The Preposterous New Zealand Penal System
A couple of years ago, Tommy was at a birthday party in an Auckland hotel room. It was someone’s 18th, and by all accounts it was rowdier than an average Saturday night in the Botans. Lots of people texted their friends, who texted their dodgy friends, who texted their even dodgier friends. The whole thing quickly spiralled into the kind of situation that might result if the Rolling Stones, Keith Moon, and the residents of George St’s “Bro Flat” all checked into a hotel room simultaneously.
Unfortunately for Tommy, the fallout from the night was a lot worse than a smashed TV and singed upholstery. A fight erupted which rapidly turned into a massive brawl. Before it was over, two partygoers had been stabbed. Tommy and another unfortunate party-goer were charged with wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, and wounding with reckless disregard. The first charge carries a maximum sentence of 14 years; the second a maximum sentence of seven years. The co-accused was discharged. Tommy was convicted of both charges and sentenced to five years at Spring Hill Corrections facility. His only previous brushes with the law were a couple of minor convictions for graffiti. Now he was condemned to spend the next 1,825 days in a high security prison with 650 other inmates. He didn’t think things could get any worse, until he was told that his home-away-from-home for the next half-decade was in the Waikato.
Tommy didn’t stab anyone. No-one saw him stab anyone. His conviction was based entirely on the testimony of a single witness who claims to have seen him holding a small knife a couple of hours earlier. Well that clears everything up then! See you in five, Tommy!
PRISON: A FAILED SYSTEMThere are nearly 9,000 prisoners in New Zealand, giving us the second-highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world. Locking people up has become a national pastime. Sometimes it seems like New Zealanders’ passion for punishment is surpassed only by our inexplicable interest in Sally and Jaime Ridge.
The inconvenient truth is that our penal policy (heh) is fucked (double heh). Conservative zealots like the Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST) cynically play on the public reaction to isolated cases to call for harsher sentences. The National government inevitably responds by passing pathetic kneejerk legislation that doesn’t reduce crime, but destroys the lives of offenders who could be rehabilitated, and - worst of all for a right-wing government - costs the taxpayer more than the millions they spend on waterfront plastic wakas. Apparently everyone in the Beehive is happy to willfully ignore the fact that more prisoners and lower taxes go together like China and food safety.
All of this might be justifiable if we were in fact achieving “safer communities together”. We’re not. In 90% of cases, prison is useless. For people like Tommy, it’s worse than useless, kind of like the Ridges’ upcoming foray into reality TV. The answer isn’t longer sentences, or more of them. It’s social support and rehabilitation. We need to end our emotional investment in the prison system that has been proved repeatedly to be a spectacular failure.
MAD CUNT MCVICARThe Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST) is an organisation devoted to “the creation of a patriotic, crime free New Zealand through the promotion of personal responsibility and a better deal for Victims [sic] of crime”. The trust, led by Garth McVicar, pushes for outrageously harsh sentences. It believes that they deter criminals from committing crimes in the first place (sample logic: “Crime rates are very low in Arab countries. Whatever else you might say about Sharia law, the harsher sentences certainly work!”).
A senior criminal lawyer Critic spoke to describes McVicar as “exploiting and faning the flames of public emotion”. He “preys on the anger and grief of victims”. The SST website is an eerie juxtaposition of Old Testament-style blood-baying and Microsoft Word Clip-Art. The evilness is confirmed by the presence of Comic Sans. It would all be kind of cutely batty if it weren’t for the fact that the National Party has made a disturbing habit of allowing McVicar to ghostwrite its legislation.
2, 4, 6, 8, SOMEONE DIED, LET’S LEGISLATE!If someone, somewhere does something really, really horrible, you can count on McVicar to parade it before Parliament as an example of why all those nasty criminals should be thrown in a windowless dungeon beneath the Waikato and left to rot. The Clayton Weatherston case was repulsive. It still did not justify the kneejerk removal of the defense of provocation. Of course there are people who do horrible things simply because they are horrible. However, most of us do horrible things because we are drunk, or high, or poor, or unhappy. Prison makes the poor poorer, the high higher (#prisoncorruption), and the unhappy much unhappier. Crime is the visible symptom of deeper social problems. Treating every offender like the worst kind of offender will simply turn every offender into the worst kind of offender.
In 2010 Parliament passed the infamous “Three Strikes” bill. Under the legislation, if you commit one of 40 “serious” offences twice, on your third “strike” you’ll get the maximum sentence, often around 25 years. The bill was inspired by a similar Californian law, which created such appalling prison overcrowding that 6,500 prisoners were released before the end of their sentences.
Three Strikes was the pet project of Mad Cunt McVicar and former Act MP David Garrett. Garrett, it turns out, is no less of a mad cunt. He resigned from Parliament a few months after the bill was passed, after revelations that he had fraudulently used the name of a dead baby to obtain a passport. He was also convicted of assault in 2002 after getting into a bar fight in Tonga. So not just a mad cunt, but an incredibly hypocritical mad cunt. The whole thing smacks of Christian fundamentalists who turn up to church on Sundays still smelling of cum.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF PRISON?So what are these mad cunt-endorsed longer sentences meant to achieve? What is prison itself meant to achieve? The idea is that it simultaneously punishes the offender while protecting the rest of society by removing the prisoner from circulation, and rehabilitates them to prevent future reoffending. In reality it succeeds only at punishing the prisoner.
At Spring Hill, Tommy was housed in a double bunk, despite the prison cells only being built for a single occupant. Breakfast was two Weet-Bix. Lunch was a cabbage or grated carrot sandwich. He thinks inmates are starved in order to save money - the only way of getting enough food was asking your family to send you money, conveniently taking the pressure to provide humane living conditions for inmates off of the Corrections Department.
Everything at Spring Hill was designed to force inmates’ families to pay up in order to subsidise a vaguely tolerable standard of living. If no money was sent, the only shoes available to the inmates were prison jandals. If prisoners gave dirty clothes to the laundromat, they weren’t returned, so everyone hand-washed their own clothes in their cells. The prisoners were forced to spend hours a day at a workshop making trophies, for which they were not paid. Tommy sees this as a way for the government to squeeze as much money as they can out of prisoners. Unless you complained, nothing got done - Tommy had to write to the Ombudsman to get some critical dental work. The Ombudsman acquiesced, but instead of getting the fillings Tommy needed, the dentist simply ripped out two molars. It was cheaper that way.
PLACEBO PROTECTIONAs far as protecting the fretful public goes, prison fails miserably. The Sensible Sentencing Trust frequently cites crimes that would not have been committed if prisoners had been kept behind bars for longer. It’s counter-intuitive, but longer sentences actually have almost no effect on crime levels. One study suggested that a 25% increase in prison population led to a 1% drop in crime. Only 5% or so of crimes result in a conviction, so prison sentences are never going to have much of an effect on crime levels. Crimes are overwhelmingly committed by young, slightly stupid, boozy men: Throw these offenders in prison and they’ll simply be replaced by the next generation of young, slightly stupid, boozy men - a demographic that everyone in Dunedin can agree we have no shortage of.
REHABILI-WHAT NOW?Much as the SST might like to, it is not possible to permanently incarcerate every two-bit weed dealer. After all, some of us need to remain in gainful employment to fund the Department of Corrections’ ever-growing budget. At some point nearly every crim has to re-enter society. The test of prison’s effectiveness is whether or not they re-offend. Prison cannot be said to work unless re-offending falls.
A year into his sentence Tommy was granted an appeal. A retrial was ordered and he was released from prison. He received no support whatsoever from the government. His first benefit payment took over a month to arrive. Luckily, Tommy was able to stay with his mother. If he had not had family to stay with, he would have had no choice but to borrow or steal or do whatever it took to feed himself. How can we hope to reduce re-offending if we are not providing the most basic support to prisoners upon release?
It costs around $80,000 annually to house a prisoner. The more prisoners we have and the longer they remain behind bars, the less money we can invest in helping each individual turn their lives around. The rehabilitative element of our prisons at the moment is, according to a senior criminal defence lawyer, virtually non-existent - “it’s undeniably punitive, not rehabilitative”. The costs, she says, “far outweigh the benefits”.
The common element behind most of the crimes her clients commit is alcohol. She believes a comprehensive programme of drug and alcohol counselling and rehabilitation would go a long way towards reducing reoffending.
Tommy’s mother told Critic that prison “never leaves you”. The friends and enemies her son made in prison have followed him back into the real world. In spending ever more money on putting offenders behind bars for longer and longer, and refusing to offer them support upon release, we are virtually condemning them to commit more crimes. No wonder 50% of prisoners are back within four years.