Warehousing the Poor: NZ’s High Imprisonment Rate

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 46, Spring 2008

by Kathy Dunstall

Figures released by the Government in May 2008 indicate that the New Zealand prison population has almost doubled in the past 20 years, from 90 to 195 per 100,000 population. This makes us the second most highly imprisoned country in the Western world behind the United States. This is despite the fact that restorative justice processes are more advanced here than any other country. They clearly are not impacting significantly on our imprisonment rate.

Our prisons are overcrowded. Over the past decade, the prison population has grown steadily – 8% between 2004 and 2005 alone. Prison sentences have lengthened. The use of community-based alternatives has fallen. Property and traffic offenders make up half of those sent to prison. Violent offences remain at 8% to 9% of all convictions.

The use of remand in custody has skyrocketed. By 2005, the average number of men on remand was 135% greater than in 1996. For women, the corresponding growth was 274%. And 1000 new beds were needed to house this influx. By November 2007, we had 8300 people in our prisons. This represents an imprisonment rate of 195 per 100,000, second only to the United States in the Western world.

Working in the prisons has been identified as one of the most challenging of public services. Prison is a coercive environment of forced confinement. They are unpleasant places in which to work or be confined. In the recent words of the Chief Ombudsman, ‘prison conditions, particularly in high security areas, are not those that would be welcomed by free persons’.

Millions Spent – More Prisons

In the highly punitive climate of the past decade or so, in which populist penal policy has held sway in New Zealand and elsewhere, more people have been sent to prison. They go there for longer, and more prisons have been built to house them. The more money spent on bricks, mortar and security, the less money available for doing useful things inside the prison. They truly become human warehouses. Over this period the prison landscape has changed dramatically and the general treatment of prisoners has become more repressive and less humane.

Since 1999, $1 billion dollars has been spent on improving prison security alone – on perimeter fences, razor wire, electronic doors and locks, surveillance cameras, gatehouses, drug testing, intrusive visitor screening, drug dogs, road barriers, vehicle checkpoints, metal detectors, widespread rub-down and strip searching and routine use of handcuffs. More recently, waist restraints have been added to this arsenal of control.

Central to our concern here, with regard to soft treatment, is the way in which legal provisions, and particularly the NZ Bill of Rights, create an obligation and responsibility to treat all people deprived of liberty with due care and humanity – regardless of what they have done. Clearly it is in all our interests that this be the case, as most people eventually come out of prison to live in the community.

It is not difficult to find examples of how a very distinctive institutional setting and culture can act to override humane treatment and the limited rights available to prisoners.

Central to our concern here, with regard to soft treatment, is the way in which legal provisions, and particularly the NZ Bill of Rights, create an obligation and responsibility to treat all people deprived of liberty with due care and humanity – regardless of what they have done.

The only right actually specified in penal law is the right of a prisoner to request help from the prison inspector or ombudsman. Every other obligation is framed in terms of minimum entitlements. All minimum entitlements may be denied if there is an emergency in the prison or the security of the prison is threatened or the health or safety of any person is threatened.

Once in prison custody, an offence against prison rules and discipline, punishable by cell confinement, automatically results in denied access to family visitors, telephone calls, news, library services and education for periods of up to 15 days depending on who imposes the penalty.

Isolation and Mental Illness

Moreover, in common with penal regimes in most Western countries, New Zealand prisoners can be kept in isolation for other reasons. Isolation can continue for months on end for those segregated under the catch-all purpose of security, good order or safety of the prison or the safety of another person. Access to news, library services and further education is also denied if the prison manager considers that a prisoner is likely to damage prison property. The treatment and conditions under this most punitive form of segregation have been found to be inhumane and illegal.

This same denial of minimum entitlements to information and education can extend to those seeking protection in prison and those segregated for physical or mental health reasons.

For the mentally disturbed who are at risk of self-harm, segregation and loss of personal effects in prison occurs because of insufficient forensic beds in the health sector where transfer to more humane conditions might be possible. The use of mechanical restraints (handcuffs) in such cases is not uncommon and was granted on 10 occasions (including multiple applications) in the first nine months of 2007 at Auckland and Christchurch Prisons. In all cases, the conditions of segregation can be said to exacerbate despair and mental deterioration. Prison is no environment for the mentally disturbed.

The only right actually specified in penal law is the right of a prisoner to request help from the prison inspector or ombudsman. Every other obligation is framed in terms of minimum entitlements. All minimum entitlements may be denied if there is an emergency in the prison or the security of the prison is threatened or the health or safety of any person is threatened.

Public Debate

It seems clear from the examples cited above, that the protection and advancement of the humane treatment of prisoners in NZ remains a work in progress. Several factors account for this situation. Affirmation of prisoner’s rights, as a moral and legal responsibility, runs against the grain of public opinion. Nineteenth century notions of less eligibility persist: those going to prison must endure worse conditions than law-abiding citizens.

Crime and anti-social behaviour create fear and anxiety amongst citizens. Ill-informed commentary about the level of crime and risk to personal safety are commonplace. Most politicians, whose vision of progress largely rests in the next ballot box, have proved unreliable in defending the limited rights of those who offend against society. The Prisoners and Victims Claims Act 2005 is a case in point.

Police also have a vested interest and a well-honed sophistication in publicising criminality. Prison bureaucrats, management and floor staff have shown limited commitment or ability to consider prisoners’ rights in an approach dominated by risk, security and control.

Victims and their advocates remain strident in their claims that the rights of prisoners supersede their own, an argument which essentially overlooks the State’s role in apprehending, charging, prosecuting, monitoring and/or housing offenders on their behalf. In turn, the capture of the emotional high ground by victim advocates, combined with their unrestrained commentary on all matters pertaining to justice and punishment, has been nourished and orchestrated by a largely complicit and uncritical media.

It is also the case that when the parents and other family members of an imprisoned person first encounter the prison system, they are, without exception, deeply shocked by what they find. One-third of those sent to prison are there for the first time. These days, people from all walks of life can end up in the prison system.

Coroner’s Inquests into deaths in custody have also provided a powerful public forum where the disregard shown by some prison staff towards the basic humanity and needs of fellow human beings has been exposed. Invariably, the Department puts the best construction on these events

While greater public exposure to the worst features of imprisonment is an important driver of change, it is a haphazard process. The consistent and humane treatment of prisoners has yet to be realised. As the Ombudsman observed, high ideals are not being met, despite the aura of success portrayed by the Department’s publications.

Recognising the basic humanity of the individual prison inmate is the first step in fulfilling human rights obligations.

Kathy Dunstall is secretary of the Howard League of Penal Reform, Christchurch, and helped draft The Penal System Review, (Roper Report), 1987.

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