Day two of the criminal justice summit. Kelvin Davis takes the stage to talk about Corrections’ plan to reduce prison numbers. He opens by saying we have the second highest incarceration rate in the world. He is wrong: years ago, we were second in the OECD behind the United States, but we are fifth now, and 60th of 222 countries worldwide. The person at the head of our prison system should know better.
The floor is opened for audience participation. A young man on parole introduces himself with a pepeha in te reo Māori. He was on remand in prison for 18 months, he says, and his 20-year-old cousin and co-defendant hanged himself in his cell. They were imprisoned together but separated, so he could not say goodbye. He reads a poem about the “concrete cage that seems to be my home”.
Then a woman describes someone trying to kill her, fracturing her skull and “smashing my body to pieces”. She learned her 3-year-old had been murdered in the next room. As she speaks, it should have been her daughter’s 25th birthday. “Happy birthday, Brittany,” she says.
I listen from the edge of the open-plan conference room in Porirua with 700 other people. I am a criminologist and my mind races to make sense of these haunting stories. I dwell on the links between them, how they feel woven together, victimisation inside prison and out. I am planning a lecture on reform for the Victoria University course I teach on prisons in New Zealand. I wonder: what can we learn from these stories about the failures of our social order and how we might better prevent harm to our people? Continue reading Myths Don’t Do Us Justice→
Let me describe a photo from my childhood. I am 12 years-old, a student at South Wellington Intermediate in Newtown. I look out from under a Chicago Bulls cap pulled low to the eyes, and wear a matching Chicago Bulls t-shirt, sleeves falling loosely below the elbows. One hand is in the pocket of big jeans that sag a little at the back. I had never been to America. Don’t think I had ever met an American face-to-face. Yet I draped American symbols across my young body. We all wore NBA Starter Caps and jeans that sagged a little. Around the time the photo was taken, a survey of New Zealand school students found the most popular celebrity was not a local but the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan.
At 24, I travelled to the United States to study on exchange at the University of California Berkeley. There was no culture shock. The clothes and the music, the accent and the slang words were already familiar. I understood obscure references to old TV shows because I watched the same ones growing-up. I took a sociology course on racial inequality and read about mass imprisonment for the first time – and was struck by the parallels to New Zealand. I found African-Americans were 13 percent of the general population but 40 percent of all prisoners, similar proportions to Māori. I learned there was a likeness in the timing of prison growth, with prison numbers in both countries relatively stable in the decades after World War II, before exploding in the wake of neoliberal restructuring, largely in the communities worst impacted by welfare cutbacks and declining working-class employment.
Labour are currently considering a repeal of three strikes laws. Garth McVicar and National are up in arms. No surprises there, they have been trading on misinformed slogans like three strikes for years. This particular slogan was imported, a symbol of our mindless mimicking of American prison policy. The importers did not even think about it long enough to change the name – a baseball metaphor that doesn’t make sense in New Zealand.
Three strikes replaces thoughtful decision-making with blind punitiveness. When a person is convicted of a third ‘strikeable’ offence, the sentencing judge is forced to impose the maximum prison term no matter the circumstances. Without three strikes, they could still hand down the same sentence, but would only do so if careful review of evidence showed it warranted. Three strikes simply forces the maximum regardless of what makes sense in a particular case.
The first New Zealander to be convicted of a third strike was Raven Campbell. He got a seven-year sentence for pinching the bottom of a female guard at Waikeria, where he was already imprisoned. I do not want to excuse his actions. Too many women know what it is like to experience this kind of sexual harassment and assault. Yet any rational review of the case would show the sentence to be a travesty. The judge explicitly said it was unreasonable, but was forced to impose it anyway. Informed decision-making was trumped by the blind logic of a baseball slogan. Continue reading Three Strikes – Prison Policy by Baseball Slogan→
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 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→
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→
Despite the evidence against the effectiveness of prisons to reduce reoffending, and the Prime Minister’s assertion that prisons remain a ‘moral and fiscal failure’, there is still no government strategy or goal to limit their use, and reduce the prison population.
In 2015, Rethinking Crime and Punishment (RCP) examined why prisons have sustained for so long in NZ. They also considered strategies of other nations to limit the use of prisons and to reinvest resources in more effective ways of reducing crime and social harm. Continue reading Reducing Prison Numbers→
…Alternative Measures for Suicide Prevention in Prisons
The 2017 report from the Ombudsman investigating the use of physical restraints for prisoners accommodated in At Risk Units (ARUs) has revealed some shocking details about the care of the suicidal in New Zealand prisons. Whilst much of the attention following from the report has understandably focused on the torturous use of tie down beds and wrist restraints, questions remain about the reliance on ARUs in general to accommodate and manage suicidal and self-harming prisoners.
In the last three years more than 700 prisoners have been through these units (McCulloch 2017). In ARUs, prisoners are placed in cells with minimal fixtures, a mattress and an unscreened toilet. In these ‘environments of deprivation’ (Stanley 2017), they are stripped of their usual clothing, given an untearable gown and bedding, and placed under 24-hour camera observation. Interaction with others, including staff, is highly limited.
Corrections protocol states that prisoners in ARUs should ‘have the same opportunities for involvement in prison activities as other prisoners, consistent with maintaining their safety and the safety of others’ (Ombudsman 2017:12). However, the Ombudsman team ‘found no evidence of at-risk prisoners taking part in any form of structured activity or intervention’ (2017:14) or engaging in strategies to manage and address their self-harm or suicidal thoughts. In only one case did ‘at risk’ plans contain referrals to other services such as chaplaincy or social workers. Although a stay in an ARU is supposed to be a temporary measure, in practice prisoners can be accommodated there for several months (National Health Committee 2010).
In NZ, At Risk Units hold prisoners who are ‘at risk’ of suicide or self-harm. They are environments of deprivation. In 2016, the Ombudsman’s Office reported daily routines of long prisoner lockdowns in ‘bleak’ and ‘grim’ conditions (2016a, 2016b). ARU prisoners are usually locked in a barren cell for up to 23 hours a day. Clothed in anti-rip gowns, they are watched via camera all the time, including when they use their in-cell toilet.
In an unannounced visit to Otago, the Ombudsman found an ARU prisoner who was held ‘in a waist restraint with his hands cuffed behind his back…due to his self-harming’ (Ombudsman, 2016c:17). Over two and a half months, the man had spent at least 21 hours a day in the restraint:
“He was un-cuffed every two hours during the day and every four hours at night in order to stretch his muscles, take a shower or eat his meals (average three hours unlock a day). He was able to watch some TV in his cell from late afternoon” (Ombudsman, 2016c:18).
From what I can garner, ACT’s policy was directed at a significant expansion of the literacy and numeracy programme in prison, on the basis of the following principles:
Offenders who complete numeracy and literacy courses in prison, or passed their driving licence test, would have the length of their sentences reduced by up to six weeks a year, with a cap of 18 week’s reduction on a three year sentence – an 11.5% reduction;
Well-educated prisoners who mentored other prisoners would also be eligible for a similar reduction in their sentence;
ACT would make it easier for volunteers to gain approval to carry out this kind of work in prisons;
Decisions on eligibility for the course, would be made by the Parole Board;
The policy would be part of any coalition arrangement with National.
Just as exciting was the thinking behind the proposal. Prisoners needed positive incentives to become productive, law abiding citizens, David Seymour said. Many lacked the skills required to lead normal, productive lives. They needed to take responsibility for their lives, and this policy would provide that incentive. What is more, suitable volunteers and well-educated prisoners would run these programmes at a reasonable cost. Continue reading Disengaging from the ‘Tough on Crime’ Mantra→
The Prime Minister Bill English equipped himself admirably to well-trodden law and order election politics last week, as he bolstered police ranks by another 1100 officers. This Safer Communities package was dovetailed with strong messages, not least that the world doesn’t owe anyone ‘a living’. Instead, families and communities must ‘continuously adapt’ and resiliently engage in ‘quiet heroism’ as a response to increasing economic precariousness. The expectation is that everyone – including those with health or disability issues – ‘can live independently’.
We are also entering, it appears, a new era of state interventions. Mirroring practices from the late 1950s to the early 1980s – the horrific experiences and legacies of which largely remain shielded from public view – the government is targeting ‘problem’ children and their families for processing. We will deal, once and for all, with the ‘regulars in the government system’. Welfare dependents had better look out, as might our new economic risks: the thousand or so five year olds whose sorry lives are each destined to cost us well over quarter a million dollars. Continue reading Lock ‘Em Up and Throw Away the Solutions→
In October 2016, the NZ government announced plans to spend a billion dollars on more prison beds. They say it’s needed to cope with forecast rises in the prison muster – as if increases were a force of nature, like a storm or earthquake. As Finance Minister Bill English put it: “this is something that has to be done. We have to provide the capacity. We’d certainly prefer to be in a position where this wasn’t happening…”
But there is nothing inevitable about building more prisons. We have already opened five in a decade and doubled the number of beds, and the system is filled to overflowing.