Prison – the Last Resort

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 37, Pentecost 2006
By Letitia James

The call by the New Zealand Law Commission to have people in prison serve a greater part of their sentences is worrying. At a time when there is a desperate need for a political cross-party accord on questions relating to law and order, the Law Commission has been unwise to step into the fray with its proposals. While couched in more urbane language, their call appears to be a Kiwi version of the US founded ‘truth in sentencing’ mania which has sent the prison population in the US past the 2.2 million mark and still climbing. Currently 1 in every 136 people in America is in prison. The New Zealand tradition is that normally a prison inmate would serve two thirds of his time. This was the tradition enacted right throughout the British Empire.

In more recent years, it has been amended. In an effort to reduce prison numbers and provide incentives for prison inmates to do life-changing programmes, one third sentences were introduced during the 1990s for certain non-violent offenders. At the same time, some other violent offenders became eligible for a three-quarter or full term sentence.

We already have a major crisis in New Zealand’s imprisonment rate. It is one the government is concerned about. Sadly, it is a crisis largely of its own making. Prison numbers have gone through the roof since Labour came to power in 1999.

The president of the Law Commission, Sir Geoffrey Palmer is quoted as saying, ‘The amount of parole should be reduced: you’re eligible for parole after a third (of sentence has been served) – we think you should be only eligible after two-thirds.’ The deputy president, Warren Young, says that ‘under (current) parole laws prisoners served only about 60 percent of their sentence. Under the new proposals which would raise the eligibility threshold to two-thirds, that would rise to at least 85 percent.’ He did also point out that ‘if you wished to keep sentencing severity as it is now, you would need to reduce court-imposed sentences in order to compensate.’ (ODT, 20 April 2006)

This is worrying talk. It appears to be a simple reversion to sentencing practice prior to 1990. It also seeks to dis-empower the parole board to a large degree. The Law Commission is probably the most prestigious body of its kind in the country. It has a hugely important role in determining law and its effects. This is not just any old lobby group.

The problem with such thinking is that public expectations are now that high sentences are the norm for certain offences. We have got used to higher tariffs. While thinking people would certainly consider reducing these, the tabloid-fed general public and talk-show audiences would reject such talk as being ‘soft on criminals’. If the Law Commission proposals are implemented, the result could well be that prison rates will rise higher in this country and edge even closer to the US. That possibility is indeed troubling.

Prison Crisis

There are many vociferous lobby groups in this country who constantly promote upping the ante in terms of sentencing. The Sensible Sentencing Trust is probably the best known. Its hardline agenda is now quoted in many news stories on crime and sentencing. It’ origins are in a philosophy of vengeance. Justice is not always sought – just harsher penalties. Often a narrow political agenda appears to be at the root of its demands.

We already have a major crisis in New Zealand’s imprisonment rate. It is one the government is concerned about. Sadly, it is a crisis largely of its own making. Prison numbers have gone through the roof since Labour came to power in 1999. The legacy of Phil Goff and Norm Withers continues to haunt us. We rank as second only to the US in our imprisonment rates for western countries. 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.

More than $900 million is currently being spent on new prisons, which includes a $200 million cost blow-out. To meet the expected costs of additional prisons by 2010, a further $1.5 billion and 1800 extra staff will be needed. The national average cost per bed is $300 000. However, each new bed at the new Otago Prison at Milton will cost $650 000. Unbelievable. You could buy a four bed-roomed house on a quarter acre section in most suburbs of New Zealand for this price. Surely this money could be better spent on housing, hospitals, public transport, schools and employment schemes?

Christopher Carey wrote recently (Tui Motu, April 2006) that ‘the continuing high number of offenders being sent to prison in New Zealand is a cause for national shame. 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.’

Effects of Imprisonment

It is hard for ordinary people to understand the damage that imprisonment does to sentenced inmates. From the time they walk in through the gate of the institution, they are treated with a degree of humiliation that is taken for granted by staff but would be regarded as totally unacceptable on the outside. In effect, each inmate is treated as a naughty third former in constant need of being watched. The result is that often the standard of behaviour generally is reduced to that level. Like third formers, most inmates will attempt to beat the system at its own game because maturity is not allowed to flower. When one cannot make even the most simple decisions without permission then one is being treated as an immature juvenile. When one’s mail is opened and read, when one is locked in a small room for hours and hours on end, when one has few if any choices regarding food, company or how to spend one’s time, the net result is a breakdown of self respect and a dependency on the guards for small favours.

Is it any wonder that inmates spend much of their time talking ‘crime’ talk, developing further anti-society thoughts, and wallowing in the ‘stink’ thinking that their addictions bring in with them. Around 80 percent have addiction issues. After all, it is society that tolerates and even encourages our ever-expanding prison system. Is it any wonder that more than 60 percent commit more crime within two years of leaving prison. Take away responsibility, treat adults like children, and what can we expect? The notion that someone might emerge ‘reformed’ is a pipe dream. Prisons warp peoples’ thinking as readily as a book cover is warped from lying in the sun. The miracle is that more destructiveness is not practised on society given the way society readily applies this destructive force on so many.

It has got to be said that there is very little that can be said in favour of prisons. In the Prisons Systems Review in 1989, Sir Clinton Roper, the much respected High Court judge, stated unequivocally, ‘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.’

He is right. How can we contemplate making sentencing longer when they are already long and our prison numbers are so high? Wouldn’t we, and the Law Commission, be much better advised trying to find ways to keep people out of prison who don’t need to be there?

Christian Response

Christians need to think carefully about their attitude to prisons. The evidence is that very little reflective thought is given to them by the majority of Christians. They appear to be simply ‘out of sight and out of mind.’ Yet we know they are not. As recently as 1992, a survey in New Zealand carried out by Massey University showed that the attitudes and values of Christians generally was little different from those of mainstream society.1 There is something missing here. When was the last time that anyone heard a sermon on the morality of imprisonment? I certainly never have. Our schools and church peaching is certainly failing if that attitude remains the case today. We need to ask, have we domesticated the message and teachings of Jesus to the point where they conform to those of the world? Let’s look at the issue of imprisonment.

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus (Luke 4) chose the words of Isaiah 61 to proclaim his mission. The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has appointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to bind up broken hearts, to proclaim liberty to the captives, freedom to those languishing in prison; to announce the year of Yahweh’s favour. Freedom was a central part of the mission of Jesus. He wasn’t joking. Most of his reported ministry was geared to freeing people from illness, sin and social constraints. His death and resurrection heralded a ‘new creation’ where people could grow freely to the potential each carries as a son or daughter of God, a brother or sister of Christ. Social sin, including imprisonment, hinders such growth.

There are two stories in the Acts of the Apostles (Ch 12 and 16) where the disciples are miraculously freed from prisons. In the first case it was Peter who was arrested in Jerusalem on orders from Herod and is placed in maximum security between two guards. In the second case it was Paul and Silas who were in Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony. Some commentators say that these stories indicate that freedom for prisoners included the fact that prisons are themselves places of evil and form part of the principalities and powers of this world. The miraculous releases in Acts reflect the overcoming of the power of this world through the power of God. ‘The problem is not that prisons have failed to forestall violent criminality and murderous rampages; the problem is that prisons are identical in spirit to the violence and murder that they pretend to combat. The biblical discernment of the spirit of the prison demythologises our pretences. Whenever we cage people, we are in reality fuelling and participating in the same spirit we claim to renounce. In the biblical understanding, the spirit of the prison is the spirit of death.’2

These are powerful words carrying the same explosive message that threw fear into the hearts of the established order in the time of Jesus. They challenge our perceived wisdom that lots of people need to be locked away in prison. They threaten the very foundations of much of our law today, especially in relation to mandatory sentencing, longer sentences, imprisonment for life with lengthy non-parole periods and preventative detention. How can these things be without an outcry from those who have reflected on the Word of Jesus in scripture and noted the effects that imprisonment has on the lives of the incarcerated?


Some people commit horrific crimes and need to be kept in safe security for their own good and the protection of the community. No doubt about that. But many commentators say that only about 10% of the current prison population fits this category. Alternatives should be available for the rest. Resources for victims need to expand. Restorative justice and victim-offender mediation processes need to be more readily available. We could make more use of diversion and probation. Habilitation centres for drug/alcohol and sexual offenders should be revisited.

The notion that imprisonment should be an automatic penalty available to the state on an ever-widening basis is one that needs to be challenged. While it is accepted that prisoners are often imprisoned for violence against people, we assert unequivocally that prisons also damage people. As such they are systems of violence. They enslave rather than free. In as much as they do that, they are opposed to the gospel. Jesus came teaching a way of non-violence which would lead to the creation of the Peaceable Kingdom. That sits at the heart of our Good News. Prisons therefore should not be used as a means of social control and punishment.

The Law Commission needs to be careful as it treads the path of parole board reform and extending prison sentences. We could well end up being an even more imprisoned society.

1 Alan Webster & Paul Perry, What Difference Does it Make? Values and Faith in a Shifting Culture. Alpha Publications, Palmerston North, 1992.

2 Lee Griffith, The Fall of the Prison, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993, p106

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