Prison Numbers – A Growing Scandal

Jim Consedine

November 2006

It is naïve to believe that imprisonment holds the answer to a rising crime rate. Given the fact that prisons have failed both as a deterrent and rehabilitative measure, it follows that their central role in the criminal justice system must be displaced.

Sir Clinton Roper, Prisons Review, 1989

The continuing high number of offenders being sent to prison in New Zealand is a cause for national shame. As of February 2006, 7651 people were in prison. Ministry of Justice figures indicate that 9000 could be in jail within three years. This is double the 1995 figure of 4500.

Several significant things have happened since the days of Roper optimism. Firstly, the referendum of 1999 resulted in longer sentences, mandatory sentences and a climate of shrillness about crime that far outweighs the reality. Secondly, the habilitation centres promoted by Roper were eventually partially accepted by government, then highjacked by bureaucrats. The rules of entry and eligibility were changed. The concept was strangled at birth.

Thirdly, the power of the prison officer unions, victims’ lobby groups and the Corrections Department bureaucracy has grown immensely. Fourthly, restorative justice was enacted by government as a complementary form of justice, rather than as an alternative to the retributive system.

New Zealanders have an infatuation with punishment. We are punishment crazy. What does it say about the sickness of our national psyche that we punish so many so harshly? It has been a decade in which serious crime rates have been declining. Yet hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent on new prisons, perimeter fences, razor wires and drug surveillance measures.

The prison system itself is sick. Overcrowding prevails, prisoners are locked for longer, prison work has been cut from 43% to 35%, and last year the prison education budget was underspent by 44% while one of two specialist drug and alcohol treatment facilities was closed. Several prisons do not have libraries. A new ‘booking’ system for prison visits has cut visitors numbers and weakened prisoners links with their families. As John Witty, PARS national director, said recently, ‘prisoners are being turned into vegetables’

The blowout on prison costs is breathtaking. More than $900 million is currently being spent on new prisons, which includes a $200 million cost blowout. To meet the expected costs of additional prisons by 2010, a further $1.5 billion and 1800 extra staff will be needed. Each new bed costs $300 000. What couldn’t this money do for waiting lists at hospitals, resourcing in schools, health clinics, employment schemes and community development projects?

Why does New Zealand imprison at a greater rate than Australia, England, Ireland, and every other European country? What is there to be gained from putting grown adults into a six by four metre cell and leaving them locked there for days, months, years? Do we really think that Jesus would tolerate that? We’d be crucified if we locked up a child or a dog like that. Yet we do it to adults by the thousand.

Government ministers Damian O’Connor and Mark Burdon are to be commended on their efforts to rein in this escalating disaster. They will need vision and moral courage. The way forward requires greater use of community-based alternatives including diversion, suspended sentences, home detention, restorative justice, probation and community work. And for the politicians, nothing less than a cross-party accord on future law and order policy making, similar to the one on superannuation. To continue to ratchet up imprisonment rates as an election ploy has become unconscionable.

For Christians penal reform is an imperative. ‘Visiting the imprisoned’ may not always take a literal form but it is one of the corporal works of mercy taught by Jesus. Even if we can’t physically visit the imprisoned, supporting other’s efforts to treat the imprisoned humanely is something with which we are all charged. The ministers need to know they have our support.

New Zealand was the birthplace of women’s emancipation and the nuclear-free legislation. We were also the birthplace of family group conferences, habilitation centres and restorative justice processes, seeing them as non-violent redemptive Christ-driven ways of facing conflict and dealing with offending.

Our rising prison numbers are a sin against God and a blot on our social conscience. The feasts of Good Friday and Easter challenge us to think with the mind of Christ, ‘to build the New Creation.’ Surely it is not full of prisons!

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