As we watch the latest violent crimes in New Zealand, no doubt there will be – justified – calls for prisoners to be locked up indefinitely and the key thrown away. There will be calls for cold showers and little or no leisure time. Why give them things that many people outside of jail cannot afford say the proponents?
Umm…. perhaps because sooner or later, with the exception of the very worst, most are going to be released. When they are released the public are going to need to know and be assured that the Joe Prisoner who went in four years ago for aggravated assault now no longer poses a threat, has learnt his lesson and wants to become an actively contributing member of society.
But for that to happen, they must be in a prison environment that acknowledges them as humans who have made a mistake. The ones who are open, honest and show genuine remorse are likely to be out at some point and we need to know that they are ready for release – that they can go and live somewhere and be able to cook their own food, find a job and so on. Locking them up and throwing away the key; degrading them with abuse and demeaning punishments will not achieve that. It will make them worse.
The last thing New Zealand needs is for our court system to wind up like the United States, where privatized prisons are common. These for profit businesses are no way to manage criminals and their pursuit of the almighty dollar over and above being a facility where prisoners do their time and hopefully learn from their wrongs.
But National thought in its nine year tenure that such a model was indeed acceptable practice for managing prisons. Thus we wound up with Mt Eden Fight Club where staff and prisoners regularly duelled and prisoners would encourage fights that would get recorded on camera. And the defenders of such a wayward model seemed to think that prisoners do not deserve better, which suggests to me that the management of prisons then were not serious about the welfare of the prisoners.
This is where one can argue that prisons at that point risk becoming an environment where the inmates develop a festering hatred or anger towards society that they do not know how to keep in check. Thus when a prisoner has done his/her time and is ready for release, the authorities are not so much releasing a prisoner determined to make amends for their wrongs, but a prisoner who is a ticking time bomb likely to commit in the very near future a serious offence .
Has the Labour-led Government learnt from the disastrous experience of having Serco, a multinational that has prison contracts for a host of countries including Australia, run our prisons? Has it learnt from the Mt Eden Fight Club videos that were leaked to media, and made the then Minister for Corrections go into hiding?
I am not sure what the current Minister for Corrections, Kelvin Davis has learnt.
Maybe Mr Davis should look to other countries with different management models than the United States. Finland for example has prisons where there are no guards or gates. One can do a university degree. They can learn to do manual labour and .
It was not always like this in Finland. In the 1960’s it and its Nordic neighbours had some of the highest incarceration rates in the world. The authorities, trying to figure out how to bring them down, started looking at the conditions that the prisoners were imprisoned in. They found that if one imprisons them and then starts to gradually but progressively reimmerse them in normal civilian life, a marked drop in reoffending rates occur.
Similarly Norway has found that its prisoner population is much less prone to recidivism. Prisoners and prison officers mingle interactively. The macho culture of the 1960’s where prisoners were locked up, given little in the way of opportunities to reform, to understand right from wrong and recidivism rates of 60-70% were banished.
Serco might be gone from the New Zealand prison system, but its legacy lingers on. The legacy is that New Zealanders have seen how a profits first prisoners second model can lead to significantly worsened management. They have seen how a dangerously toxic environment where recidivism rates remain high can see prisoners are released in a worse mental than that they went in with.
But will the Government have the courage to do something bold, or will it continue to copy an obviously failed model?