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.

How to deter people from fleeing the Police


Mike Yardley, a columnist for The Press wrote a column that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the newspaper. In it he questioned whether people stopped by the cops would run from armed Police. Mr Yardley’s article was provocative. It got me thinking about how to reduce the number of car chases involving the Police, the number of fatalities that occur as a result of these chases.

One thing is clear. Mr Yardley’s suggestion that cops be armed when they check people is flagrant alarmism. New Zealand Police are largely not armed for very good reasons. There is no reason on Earth why we should arm them in a knee jerk fashion without stopping to consider how an already dodgy equation when it comes to being stopped, now suddenly becomes potentially very volatile.

In saying this, I think Mr Yardley might have had another intention in mind. That intention would be to get people thinking about the folly of fleeing the Police, and merely used armed officers as a suggestion because he knew it would get a reaction.

When a Police officer signals for a person to pull over, obviously they should. Most will do so without any problems and co-operate when the officer approaches the car. But there will be a few whose “fight or flight” instincts kick in, and they choose to flee. It could be for any reason or reasons – narcotics, or laundered money might be in the car; the car might be stolen; the car might be sought in relation to another offence; the driver might have someone in it that the Police are looking to arrest.

I have my own solution to the problem. Like Mr Yardley, I was disgusted by the incident that took Mrs Yanko’s life. How to fix the problem? A deterrent needs to be strong enough to make one think twice before engaging in such a silly act. In the end my solution is quite simple. If a person flees from the Police when they are signalled to stop, then – assuming no previous crimes have been committed:

  • Overnight in a cell for a first time offender with a previously clean record and a warning that the next such offence will be a week, plus $1,000 fine
  • For second time offenders a week in the cells plus the $1,000 fine, payable the day they are released
  • For third time offenders, a month in prison plus either $1,000 or 100 hours community service

I should stress – and I do not think I can do this strongly enough – that this is merely dealing with those who flee from the Police. It is not dealing with any other offences outstanding, or which they might be charged for on the day. The punishment for other offences come in on top of this.

It does not matter what sort of stop they were trying to flee from – alcohol/drug check point; search for a criminal or contraband; dangerous driving or otherwise. I wonder how many people would be seriously tempted to flee the Police if they knew that their criminal record – which might, up to that point not exist at all – will get an instant blotch by their name. I wonder how many might have thought of the consequences for their future plans, such as overseas trips and applying for certain types of jobs before they flee the Police

But I think we can agree on one thing now: Running from the Police is a really daft idea that simply is not worth the costs.

The folly of running from the cops


Yesterday a tragedy occurred in Nelson that was completely avoidable. A person in a stolen car made and his companion made the mistake of trying to flee the Police. Unfortunately in doing so, they crossed the centre line at speed in the vehicle and crashed into an oncoming car, killing the innocent driver of the other vehicle as well.

Every year people make the mistake of fleeing from the Police. Sometimes they get away. Sometimes they get caught and sometimes it all ends in tragedy either because the Police continued a chase they later admitted should have been abandoned, or more often, it has been abandoned, but the fleeing vehicle crashes anyway.

So, now, we have three funerals in the early stages of being planned, because one person fled from the Police.

Common sense as well as Police orders require anyone signalled by the Police to stop, to do so. Police admitted last year that about 300 fleeing driver incidents happened a month or about 10 a day; 3650 a year.

I believe that a few potential causes for such behaviour exist and that they need to be acted on:

  • Under funding the traffic cops to monitor peoples behaviour on the roads. The division of the Police dedicated to the roads was wound up under the National led Government of Prime Minister Jim Bolger.
  • The absence of an effective deterrent may make people think that all they will be given is the equivalent of a wet bus ticket slapped on their wrist with no consequences
  • Parental responsibility needs more legal emphasis on it – parents need to make sure their youngsters understand that running from the cops is just going to make it worse for them when they get caught

There are steps that can be taken. Every person undertaking driving instruction should at some point be made to attend a defensive driving course and as a part of that, sit a test that demonstrates knowledge of defensive driving. As part of that course, a Police officer should talk to the participants and explain to them their legal responsibilities and what will happen if they are not upheld.

Another step is radically tightening the deterrent. I suggest automatic loss of their driver licence for a year or one month in jail. Given the gravity with which society views people who have done jail time and/or lost their licence for traffic offences, the decline of their social status, this will – if made clear to all New Zealanders – make the vast majority think twice before committing such a daft act. Those that don’t are the ones the proverbial book should be thrown at.

Reaction to compensation row challenges perceptions about released prisoners


Yesterday there was an article about a man who in 2000 was detained inappropriately in an isolation cell. John Vogel was made to spend 23 hours alone in an isolation cell without any contact – telephone, visitors or radio – and was only permitted an hour a day for showering and exercising.

Mr Vogel was found to have chronic depression which was exacerbated by a drug addiction. He asked for the isolation in an attempt to kick the drug habit. The law permits not more than 15 consecutive days in isolation. Mr Vogel was in solitary confinement for 21 days.

I do not condone Mr Vogel’s offending. Murder is a very serious offence to commit under any circumstances, and drug offending is heavily frowned upon as well. Understandably there is a very negative reaction when someone commits one or both of these things.

But when the corrections system goes too far and he is punished beyond what New Zealand law and New Zealand’s international obligations permit, the reaction of people on social media suggests that this is quite okay. The argument is that as a criminal he has lost all of his rights and some go so far as to suggest that the system is not going far enough.

One day in the future Mr Vogel will be released from prison. When prisoners are released from prison they need to have somewhere to live. They need an income and have some means of obtaining a source of income. Society likes to jail serious offenders for obvious reasons, but it does not like to acknowledge the fact that once a prisoner has done their jail time and the Parole Board deems him/her fit for release back into the community, there is no legal ground for continuing to detain a prisoner.

How does society want the prisoner to be released? I sometimes ask people this to see if they have considered what happens once a prisoner has done their time. Some people try to turn the question back on me by pointing out his offences, which is beside the point as the hypothetical prisoner I am talking about has done it and has to be released.

So how should a prisoner be released? If society don’t want him/her to be back in jail at their expense and the prisoner is fully reformed, then they deserve to be given a chance to rebuild their lives and start being useful members of society again. There will be employers who are prepared to give them a chance and community networks who are prepared to give them a go, but will society at large accept that hypothetical prisoner has done his/her time?

No one wants an angry prisoner, infuriated with society and a burning hatred of humans and the law to be released and hopefully the Parole Board will see the warning signs. In the event such people are released, it is perhaps a failure of the corrections system to not provide proper oversight to the Parole Board. Such prisoners are dangerous and can potentially commit much worse crimes than the ones that sent them to jail in the first place.

If an ex-prisoner is released and no support is in place, this presents a situation potentially as dangerous as releasing an already disgruntled one into society. Would people prefer that, or a released prisoner who is rebuilding his or her life, has renounced crime and is wanting to be a role model for other soon to be released prisoners?

I think I know the answer to that one.

The New Zealand social emergency created by National


As we move further into the first term of the new Government, it is starting to become clear that there is a significant crisis in New Zealand society. The issues fuelling this crisis are numerous and varied, and none started on the watch of the recently ousted National-led Government. But in nine years in office these symptoms advanced far enough that combined they now pose an immediate and direct threat to New Zealand society.

National has in effect created a social emergency. The failure to address despite repeated warnings that there were problem emerging with housing, health, social welfare and justice have combined to create conditions where the so called market has left behind sections of New Zealand society whose deprivation is feeding social decay.

The conditions created consist of a combination of contributing factors. They include but are not limited to:

  • Drug addled neighbourhoods with police struggling to contain the epidemic of methamphetamine, synthetic cannabis and other harmful substances
  • Absentee parents/caregivers and a break down of parental/caregiver responsibility
  • Rampant truancy and young people leaving school with no qualifications, and no jobs or training to go to
  • School children living in inadequate housing, constantly having to move and living in conditions that are not compliant with basic human rights or housing law
  • Housing rents eating up money for food, clothes, medical expense – children go to school hungry and/or distracted

The problems start in the home or at school, but often end in a police cell. The following is a brief synopsis of how a person might go downhill. I am not suggesting that all people in such circumstances will experience this – indeed there are many fantastic parents who care very much, who go without themselves and try to be a positive influence in their child’s life, but in socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods, this is a real issue.

In the first instance at home or school, they have no food and often start the day on an empty stomach, are irritable or distracted. A failure to be settled in one spot for any length of time will mean the child has trouble settling in at school, distracted by problems at home. Over time this may fuel other problems, because the student will start getting into trouble, picking fights, associating with the wrong crowd. At home the parent/caregiver might be working long hours to make sure there is enough money to pay rent and will not be at home at critical times such as when they have homework or need underage supervision, so the children start misbehaving. At school the teachers realize that the person or people in question have a discipline problem. Homework is not being done, and the student is disruptive, argumentative. It begins to escalate with children missing school and truancy officers picking them up. At this point, the child is at an intersection in their life. At this stage the choice is stark. The child unless there is substantial intervention by the parent, the school and potentially social social workers will either leave or wind up being expelled from school with poor prospects for the future.

It never needed to be like this. And the long term cost to society, the economy and the people who know the child are substantial. If s/he devolves into drugs, then a life of crime and prison awaits. If s/he tries to turn themselves around their past – especially if a criminal history is involved – may catch up with them and hinder their future development.

This is why there is a significant and dangerous poverty issue in New Zealand. It has the potential to fuel illegal substances, crime, violence and gangs, none of which are welcome or wanted. All of which are horrendously destructive and all of which we need to shut down.