As an example of our failure to treat mental health issues, the story today of 73-year-old Peter (we have chosen not to identify him for reasons that will become clearer) is stark but sadly not rare.
Electroconvulsive treatment as a young man has left him unable to control a life-long urge to set fires and lash out.
Peter has spent nearly 50 years of his chaotic life behind bars, mostly for small stints for burglaries or for fires he’s lit in rubbish bins or behind buildings.
He says it only ever happens when he drinks but he drinks to drown out the memories of being sexually abused in state care, foster homes, and prison.
In April, Peter appeared in Palmerston North District Court charged with arson after he lit a roommate’s book on fire at their halfway house.
Peter claims he doesn’t remember the incident, but pleaded guilty anyway and was given a sentence of two years in jail by Judge Lance Rowe, who said his hands were effectively tied because of Peter’s extensive criminal back story.
It’s a history that has visited almost every district court in the country, spanning 130 convictions, 23 of them for arson, and beginning in 1968 with a charge of theft.
Judge Rowe said Peter needed intensive, focused rehabilitative support in the community.
This is what New Zealand is capable of doing to a petty thief and arsonist and is the end product of a punitive system. Peter was born into an abusive environment and the moment he picked up something that didn’t belong to him, he was consigned to a fate of increasingly cruel punishments.
No doubt some people deserve to go to prison. But what is the point of taking a wretched and hapless individual and meting out increasingly brutal treatment until they become honed and weaponised against us?
The New Zealand prison population has trended down since the beginning of 2020, when we had more than 10,000 people locked up, but has largely plateaued since the beginning of this year. At last count, the Department of Corrections had a population of 7728.
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s ageing prison population has skyrocketed during recent years partly because of a national focus on litigating historical sex offenders like those at Dilworth School in Auckland, Lake Alice and the associated Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care. The same inquiry has been hearing harrowing accounts of assaults that harden victims into our next generation of perpetrators.
In 2009, the percentage of prisoners aged over 60 was just 1 per cent. By June this year that figure has risen to 7.2 per cent. It’s a number that’s forecast to grow.
We now know that prison staff prioritise younger prisoners for rehabilitation as they have a “higher perceived likelihood of successful reintegration”.
Once lags get old, the system that has - to a large part - stripped this person of their dignity and soul, looks away. After a lifetime of being struck with a state-sanctioned fist for every crime and misdemeanour, the key is tossed aside.
A parole report from 2014 noted that Peter had never had counselling despite being incarcerated for nearly 40 years at that point.
“In many ways, the biggest sadness,” said Judge Rowe at Peter’s latest sentencing, “is that prison really has taken the place of what should have been careful rehabilitative supported care in the community.”
Let those who call for harsher punishments, short/sharp shocks, and crackdowns on crime let those words sink in. Whose son or daughter should we consign to this pathetic life next?