Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Fund violence prevention before prisons

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Tackling sources of crime is a better investment than building another jail. Photo / Thinkstock
Tackling sources of crime is a better investment than building another jail. Photo / Thinkstock

I went to prison at the weekend. The guard who ushered me into the prison van asked if I'd been there before. No, I said, this is my first time.

Most people can't wait to get away from prison, but curiosity and a Very Good Cause had persuaded a group of us to part with good money to see the inside of a prison cell.

The hardliners will be happy to know that the amenities do not put one in mind of a holiday camp, even a really cheap one.

The decor is functional, but on the minimal side (well, it's prison), and privacy and dignity come a long way behind security and safety.

Some people suggest that taking troublesome teenagers on prison tours would act as a powerful deterrent to any criminal stirrings.

I think this is true, though it's the seemingly small things that have the most impact.

When prison life was first described to my teenaged son by a relative who had become acquainted with American prisons, it was not the threat of violence which left the most profound impression on him, but the realisation that prison meant having to go to the toilet in front of another cellmate.

There was much ado last year when the new multi-storied $218 million, 554-bed prison building took shape next door to the old Mt Eden prison, where, according to many, it loomed forbiddingly over the Southern Motorway, ruining the view and casting a shadow over Mt Eden.

Some lamented the overshadowing of well-heeled schools Auckland Grammar and St Peter's, saying the grass on its fields would no longer grow properly.

That seemed like an apt metaphor for what's happening as we build ever more expensive and more intrusive prisons. It costs around $100,000 a year to keep just one person in prison. The more money we spend on prisons, the less we have for education, and the other programmes which steer at-risk kids away from the trajectory of crime.

But hiding our prisons away in the countryside isn't going to make the problem go away. Why should we not be reminded of our love affair with prisons?

If we insist on locking people up in ever increasing numbers then we should get used to more such blots on the landscape.

If prisons loom over us, if they make us feel uncomfortable, if they serve as a reproach, so much the better.

In 1999, we imprisoned 150 people per 100,000; 10 years later that had risen to 195 per 100,000 - one of the highest in the OECD, and significantly higher than rates in Australia, England, Ireland and Canada. Yet it's made no real difference to our crime rates, as even Treasury has acknowledged.

In a 2009 report, it argued that "investing in reducing the number of people who enter the criminal justice system would likely provide better value for money - and better societal outcomes - than locking up more people".

Which brings me back to the reason I was in prison on Saturday night: The Big Night In, an event organised by Shine to raise money for the Safe at Home programme to help high-risk victims of family violence stay safely in their own homes.

It's known that the vast majority of the prison population have been victims of family violence. People like Tuhoe Isaac, a former Mongrel Mob gang leader, who spoke about growing up in an environment where violence was normal, and thinking "it was okay to be beaten up".

People treated him like shit and abused his body, he said; so he did the same to others.

There is no question that tackling child abuse will see fewer children develop into the kind of person that Isaac used to be.

Yet, ironically, just as money is being raised here for one programme, there is news that other family violence programmes may be cut to direct more funding towards Whanau Ora.

Jill Proudfoot of Shine says such cuts would have long-term serious repercussions for the victims of domestic violence and child abuse.

One programme, which funds 42 child advocates throughout the country, hasn't even been evaluated, and its loss would be "a terrible waste of money, and a disservice to our children and young people".

"Whenever there is another tragic death of a child yet another report is written that shows how lack of co-ordinated action has failed the child, and people cry out for more action ...

"These essential services need to work alongside Whanau Ora, and should be adequately funded, not competing for funds."

- NZ Herald

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