70 Business Leaders Come Together on Prison Issues

By Communications Manager, Henwood Trust

I’ve long felt that we need a circuit breaker in the debate about the role of prison in the justice system.

Maybe yesterday will prove to have been it. A very eclectic group of leading and influential New Zealanders converged on Te Papa for a full day debate on the topic, under Chatham House rules. The Henwood Trust and Robson Hanan Trust convened the event, Sir Stephen Tindall chaired it, and Emeritus Professor David Brown of NSW University was the keynote speaker. You can learn more about David Brown in today’s DominionPost or hear him on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to noon show of 26 May.

Chatham House is Chatham House, so no tales out of school! But there were some very powerful and universal messages from the Forum. What I’ve recorded below is my own takeout as one who is a relative newcomer to these complex but hugely important issues.

Emeritus Professor Brown, a Kiwi Expat who still cheers for the All Blacks, gave a very wide ranging presentation focusing on the global trend towards “justice reinvestment” – reducing the cost of incarceration and reinvesting in stopping the causes of crime. We need to re-frame the debate, he argued. It should move on from debating the number of inmates, and instead deal with the question “is incarceration the most effective way to increase public safety?” The debate worldwide needed to shift away from being “defined by the politics of staying in government.”

David drew on figures comparing per capita incarceration rates across the Australian States. There were major differences. Some could be explained by socio-economic or demographic factors. But as he pointed out, there is no such ready explanation why NSW locks up twice as many people as Victoria. More likely, the answer lies in the more extensive support measures that the latter State puts into social support mechanisms.

One point that explains the increase in recent decades is the systematic closure of mental institutions – “tipping mental health patients out of hospital into prison.”

But it was David Brown’s contention that prisons might actually increase crime that had the audience sitting up. He listed a string of ways that incarceration actually increases the propensity to re-offend, including:

  • Educating criminals about how to commit crime
  • Fracturing families and removing support mechanisms, however fragile
  • Hardening and brutalising inmates
  • The effect of incarceration on mental health
  • Deskilling, loss of personal and family networks, replacement by prison networks
  • Third party effects on family and community

He dealt with the effect on communities where very high percentages of the population were imprisoned. This, he said, leads to “normalisation” of prison and dilutes the deterrent effect – it can even become a badge of honour. The Aboriginal community provided one such illustration where 20% of aboriginal kids have a parent or carer in prison.

David’s session resulted in lively debate among the audience of business leaders, educationists, politicians, economists and others. Discussion ensued about cost-effective programmes within communities to reduce crime - education in prison, adult drug treatment, quality foster care and many more.  A strong theme started to emerge that moderate, thinking people need to win the hearts and minds of the mass of the public around these issues – the extremists who fulminate about them on talkback radio, as one attendee noted, are not necessarily a cross section of public opinion.

There is an assumption among politicians that the public is inherently punitive. But this needs to be measured and challenged – if people are given the full facts the apparent punitiveness falls away. Politicians would not constantly campaign on this if they did not believe there were votes in it, and in some cases the desire to “get tough” is in reality an expression of fear and bewilderment about other societal changes.

One interesting suggestion – it might be cheaper to provide some inmates with a full time security guard and possibly a social worker, than keep them in jail.

Long term campaigner Kim Workman of the Robson Hanan Trust gave an excellent overview from his vast store of information, anecdotes, and accumulated wisdom. His slide set is here. I’ve heard Kim frequently but always learn some new stuff – yesterday he focused on some of the gloomier trends in New Zealand – Maori and Pacifica share of the prison population is growing, recidivism is increasing, and sentence lengths are increasing. Around 70% of today’s prisoners will be out in a few months and because there is so little time probably won’t have the benefit of any support programmes whilst inside. There’s no effective reintegration strategy.

Lots more discussion ensued. It emerged that very often the direction given by judges about reform and support programmes simply do not get carried out. Trends like assigning prisoners to shipping containers, double bunking, and 22 hours per day lock up – all cost saving measures – exacerbate this.

And here’s a telling statistic. Children of prisoners are 6 times more likely to become prisoners themselves, than across the general population.

It seems there’s grossly insufficient training of prisoners in useful trades. In Europe, businesses take ex prisoners on their staff – maybe we should challenge employers in NZ to have a policy to take them instead of commonly advertising jobs with a stipulation “no criminal convictions”? Singapore has tried this with some success. After all, most offenders stop offending around the age of 25 and by 35 are invisible. We’ve got to take some risks if we want to get on top of the problem.

So where to from here?

There was an overwhelming desire to do something. Many speakers during the day urged a stronger, more visible lobby to promote new ways of dealing with these issues. The message needs to go to politicians that there’s a great wave of support for a new look at all these issues based on quality research, real international experience, and a broader look at the underlying causes. We’ve got to get away from thinking of prisons as a self-contained sector of the economy in their own right, examine more widely the broad ecosystem of societal change in which they exist, and look to solve the causes along with the symptoms. Clearly, more of the same won’t do.

Its not whether crime should be punished – clearly it must. It’s a question of how you punish, for how long, and what you about the causes of offending.

In a timely lead-in to this function, Finance Minister Bill English recently described prisons as a “moral and fiscal outrage.” Hear, hear to that. Sadly they always have and always will be a necessity in any society, but the increase in scale demands a better quality response than merely building more of them and treating inmates the same way.

Will yesterday prove to have been the moment when New Zealand society started to call for change? I sincerely hope so. There was certainly a very powerful mandate given and the two trusts are now considering a way forward.




Opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Henwood Trust nor its Trustees.

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