Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: Is the prison system broken?

Law and order looks set to be a major part of this year’s election campaign, with the various parties attempting to outbid each other with conservative policy announcements and promises to be tough on crime. But with prisoner numbers skyrocketing, is it instead time to re-assess whether the prison system really works?

New Zealand's prison population has just hit the 10,000 mark. To draw attention to this and the apparent failure of the prison system, a group called No Pride In Prisons organised a protest on Saturday at the Mount Eden Corrections facility in Auckland. For details of the protest and the demands and arguments of the group, see RNZ'sProtest as prison population hits 10,000. You can also watch their five-minute video of the event: 10,000 too many: march against mass incarceration, which includes speeches from MPs.

No Pride in Prisons is also celebrating the decision of the organisers of Auckland's Pride Parade to ban Department of Corrections staff from marching, due to the lack of support for LGBTQI prisoners - see Tom Furley's Corrections not welcome at Auckland Pride Parade.

The extent of the prison problem

The massive spike in prisoner numbers is currently being discussed in Parliament's law and order select committee - as reported in Jo Moir's 'Unprecedented' prisoner increase has convicts in close quarters. Corrections chief executive Ray Smith reportedly told MPs that the "unprecedented" numbers reflect a growth rate that is faster than "anything that's happened in the last 25 years". Apparently "an extra 1500 prisoners have been accommodated in the last two years"

According to Moir, the Corrections boss also stated that of "the roughly 20,000 people going through prison each year, approximately 91 per cent of them have alcohol or drug addictions, or mental health issues over their lifetime. The number entering prison with those issues is 61 per cent. Of that number, he said 20 per cent of them are 'difficult to manage' because they suffer from both alcohol or drug addictions and mental health issues. Smith said he found it 'quite astonishing' when he saw the high number of prisoners considered 'at-risk' - there's about 3000".

Simon Collins also reports the surprise of the Corrections Department over the growth in prisoner numbers - see his news article last week: Housing, poverty and prisons blow NZ 'off track' - Sallies. Here's the detail on growing prisoner numbers: "After declining slightly in the three years to 2013 in line with falling crime rates, prisoners have suddenly jumped again to a record high of 9914 at the end of last year. This has taken officials by surprise. In June 2014 the Justice Ministry forecast a continued decline to only 8130 prisoners by last September - 1700 fewer than the actual prison mustier at that date".

According to Simon Collins: "About three-quarters of the extra prisoners in the past two years have been on remand, waiting to be heard in court. And three-quarters of the increase in those actually sentenced to jail by the courts were jailed for violent offences, and half of the remaining quarter were jailed for breaching non-violence orders."

Collins also quotes Victoria University criminologist John Pratt arguinh that the trends reflected 'much stricter enforcement of domestic violence orders'. "Victims of those assaults have felt themselves largely unprotected in the past, and it's great that the police are taking strong action to prevent that," he said. He said recent law changes had also made it much harder to get bail on remand, and for prisoners to get early release on parole."

The article is based last week's Salvation Army State of the Nation Report. Sarah Robson's RNZ report also covers this well - see: No logic to more police, prison beds - Salvation Army. Special attention is drawn to the argument that increased imprisonment and spending on prisons is unnecessary given "the fact overall crime rates had remained much the same."

Electoral politics comes into the explanation - and Robson's article reports that many believe politicians of all parties are being driven by reactionary public demands. For example, the Salvation Army report author Alan Johnson complains about recent policy announcements: "They've simply gone and spent it on stuff that's going to be politically popular and it's a great shame that we haven't got slightly more vision than that."

Likewise, the director of advocacy group Just Speak, Katie Bruce is quoted: "My concern is what the two main parties seem to be doing is pulling out the oldest tool in the political shed, which is fear."

The Salvation Army is doing important work, researching and evaluating the problem of New Zealand's rising prison population. In December they also released an important report, Beyond the Prison Gate: Reoffending and Reintegration in Aotearoa New Zealand. For a good summary of this, see Shane Cowlishaw's Salvation Army says New Zealand's prison system is broken.

For further indications of our worsening prison system, see TVNZ's Soaring female prison population could see inmates sleeping in court cells, and Rhys Chamberlain's Longer lockdown for New Zealand prisoners as numbers hit 10,000 for first time.

National's divide on prisons

There are obviously tensions within the National Party as to how the Government should be dealing with crime and prisons. This is especially symbolised by the different approaches taken by senior National politicians Bill English and Judith Collins. English, of course, is well known for his 2011 statement that prisons are a "moral and fiscal failure". And he has pushed his Government to take a significant policy shift towards prisoner rehabilitation. Collins, in contrast, is more in line with the social conservative populist mood to be "tougher on crime".

Very late last year University of Canterbury sociologist Jarrod Gilbert discussed the situation that the new Prime Minister faces in wishing to reform prisons: "For a number of years Bill English has quietly championed a prison reform approach that should appeal to fiscal conservatives and social liberals alike. As prime minister, he now needs to sell it. At stake is a billion dollar spend on a new prison caused by a prison population that recently hit 10,000. With an election year on the doorstep, that's money English would rather employ elsewhere" - see: Bill English faces tough job shifting the 'lock 'em up' penal policy.

According to Gilbert, the tension remains, and it's not clear how National will navigate the increased demand for harsher law and order policies. But he points out that "Having removed Judith Collins from the Corrections portfolio, English has very publically signalled that the harder-edged and populist approach does not curry his favour."

In line with this, long-time prison reform advocate Roger Brooking has blogged earlier this year to explain: Why Bill English booted Collins off Corrections. In this he outlines why "Judith Collins has been the worst Minister of Justice and Corrections New Zealand has ever had". In particular, he says that the "mass incarceration" recently witnessed "is almost entirely due to Judith Collins, who as Minister of Justice from 2011 to 2014, introduced a raft of 'tough on crime' bills."

English now wants to spend money on his social investment project, but according to Brooking "the reason the Government doesn't have vast amounts of money to address the drivers of crime is because they keep spending it on new prisons. And this is why English had to fire Collins. Using her roles as Justice and Corrections Minister, Collins has been taking the country in a direction that her boss clearly doesn't want to go."

Nonetheless, the National Government is still introducing prison reforms with a positive focus - see Anna Leask's Prison babies: Raising infants behind prison walls.

Racism, inequality and class

The incarceration problem cannot be discussed without reference to the fact that Maori make up half of the prison population, despite being only 15 per cent of the population. This disparity is most often blamed on racism and discrimination. But are there other important factors to take into account?

It's worth going back to Jarrod Gilbert's article from last year, which argued: Be careful ascribing racism to the fact fewer Maori are let off with a warning. He says "Many on the left will bristle at any suggestion that racism might be less of a factor than currently popular. They somehow have forgotten that class was once their primary concern. And in many ways, that's what I'm leaning on - socio-economics - but it's more than that."

He puts forward his own observations: "I've done a lot of work with criminals and inside prisons, and while Maori are overrepresented, the commonality that is most obvious between Maori and non-Maori offenders is deprivation and disadvantage - the foibles of those terrible pockets of lower socio-economic communities."

For a much more elaborate discussion of this, see Alex Birchall's The 'Race-Class Debate' and the Justice System.

The issue of inequality is also highlighted this month by Listener psychology columnist Marc Wilson. Wilson cites former colleague, Devon Polaschek, at Victoria University of Wellington, who argues that the existence of very high economic inequality in New Zealand is what explains our high rate of incarceration - see: One reason our incarceration rate is stubbornly high.

Another criminologist at Victoria University has also argued this week that the current prison system isn't working, and she draws attention to the need for more effective social policy - see Elizabeth Stanley's Lock 'em up and throw away the solutions that might actually work.

Stanley argues that the National Government is about to waste billions of dollars, but "solutions will not come from cop cars, 'out of home' care homes or prison cells at the bottom of the cliff, but from preventative measures at the top. Surely that extra three billion dollars destined for our police and prisons would be far better spent on demonstrably effective social policies instead?"

More on all of this can be expected in "Pennies from Heaven", a book to be published next month by the Morgan Foundation's Jess Berentson-Shaw. She gives a peek at what the book will argue in this week's article, Where is the vision for thriving lives for all Kiwis?.

Berentson-Shaw also pinpoints that poverty and low-incomes are the key factor in crime and imprisonment, and therefore the answer is simple: "If Governments really want to invest in the future, prevent children from engaging in crime, relieve the stress in families and reduce parents interaction with the criminal justice system then spending $1billion a year (what extra prison beds will cost us) on low income families with children under 5 is an excellent place to start."

Finally, although it's a few months old, the ultimate exploration of all of these issues can be found in the innovative six-part video documentary by Eugene Bingham and Paula Penfold (amongst others) - Inside our prisons. For more on this, see Eugene Bingham and Paula Penfold's article, Passing muster: The struggle to fix our sick, bloated, 'stinking' prisons.

- NZ Herald

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