On a Friday afternoon in September, a terrorist stabbed seven people in a frenzied attack in a suburban Auckland supermarket. A multi-agency inquiry will look into faultlines that led to his release without undergoing a deradicalisation programme. I fervently hope that work is already under way to reform extremists currently in prison.
Tragic as this attack was, we are releasing inmates every day without adequate rehabilitation. A recent Ombudsman review into Auckland Prison noted that inmates received less than one hour per day of rehabilitation programmes and only three minutes for inmates in maximum security. Sixty per cent of our inmates (83 per cent for maximum security) commit another crime and are reconvicted within two years (compared to 20 per cent in Norway and 30 per cent in Sweden). There is an innocent victim and loved ones for every crime, whose lives may never be the same.
And it's not culture, or race, or any other factor; Norway and Sweden had reconviction rates as high as ours until the early 1990s when their prisons were radically reformed to focus on rehabilitation. We have the fifth-highest incarceration rate among the OECD countries, more than three times Norway's and Sweden. We have 9000 inmates in prison; Norway, with a similar population, has only 3000. We are building new prisons; Sweden was closing them down.
Why didn't we reform? The Safe and Effective Justice Group (SEJG), appointed by Cabinet, reported in 2019: "It is more than 30 years since two landmark reports- proposed transformative changes to the Criminal Justice in New Zealand. In the decades since, there have been many reports and reviews; none have led decision-makers to undertake fundamental change."
We had only 2000 sentenced prisoners in 1985. Now we have more than three times that, over double the rate of population increase. Rogernomics reforms increased unemployment and poverty levels, turbocharged gang numbers. Harsher penalties and bail conditions are another significant factor. Law changes reacted to a few high-profile crimes, driven by prison populism, rather than sensible, evidence-based changes.
There is simply no evidence that being tough on crime works. The USA, which runs the most brutal prisons, and has the most severe sentences, has an incarceration rate five times the OECD average and a reconviction rate higher than ours.
Contrast our prisons with Norway. Halden Prison looks like a trendy university campus. Each cell has a bed, a small fridge, a bookshelf, a TV, a desk and chair, plus a private bathroom, including a shower, a toilet and a sink. The prison conditions are kept as normal as possible. The prisoners wake up by 7am, can stay up late. Relationships with staff and other prisoners enhance normalcy.
The Ombudsman described the conditions at the Waikeria prison. The cells in the high-security wing were ill-ventilated, uncomfortably hot, rundown and cramped. The toilets had no lids. All meals except lunch were delivered to the cells. They ate their meals near uncovered toilets, which was unsanitary and inappropriate. The bedding was in poor condition: stained, lumpy, torn pillows and mattress covers.
Prisoners segregated due to behaviour issues were locked up 22 hours a day. Prisoners had nothing to do. Dinner was delivered as early as 4pm. Some meals were of poor quality. No access to hot water; made their hot drinks and noodles from hot water in showers. Libraries facilities are limited, mainly stocked with books discarded by the public libraries. They had no access to educational opportunities.
At Auckland Prison, maximum-security prisoners spent 22–23 hours a day locked in cells. A majority of prisoners reported mental health and addiction issues. Less than half felt adequately supported with these issues.
How we treat our prisoners, to put it mildly, is not conducive to rehabilitation. Pay rates of between 20 and 60 cents per hour leave them unable to support their families. Or to save for survival after prison. They have to purchase their own tea, coffee, soap, shampoo, razors with this money. No, we don't provide tea or coffee in our prisons.
Prisoners make toys for children in hospitals during Christmas. The produce they grow is given to charities and food banks. However, Corrections allocates no extra budget for the inmates' Christmas day lunch.
It's two years since the SEJG report advocated far-reaching changes for our criminal justice system. Two years since Corrections launched its five-year plan, 2019-2024 Hokai Rangi, with great fanfare and lofty ideals. We have had many wake-up calls. The burning down of the high-security wing at Waikeria and the terrorism incident. Calls from activists like Kim Wakeman, former head of Corrections.
Has anything improved? Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier was so disappointed that he initiated a systemwide review in May. "In many areas, I have not seen significant and sustained improvements to prisoners' welfare and rehabilitation. This is despite concerns about conditions being raised by me and others and report after report being released calling for change. I simply want to know why."
The Safe and Effective Justice Group report called for changes. "New Zealanders have delivered us a clear message: we cannot wait another 30 years. We cannot afford another generation of hurt".
Will their cries for change be heard? We've been waiting 30 years.
• Kushlan Sugathapala is a researcher and writer on social justice issues.