Charlie and Jerry expect to spend the rest of their lives on the dole, in front of a TV or Playstation and eating instant noodles.

These two older former prisoners live in Whanganui and have no hope of jobs or home ownership.

An existence of Playstation, television and cheap noodle meals stretches ahead as far as they can see.

This isn't what Corrections Department staff want to hear. But it's the fate of many former prisoners and it's not helping anybody. The National-led Government wants change, because it will save costs. Organisations such as Rethinking Crime and Punishment have been pushing for change for years, and Quakers held their latest seminar on prison reform in Whanganui earlier this month.


Jerry has been in prison many times, for dealing drugs. During his last prison sentence he started reading a Bible and became a Christian. He now does voluntary work for a Christian organisation and can look forward to one good meal a week, after church.

Charlie was imprisoned for unlawful sexual connection and is not allowed to associate with people Under 17. He served a three-year sentence - the last year only because no accommodation could be found for him outside prison.

Alcohol and marijuana had a slight influence on his offending, but he says he wasn't addicted. It was being in a Christchurch programme for a group of 30 sex offenders that changed him. He's seen grown men crying because of what they have done and in that group everyone knew when the others were lying.

The best thing he got from prison was quitting smoking - but he said prison has ruined him as well. He's now separated from his family and has to apply to see his son. He knows the boy is disappointed in him.

Charlie and Jerry are both living in houses provided through a Whanganui's Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society (PARS) arrangement with property investors. They get $196 a week from the dole, plus an accommodation benefit of $45. They can only afford to pay $140 a week in rent.

After rent and expenses Jerry has $60 to $70 a week to live on, and Charlie has $50. He often can't afford to top up his mobile phone. His existence is television, a computer, visits to the library and getting around town on a bicycle.

Jerry's drug dealing was fuelled by a desire for money. He was shocked when he went back to his family and saw what his drug money had done for them. The luxuries it had bought were not appreciated, or looked after. His daughter was on P and had lost her children.

Both men are grateful to Whanganui PARS, for finding them places to live and supporting them. Its manager, Steve Treloar, has been in the job for 26 years. He says it's the refreshing realness of prisoners that keeps him in the job.

"What you see is what you get. There's no pretence. You can meet one to one, without wearing masks."

He said prisoners can be very thoughtful. There's one "lifer" who reads architecture and Wordsworth's poetry.

"I've been amazed at some of the thought-provoking things some of the inmates come out with."

The buildings and grounds of Whanganui Prison, including the large plant nursery at back. Photo Bevan Conley.
The buildings and grounds of Whanganui Prison, including the large plant nursery at back. Photo Bevan Conley.

Steve says Whanganui Prison is one of the best in the country. He attributes that to long-staying staff, who know many of the inmates will end up living in their town. He's watched prison officers and released prisoners shaking hands in the street.

The prison programmes for Maori and people with alcohol and drug issues are good, though under resourced, he says. And after an initial shake-down prisoners are only locked in their cells from 9pm to 7am.

Many work - in the kitchen, in the laundry, making precast concrete or wooden furniture or in a huge plant nursery. The pay is low, but some manage to save money that's helpful on their release.

They are sent away to specialist programmes - for sex offenders Auckland or Christchurch, for violent offenders Rimutaka Prison near Wellington.

They are assessed on arrival and matched with programmes that meet their needs. Some complete NCEA, others get driver licences, some do tertiary courses by correspondence, others are taught about parenting. The courses are stepped up before they are released, to form patterns they can continue.

Jan Smith was one of the speakers at the Whanganui seminar on prison reform and is one of five managers at the prison. She expects prison officers to get to know inmates and to help them.

"You have to get to know who they are and understand them. I'm not asking you to like them. But they are people and we have a responsibility to deal with them decently, with humanity and some compassion."

Inmates have often had a rough life and don't easily trust officers trying to help them, she said.

"Sometimes you have to prove you're trustworthy by continuing to be there and have abuse thrown at you. Eventually you get to the next bit."

Despite the relative humanity of Whanganui Prison, being locked up is a punishment, Steve says. "You are told to get up. You eat what you have to eat. You only have two choices in the day - when to go to the toilet and which of four TV channels to watch."

Jerry and Charlie say you would lose weight if you only had prison food - two Weet-Bix and two toast for breakfast, an apple a day, three sandwiches for lunch with the jam spread thinly. Most prisoners have a little bit of money and they buy extra food - at dairy prices.

They can be moved from one prison to another with only an hour's warning, and be unable to tell their families. Gangs dominate the mainstream prison units, Jerry said, and you have to watch your back. Here the gangs are mostly Mongrel Mob and Black Power - but there are Head Hunters and White Power in other places. They recruit new members by offering protection.

"Some of the young fellows are scared and they want to be looked after in there. Then they get caught up in it."

Young people also learn more about crime, by comparing notes with others. Older inmates are usually past that.

Prison does give people a lot of time to think, Jan said, once their addictions to alcohol and drugs have worn off. Some of them have never been taught to think and consider others.

"A lot of prisoners are there because they react, with their emotions. It's "I want, I want", like a 3-year-old. They need to give it some thought, get some wisdom, know themselves and know their weaknesses."

Being in prison is easy in a way - no difficult choices to make.

"You can just go there and sit on your arse all day," Charlie said.

It gets tough when you get out.

It's very difficult to find rental accommodation, and most employers don't take on former inmates. Jerry doesn't wait for them to ask the question any more.

"Now I tell them, because they're going to find out anyway. I will ask them if they will give me a chance."

People leaving prison have a cheque for $350, an amount unchanged since Ruth Richardson's 1991 Budget. It has to last them more than two weeks before they can get a benefit.

Those who own property either can't get insurance, or have to pay higher premiums. If they can't get insurance their property isn't covered against natural hazards by EQC - which Steve says is "iniquitous". Landlords who rent to former inmates find it difficult to get insurance as well.

"Who's the criminal here? Insurance companies make huge money," Jan said.

Steve wants to see big changes to the prison and justice system. Sentences have got tougher and parole harder to get, ramping New Zealand's imprisonment rate up to the point where, in the Western world, it's second only to the United States - by far the highest imprisoner.

The country is becoming punitive, an Old Testament eye-for-an-eye approach to justice rather than a New Testament one of repaying your sin, sorting it out with the victim and getting on with life. The Sensible Sentencing Trust has to take some responsibility for this, Steve said.

Society's "holier than thou" attitude to former prisoners is unfair.

"Crime has its origins within the community. Drink driving comes from society's attitude to alcohol. Burglars would be out of business if people didn't buy stolen property.

"The community needs to take responsibility for the crime that's within it," Steve said.

Harsher sentences don't stop people reoffending.

Instead they get "institutionalised" - unable to cope outside prison. He says the "three strikes" law is ridiculous and there are only about five per cent of offenders who cannot be changed.

Twenty-five years ago Finland was going down the same incarceration route as New Zealand. Then it had a rethink.

Now most of its prisons are "open". Inmates sleep there, but most of them go out to work during the day. In Finland 57 people per 100,000 population are in prison. In New Zealand it's 202 per 100,000.

Keeping people in prison is expensive, and that tax money would be better spent on social services that would keep people out of prison. The effort of prisons could be turned around - to make inmates into taxpayers who benefit the economy instead of draining it.

Steve and Jan recommend a restorative Scandinavian approach and say there is a lot of research to back it. That's not to ignore punishment - a lot of inmates agree they should be punished. But it should be mixed with rehabilitation.

"The focus should be when, and how, is this person going to come out, and is he going to be a better person or a worse person. The community has to pick up the ball and run with some of these things if they want things to change."

Jan says prisons can make a difference.

"I believe people can change, and I believe that given the right circumstances I can make a difference or my staff can make a difference in people's lives. That's, in the main, why prison officers do their jobs. They want to make a difference and they want a safer society."