The case for an overhaul of New Zealand’s prisons


It was mentioned yesterday that overcrowding in New Zealand prisons is bringing the penal system to breaking point. Whilst New Zealand does not have the large scale problems of the United States and other countries, the problems posed by the prison system as it currently stands are plenty bad enough.

One can break prisoners down into several groups. There will be a small group whose offending are a symptom of larger problems in their lives – addictions that wound up needing a new source of income to fund their lifestyle, which might have started off as a minor experiment that eventually became all consuming. The range of backgrounds from which these people come might be quite varied, with some coming from normal or relatively normal backgrounds whilst others

If these people can be made to see the harm they are doing and shown how to get help, they might have a future. Acknowledging what they have done is central to the assistance that they get.

Many of the offenders who go to prison know that they have committed a significant wrong – whether they admitted it or not is another thing all together. It might have been a spur of the moment thing such as fleeing from the Police and crashing into another vehicle or an argument that for whatever reason suddenly turned injurious or fatal.

Many of these people will be genuinely remorseful. These are the people who are perhaps least likely to re-offend and deserve a second chance. They are the ones who will probably seek restorative justice opportunities with any victims. They are the ones who might be in stable jobs and have supportive families or spouses who will make sure that they stay on track and help them avoid repeating the circumstances that made them commit the offence in the first place.

There will always be a small group of prisoners who no matter what happens to them will re-offend. These are the ones who need to be locked up indefinitely. These are the offenders who have no care for society, no respect for individuals or property. Among these are the ones who offended for the thrill of it and only regret being caught. This is the group that should have no prospect of release.

These offenders have a high risk of re-offending. They pose a significant threat to the community and monitoring them using tracking devices has a high risk of failing.

The solution of “lock ’em up” is clearly not working in many cases. Too many people are going into jail and coming out in a more dangerous psychological state than that in which they entered. Over crowding of cells just creates an environment where those who are genuinely remorseful or otherwise trying to clean themselves up are being negatively affected.

The privatization of the prisons was a particularly bad idea, and using a foreign multinational company (Serco)to run them was even worse as their accountability was nil. Serco should have been sacked as the contracted company once the organized fights in Mt Eden Prison had been exposed.

Furthermore simply building more prisons, the previous National-led Government proposed to do, just adds to a burgeoning penal system that does not necessarily work. Fixing the prisons is just part of the solution, which will require an inter-agency response. No one ministry is capable of fixing this mess on their own. It will require the input of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Police as well as Department of Corrections.

Whether this Government will understand this is one thing. Acting on that recognition is another thing altogether.

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