Dialogue: Does no one want to know why it's mostly men behind bars?

By SHELLEY BRIDGEMAN*

Much is made of the fact that Maori and young people are overrepresented as a percentage of prison inmates when compared with their share of overall population.

And since 15 per cent of New Zealanders are Maori, yet they make up about half of the (non-traffic) prison population, the statistics speak for themselves.

People aged under 25 make up 45 per cent of the prison population but only 38 per cent of the general population, so they are overrepresented, too.

This is particularly so if you take into account that children, toddlers and even babies are obviously included in the general population's percentage.

But what is surprising is the utter silence about one particular sector of society that is especially prone to prison sentences as well. By marrying population figures from Statistics New Zealand and data from the Department of Corrections, it is clear that men are taking up more than their fair share of prison beds.

Males make up 94 per cent of prison inmates yet are just below half the general population. That means there are almost twice as many men in prisons as the figures suggest are appropriate. This ratio is alarming, as is the fact that it is seldom acknowledged.

Even if we disregarded the per head comparison relationships for a moment, and reflected only on the huge percentage that men make up of prison inmates, it is obvious that males should also be identified as a high-risk group.

So why is the gender issue so often overlooked? Why is much made of rehabilitation programmes focused on Maori and young people and why is the male issue not addressed in a similar manner?

Surely it is not a concerted effort by the authorities to sweep an unpalatable fact under the carpet. Surely we haven't become so inured to male violence and lawbreaking that it's no longer worthy of comment.

Surely as a nation we haven't adopted a tolerant "boys will be boys" approach to this terrible statistic. Surely it's not just easier to point the finger at Maori and youngsters than at a demographic from which most of the lawmakers themselves probably come.

Perhaps this is a difficult one because no nice, neat answer to the social roots of this phenomenon immediately springs to mind. While societal theories can readily be hypothesised as to why both Maori and young people - who share well-documented unemployment and low-opportunity issues - bolster the prison numbers, it is rather difficult to apply the same sort of logic to men in general.

After all, men have it pretty good in our communities - and most others. They have higher earning power and often better jobs than women. Financially, they emerge practically unscathed from marriage breakups. Historically, they have been the leaders of government and big business - Helen Clark and Theresa Gattung notwithstanding. If any sector of our society enjoys advantages that are denied to others, it is men.

So to come up with a compelling argument why such a high proportion of men end up in prison is certainly a challenge. But this is no excuse to ignore the cold, hard facts.

While we all tolerate certain male idiosyncrasies, this is not a situation that we as a society should smile benignly about. Each of these men is some woman's husband, partner, father, son or brother and no doubt, as a family unit, they share similar backgrounds, occupations and socio- economic levels.

So if these women manage to abide by the law, control their tempers and live a life outside the prison walls, why can't the men they love do the same?

The fact that men make up 94 per cent of the prison population should not become a truism that we all unthinkingly accept. We accept that men can't relax unless they have the remote control in their hand. We accept that if they're in a car with a woman, they seem to believe they're genetically programmed to be the one behind the wheel. And we accept that they're useless at multi-tasking.

But we must never accept that they are bad to the bone and simply unable to resist their criminal tendencies. If it is worth assisting other sectors of society, surely our men deserve similar attention.

And, of course, if we manage to reduce offending in males as a gender, by extension it will also help to address the issue of Maori and young people since obviously almost all of these offenders will be male.

It's time we grappled with this issue. Just because it's been consigned to the too-hard basket until now is no reason it should remain there.

* Shelley Bridgeman is an Auckland freelance writer.

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