When the Corrections Department was given an open brief six years ago to suggest ways to reduce our swelling ranks of prisoners, it suggested looking at the "lifecycle" of offenders.

It was no use just trying to turn people's lives around once they had arrived in prison.

The department proposed starting before birth by educating future parents about birth control, parenting and relationships.

Not much has been done. But there are a few small-scale projects aiming to bring some of our most alienated citizens into mainstream society.

In Auckland, the Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society is trialling a family support scheme, Te Hokinga Mai (Returning Home), which reconnects estranged prisoners to their families before they leave jail.

"For well over half of all the prisoners we see, the family has closed the door because they've had enough," a worker says.

"They have to get a supporter - someone in the community that is going to be supportive to them. They come round when there is someone else, when they are not carrying all the load."

A self-help group of prisoners' families, Pillars, also provides counselling and support to families.

"My dream is a retreat centre for [newly released] prisoners to go to from prison with their families for a week or two to ground themselves away from the phone calls, the buddies and all of that," says president Fiona King.

Secure, well-paid work is also a proven antidote to crime. Our crime rate has dropped by 27 per cent since 1993 as unemployment has shrunk from 11.5 per cent in 1991 to 3.6 per cent. Like anyone else, prisoners have more confidence and energy to care for others if they have secure jobs.

"For example, I understand there's a great shortage of truck drivers," says Prisoners' Aid national secretary John Whitty. "Wouldn't it be a good idea if a lot of prisoners were trained in the isolated prisons like Turangi and enabled to get their licences for truck driving?"

New groups are springing up to meet new needs. Richard Aston, founder of Big Buddy, says mentoring can help reduce youth crime.

"Big Buddy recruits volunteer male mentors, screens them and matches them with fatherless boys," he says.

In Wellington, a Prison Fellowship scheme called Operation Jericho matches prisoners in Rimutaka Prison's 60-bed, faith-based unit with mentors in local churches. Like the walls of the biblical city of Jericho, the barriers between prisoners and the community are broken down, and the mentors keep supporting the prisoners for at least two years after release.

The Corrections Department has agreed to establish a second faith-based unit, probably at a northern North Island prison next year. Operation Jericho will come with it.

In Hamilton, Corrections and Prisoners' Aid run a 10-week course for violent offenders near the end of their jail sentences in a big two-storey home, Montgomery House.

Manager Ratapu Rangiawha supervises a unique combination of Maori culture and cognitive behavioural therapy, which identifies bad behaviour patterns and replaces them with better ways of thinking.

History suggests it is possible to turn social decline and crime around. From about 1810 to the mid-1840s, the rate of serious offences in England and Wales rose four-fold. Yet by around 1900, the British crime rate was almost back to where it started.

After the "great disruption" of the early industrial revolution, new ways of caring for one another - friendly societies, unions, mothers' groups, socially oriented churches - had replaced the old extended family.

People had "reconstructed" a new social order.

Today, crime and jail rates are again three to five times higher than they were a generation ago. The challenge for our generation is to reconstruct a safe, caring society in the three spheres of human life - family, work and community. How we turn around offenders - a key role of our prisons - is part of that challenge.

Dr Sandy Simpson, who heads the Mason Clinic for mentally ill offenders, says isolating offenders is a sign of "social poor health".

'Manurewa lawyer Iuni Sapolu, who rents out a house to released prisoners, says society needs to be more pro-active in providing relevant courses for prisoners.

"A lot of these people are very good people, but they have been abused themselves," she says. "If we can address those underlying issues, they are capable of being rehabilitated."

Prison rate shows little effect on crime

Finland has cut its imprisonment rate by two-thirds in the past 50 years, with no apparent effect on the crime rate one way or the other.

In 1950, the country jailed its citizens at roughly the same rate as New Zealand does now, about 185 prisoners for every 100,000 people.

In a review 50 years later, Tapio Lappi-Seppala, of the Finnish Institute of Legal Policy, said Finnish judges, lawyers and politicians were ashamed of this high level, which contrasted with rates of around 50 per 100,000 in the other three Scandinavian countries (56 then in New Zealand).

On their own initiative, judges started sentencing people to less time in jail. Between 1950 and 1965 the average unconditional prison sentence fell from 13 months to seven months.

In the 1970s, politicians backed up the judges with two key law changes. Penalties for theft, and then for drink driving, were changed from prison to fines and conditional imprisonment, where offenders stayed out of jail as long as they did not reoffend.

A new sentence of community service was introduced in 1994 to replace short jail terms.

The result has been a dramatic drop in the imprisonment rate to 66 for every 100,000 people, in line with the other Nordic nations.

Yet Finland's crime rate has kept on rising through the period almost exactly in parallel with its neighbours, staying just above Norway but below Sweden and Denmark.

"These figures confirm, once again, the general criminological conclusion that crime rates rise and fall according to laws and dynamics of their own, and sentencing policies in turn develop and change according to dynamics of their own; these two systems are fairly independent of one another," Lappi-Seppala writes.

Lappi-Seppala and Victoria University criminologist John Pratt cite American studies showing that it would take a 25 per cent increase in the imprisonment rate (for New Zealand, that would be from 185 to 231 per 100,000) to reduce the crime rate by 1 per cent. 


Volunteers are welcome in New Zealand prisons. Main contacts:

Corrections Department: Use link below

Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society: Kaikohe (09) 405-3334; Whangarei (09) 438- 3561; Auckland (09) 630-0862; Hamilton (07) 839-3531; Tauranga (07) 578-2234; Whakatane (07) 308-7451; Rotorua (07) 348-0005; Turangi (07) 386-8246.

Prison Fellowship: Kaikohe (09) 401-2822; Auckland (09) 279- 2959; Hamilton (07) 849-1669; Tauranga (07) 544-2463; Rotorua (07) 357-4704.

Prison Chaplaincy Service: (09) 379-3018; local chaplains on website.

Prisoners' families: Pillars (Prison Inmates' Loved ones Linked As one to Renew Strength): (09) 631-0575.