoffending rate. There is no local or international evidence that boot camp interventions work, and a lot of evidence that they do not. Continue reading Ignoring Evidence, Rights and Safety

Forgetting Our Rights Obligations?

Has Bill English forgotten that we are signatories of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)? The National Party’s Youth Justice Policy Announcement, released on 13 August 2017, appears to indicate so.

While the focus has so far been on the plan to dispatch young offenders off to boot camp (and that is a dumb idea, mostly because all the international evidence shows that it does not work), I want to call attention to the various ways the policy will remove several basic human rights for young people coming into contact with criminal justice agents, as well as  worsen the disproportionality of young Maori in our youth justice system.

In other words, I want to highlight the extraordinary injustices this policy will bring about, using the Government’s own “three strikes” policy as a framework. And why not, given the Government will be an offender in the eyes of international law, if indeed National is the government after September’s election and this policy is put into effect. Continue reading Forgetting Our Rights Obligations?

Drugs, Stigma and Harms

I am moved to write this commentary by the situation in the Philippines, where the president, Rodrigo Duterte, not only rose to power urging his people to kill drug “addicts”, but has now turned a blind eye, even encouraged, the extra-judicial killings of more than 8000 drug users, their families and friends.

This is a tragedy, not only for those who have been killed, but for human rights advocates and for anyone who uses drugs. How did we arrive at this situation?

The legacy of society’s decades-long (and ineffective) “war on drugs”, coupled with centuries of stereotypes and misinformation about drugs and drug users, has created an intense stigma around people who use drugs, built on a morally laden hysteria often directed at those least able to defend themselves.

We don’t kill drug users in New Zealand but the punishments we do mete out are also born of stigmatisation. Continue reading Drugs, Stigma and Harms

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.  Continue reading Preventing Prison Violence