A Policy A Day: Incarceration and Privatisation

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that — after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available here. Enjoy!

Today’s post is written anonymously.

In New Zealand, we have a “she’ll be right” culture, but sometimes we need to look at issues from an “it’s broken” view point. One such issue is the state of our corrections system. At the end of March, New Zealand’s prison population reached 10,035. This number was nearly a thousand more than the Justice Sector 2015–2025 forecast had predicted. Why is this population continuously rising when we are constantly being reassured by the government that crime is down? Why are people reoffending? With the General Election less than a month away, these are the questions that we should be asking the different political parties. To get people asking these important questions, let me walk you through the state of our corrections system in New Zealand, using New Zealand’s atrociously high family violence rate as a case study.

Incarceration

In New Zealand, we punish people through incarcerating them [putting them in prison]. Incarceration is a criminal sanction, which is in place to serve and to reinforce the cherished values and beliefs of society, while also incapacitating and deterring those who may be considering criminal misconduct. For many law abiding citizens, this form of punishment is sufficient, and they are happy with the way things are. What these people don’t understand is that incarceration is a form of resocialisation which involves the inmates personally changing.

When people are incarcerated they tend to adopt norms and/or beliefs that are representative of an inmate subculture. Institutions such as prisons create and maintain a kind of tension between the home world of the inmate and the institutional world, and use the persistent tension as a strategic leverage in the management of the inmates.

Along with the negative changes that incur due to adapting to the inmate subculture, inmates also steadily lose their capacity to not only exert power but also to control their destiny while they serve time in prison. Incarcerated life is fully routinised and regimented with very few opportunities for inmates to make decisions or to even exert choice within their daily routine. Upon entering the place of incarceration, the offender is stripped of his or her conception of themselves as well as from the support they would receive from the outside.

Why Incarceration Doesn’t Work

However, this form of punishment is obviously not working as a treatment. We just have to look at the prevalence of family violence in New Zealand to see this. It is thought that in New Zealand, one in four children witness family violence.

It is often asserted that the “cycle of violence” is learnt and passed down from generation to generation, within one’s family. This is due to parenting techniques being learnt from parents and thus abused children become abusing parents. This form of abuse and family violence can span over multiple relationships and generations, making it intergenerational.

If incarceration was a sufficient treatment for inmates, we should have lower family violence rates because perpetrators upon leaving prisons would have left the violence behind and thus would not teach it to their children. But because prisons don’t rehabilitate and they don’t educate inmates, we continue to see people reoffending and in some cases teaching their children to do the same.

Violence is a learnt social behaviour that has also manifested through youth offending. Violent offending by young people is a societal concern especially when youth account only for 5% of New Zealand’s population but make up 10% of New Zealand’s violent apprehensions. This is made even more concerning when one finds out that from 1995 to 2006 there was a 39% increase in youth apprehensions for violent offending, whereas for their adult counterparts there was only a 22% increase.

The effect privatisation of prisons has on incarceration

A scary thing about our corrections system is that we can and have tendered out the running of prisons to organisations such as Serco — this process is known as privatisation of prisons. The problem with privatised prisons is that many of the organisations that run these prisons do not care about the inmates, the conditions of the prison, or adequate staffing levels and/or training. What these organisations do care about is ensuring that at the end of each quarter they make a profit, which they do by underfunding programmes and resources and other means.

When organisations run prisons, they do not care about rehabilitating and educating people not to re-offend — because if they did, demand would decrease and they would not be in demand to run prisons.

In 2016, the United States Deputy Attorney Sally Yates instructed the Justice Department officials to begin phasing out private management of the United States’ 13 privately run facilities. This decision came about after a report into the privately-run prisons showing that contraband, deaths, assaults, and other incidents were higher in privately run prisons, and the standard of health care and food was much lower than federally run prisons. The reality of privatised prisons has also recently been highlighted in the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and touches on many of those findings mentioned.

What do we do instead of incarceration?

Incarceration has far reaching effects beyond prison walls, with unintended consequences such as social disorganisation of communities, reduced job opportunities for ex-inmates, diversion of funds away from education, as well as psychological and financial burdens on family. Loss of outside relationships is considered the most painful aspect of incarceration for inmates, and as families are one of the most important factors that affect inmate’s rehabilitation after release, it is vital for these relationships to remain intact. However, this is extremely hard to ensure when prisons are not family-friendly places to visit, and with poor facilities as well as hostile attitudes of staff, it can put families off visiting especially those with children.

With this all in mind, now would be a good idea to look at what the different political parties are proposing regarding improving our corrections system:

  • Greens: Stop the construction of new prisons, seek cross party consensus on reducing the prison population, work toward legalising cannabis for personal use.
  • NZ First: Introduce a demerit points system for youth offenders, repeal the anti-smacking laws, lower the age of criminal responsibility.
  • ACT: Extend the three strikes law to burglary, reward prisoners who complete or teach literacy, numeracy or driver licensing programmes with reduced sentences.
  • Labour: Disestablish private prisons.
  • Maori Party: Stop the construction of new prisons, repeal the three strikes law, expand kaupapa Maori restorative justice programmes.
  • TOP: Aim to reduce the number of prisoners to 6,000 by 2027, raise the Youth Court age to include people aged 19, sentence more people to drug and alcohol treatment instead of prison, repeal the three strikes law.
  • United Future: Allow courts to sentence people to rehabilitation for low level drug possession
  • National: Establish military based training camps for young people who commit serious offences, fund community groups to reduce youth offending, continue initiatives to reduce Maori overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, continue to pilot initiatives to help released prisoners find and stay in employ.

All of these are great, but no one party holds the solution. If we as a nation really want to ensure we reduce reoffending of inmates then we need to look beyond incarceration. We need to look at:

  • Treatment and education programmes for offenders to attend before, during, and after their time in prison.
  • Rehabilitation programmes that include the offender and their family — we have heard so many stories of violent offenders going through the programmes on their own, but once they return to their families, they cannot cope because the families weren’t involved in the programme. If families are included in these programmes, then the offender will not only have support and motivation of others, but it would be a learning opportunity for others.
  • More strength based programmes for at risk youth — if we can educate and deter people at a young age from committing crime, then the likelihood of them becoming career criminals later will be significantly reduced.
  • Prisons should be more family friendly to encourage inmates to maintain their connection with their family. By having the connection with their family, it could allow inmates to aspire to do better and never be in that situation again, and inspire children to not follow in their parent’s poor decision making.
  • Ensuring prisons are run by the government — inmates should not be seen as cash cows for organisations wanting to run prisons purely because they think it will be lucrative.

The way forward in terms of punishment for crimes should be strengths based to show these individuals that they can achieve more, and can do more for not only themselves but their families too. Incarcerating thousands of people a year is not only a strain on the tax payer dollar, but it is a waste of one’s potential and talent. If we can look and fund a corrections system which does correct people in their ways and begins to let them see their potential, then we will hopefully live in a New Zealand that is safer.

Today’s contributor works for an NGO that receives some government funding and has chosen to remain anonymous. The views expressed are their own.