Heather Roy

26 May 2018

It’s quite something seeing a hulk of a man – tough, heavily tattooed, shaved head – burst into tears. It’s certainly not what I expected when visiting a prison for the first time. I was being shown around Auckland Central Remand Prison (now Mt Eden Remand Prison) and was in the audience at a prizegiving for several inmates who had successfully participated in an education programme teaching them to read and write. They were due for release he following day, and it was deemed fitting to acknowledge the progress they had made in this programme. When asked by the tutor what the problem was, the prisoner explained, through sobs, that he’d never been presented with a certificate before.

His comment immediately took me to the door of my fridge, where magnets with the phone numbers for the emergency services were fighting for space with multitudes of teacher’s and prinicpal’s certificates for spelling, story writing, punctuality and goodness only know what else that had been awarded to my kids over the preceding weeks. That moment and the stark contrast of this man in his thirties having never received recognition for anything in his life was the point at which I became “soft on crime” and recognized that there must be a better way of balancing punishment and rehabilitation of many who had committed crimes.

Voters reward politicians who are tough on crime. It’s easy to ignore criminals when they’re locked away in prison and little if any thought is given to decreasing reoffending when they leave – until the prisons don’t have enough beds, and funds need to be diverted from health and education just to deal with the overcrowding. The short term approach is to build more prisons. The long term, smart solution of reducing recidivism and crime is much harder, but not mission impossible.

For example, here’s a novel approach to our burgeoning prison numbers: We should educate prisoners, it works  This article by Stacey Shortall, partner at law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts (and formerly a lawyer in New York) is refreshing. It shows that educating prisoners isn’t new or novel, it’s been working overseas for many years. Stacey uses the New York example where, between 1999 and 2012, the prison population dropped by 26 percent, when elsewhere in the US it rose by around 10 percent. NZ Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis could actually achieve the 30% drop in prison muster over 15 years he’s been talking about – but not by building more prisons and calling that reform.

One of the reasons our prisons are bursting at the seams is because people keep coming back.  Reoffending is most likely in the 12 months post prison release and amongst those with mental health and substance abuse issues. It’s not easy to find up to date New Zealand data but a March 2009 analysis of the previous 60 months, showed that 70% of prisoners reoffend within two years of being released from prison and 52% return to prison within five years, some multiple times. Even with the small drop in recidivism noted over the past couple of years, reoffending figures will still be in the same ball park.

The government allocated nearly $200 million in Budget 2018 for 600 pop-up prison beds. The Minister noted at the same time that reform of the Corrections landscape is imminent. For too long political parties have reacted to the public pressure to take a tough line on crime. Well, it’s not working. Crime hasn’t abated, and more people are being sent to prison.

I’ve been advocating for some time for dedicated facilities – a Rehabilitation Prison that treats those with mental illnesses and provides rehabilitation for those with substance abuse issues. And yes, educating those who can’t read, write or do maths. Releasing people from prison who aren’t equipped to cope in a world requiring these skills merely sets them up to fail, to reoffend and then to be sent back to prison.

There’s plenty of research and evidence of what could be done. In her article Stacey Shorthall noted  “Decades of research in the United States has shown that prisoners who participate in prison education programmes are far less likely to land back behind bars. Their rates of reoffending are dramatically lower than rates for prisoners denied these opportunities. In fact, as New Zealand struggles with a record-high prison muster, prisons are currently being closed and sold off in New York.”

Some work has also be done on the New Zealand environment. The Salvation Army published this report in 2016: Beyond the Prison Gate

Let’s hope the government, in putting together its reform of the Corrections landscape, puts to one side the tough on crime brigade and takes an evidence based approach. Will this government have the courage to adopt the measures it will take to reach its own target?