Guest Post: All jails are bad

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All New Zealand jails are bad…apparently

The headline on Monday said “Jails bad. Full stop”. The story beneath revealed that – surprise surprise –  serious incidents occur  in  all  the country’s jails, both state and privately run. Even union boss Beven Hanlon, who usually repeats a “state good, private prisons bad” mantra ad nauseum, was quoted as saying state run prisons were just as bad as privately run  ones. What is the problem?

First the basics. To get sent to prison in New Zealand you generally  need to be a really bad bastard. Those sent to prison have, on average, appeared in court eleven times,  before finally being sent to jail. That is eleven court appearances, not eleven charges. At each appearance, a criminal might be facing a number of charges. By the time prison is the sentence, all the other non custodial alternatives have been tried.

Prison inmates are, by and large, there for serious or repeated violence, class A drug dealing or manufacture, or sexual offences against both  other adults and children. Although people like Kim Workman imply inmates are largely poor unfortunates who had a bad day when they committed the offence(s) for which they are arrested and  jailed, this is nonsense. Anyone  who has any experience of our prisons – particularly the members of  Mr Hanlon’s union – will tell you so.

So, a group of violent dangerous men all grouped together without much to do;  places where ongoing problems and violence are just the way it is? Well, actually, no. I have been inside prisons in both New Zealand and the United States. The atmosphere in United States  prisons  could not be more different from those  in New Zealand.

In 2007 Garth McVicar, Stephen Franks and I made a study tour of  the US to learn more about three strikes laws – especially how to avoid the well publicised injustices which the early version of three strikes gave rise to in California. We also visited prisons and spoke to both prisoner lobby groups, public defenders, and probation officers. We learned a great deal.

In Arizona we visited both ordinary prisons and the famous tent jails for which Sheriff Joe Arpaio is so well known. The very first thing we noticed was how well behaved the prisoners were. Some of the guards  were middle aged women. None of the guards were armed. Prisoners obediently and quickly complied when one no nonsense lady ordered them to “stand up straight behind the line”. When ordered to move they moved. No-one answered back. No prisoner said anything. Talking wasn’t allowed.

At the tent jail we visited it was lunchtime.  For lunch the prisoners were  all in a large airconditioned  mess hall – about 200 of them. Our group was shown through by one  unarmed guard.  The men had the kind of faces and body language one sees in jails here. But the atmosphere was entirely different.

One or two of the prisoners shouted out derogatory remarks about the food they were getting. On the spur of the moment I decided to share lunch with them – a filled roll, a pot of yogurt and a piece of fruit – rather than the lunch laid on for us. As the men moved closer to our small group – and our lone guard – I instantly regretted my decision. I asked if we had anything to fear (whether we did or not I was already frightened). Our guard said “Oh no…they’ll move back if I ask them to”. And he did, very softly. And they did.

My first thought was this behaviour must be obtained through intimidation and violence. We asked if we could speak to the prisoners one on one, and speak to whoever we wished to. Our hosts readily agreed, and so we did. I remember stifling guffaws as one tattooed middle aged female  inmate told an earnest young journalist accompanying us that this was her first time in prison.

We were not told of any  violence by the guards, although many inmates complained that the rules were “ real strict man”. They moaned about the food, and of course about the oppressive heat in the cell blocks which were not airconditioned. What is not well known is that inmates volunteer for Sheriff Joe’s famous chain gangs, and being sent to tent jail is a privilege to be earned. Five minutes inside the blocks and you understand why.

Since that visit I have become aware of various claims of wrongful death in Arizona prisons. No doubt those commenting on this piece will post links to such stories with alacrity. It goes without saying that no-one should be killed in jail.

Some years after the US trip I found myself an MP, and made it my business to visit as many New Zealand prisons as I could. The atmosphere was starkly different from those in Arizona and California. There is an air of barely suppressed violence in every one. Most notably, the prisoners are visibly contemptuous of their guards. They know  the guards can do very little to them. The prisoners can no longer be put in solitary confinement or fed bread and water  for disciplinary infractions. No extra time can be imposed. Parole Boards no longer hear evidence  from those who have been in charge of the freshly scrubbed and shaved inmate appearing before them meekly claiming to be ready for release.

One short visit to a few US jails doesn’t make me an expert on prison management.  However one would have to deaf dumb and blind not to see the glaring differences between their prisons and ours. How do they do it? Would their methods be acceptable here? Would their methods be culturally transferable? I don’t know. What I do  know is I felt a damn sight safer in the company of one guard in Arizona than I did with half a dozen prison officers tagging along in New Zealand.

When even Beven Hanlon is saying public prisons are just as bad as the private ones, it’s time to take very hard look at how we are managing our prisons and our prisoners. It’s time to take some lessons from overseas, learn from them,   and where appropriate  adopt them here. Just as we did with three strikes.

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