Guest Post: Prison the only option for repeat violent offenders

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Andrew Little has kicked off his plan  to repeal three strikes (3s) with a lie – that the law “has done great harm” – and a stated desire to find “a better way”  than prison for dealing with repeat violent offenders. Who could argue  with that desire? After all, incarcerating prisoners supposedly costs $100,000 a year, and the re-imprisonment rate after five years is around 75%. Surely there is a better way of dealing with such persons, and turning them into good citizens? Well, sadly no.

First some context. Although they don’t always say so explicitly, the left clearly regard almost all prison inmates as poor hapless chaps who have found themselves in an awful  predicament almost by accident, or at least  after just one failing – a drugged or drunken decision to rob a liquor store perhaps. The reality is very different.

Recent OIA’s reveal that on average, inmates have 46 convictions yes, you read that right, forty six. On average, new inmates will have appeared before the courts eleven times before finally being sent to jail. By that time, prisoners will usually have received the whole gamut of “alternative” sentences, probably beginning in the Youth Court, and then graduating through community service, community detention, home detention and suspended prison sentences. So by the time they go to adult prison for the first time, many of the alternatives to prison have already been tried – and failed.

What about “alternatives” in jail? Well, we have tried many of those too. Sadly they don’t work particularly well. Two perennials are faith based units and Maori focus units. Faith based units are for those who find God inside, and resolve to take a different path, both in jail and on the outside – disciples of Jesus Christ and Kim Workman if you like.

As in the Maori focus units, prisoners in faith based units tend to be better behaved inside than ordinary inmates – they have to be of course, or they find themselves back in the general population. There is a difference in recidivism for graduates of faith based units, but sadly it fades over time . Within five years or so  their recidvisim rate is little different from inmates who did not spend time in a faith based unit before release.

The picture is somewhat better  for graduates of Maori focus units. According to data released under the OIA, there is a significant difference in two year reoffending rates as  between the general population and the Maori focus units (Te Tirohanga). Just over 49% of graduates of Te Tirohanga reoffend within two years of release, as opposed to 59% of the general population. Given that these units cost very little in the scheme of things, that’s a pretty good result.

The difference remains over time (May 2017 figures)  – 64.8% of Te Tirohanga units graduates reoffend within five years of release as opposed to  73% of those in the general population. Again that’s not bad, given the limited cost of such units – a 10% lower rate of offending is not to be sneezed at.  It must be noted of course that a 64% reoffending rate cannot be said to be “good”.

The granddaddy of spectacular failures of  “a different way” remains Kim Workman’s baby He Ara Hou (A new way), a program from the 90’s when Workman was Assistant Secretary, penal institutions. The basic idea was that the “traditional” authoritarian method of running prisons – an us and them environment  – would be completely changed: co-operation, respect and harmony would replace antagonism, acrimony and apathy. (Newbold: 2008, 387).

At first Workman’s theories appeared to work: a dramatic increase in  inmates engaged in education programs was reported, and violent assaults on officers fell  from 43 in 1991-92  to 34  the following year (ibid.). There was also a decline suicides by Maori prisoners. So far so good.

But in the end, the scheme was a disaster. Family days in jail and a general relaxation in security left prisons open to  the smuggling of drugs, money and other contraband. Close relationships between staff and inmates sometimes became corrupt, and there were instances of sexual misconduct between male prisoners and female officers. As Newbold tells it: (op.cit.):

Giving administrative freedom to managers with little experience led to an embarrassing series of scandals involving staff trading with inmates, theft of governmental property, submission of fraudulent pay returns, failing to supervise dangerous inmates and allowing them to escape, drug dealing and serious abuse of prisoners who were unpopular. At  [Mangaroa Prison], which had been marked as a showcase for the new method, allegations of corruption, neglect and violence resulted in the firing of 12 officers…A Ministerial enquiry …led to the resignation of the Secretary for Justice and his prisons head, and the end of He Ara Hou.


Twenty five years later, rather like an old communist who insists that the ideology was never properly implemented, which is why it failed,  Workman and his youthful followers is  pushing for  more of the same, notwithstanding his earlier spectacular failure. With the change of government, he and his supporters will have the ear of the cabinet, in particular the ideologically driven Justice Minister Andrew Little. There is no doubt in my mind that any He Ara Hou 2.0 will have exactly the same results as the first version.

So what hasn’t  been tried over the past 40 or 50 years? Well don’t laugh, but the one thing we haven’t tried since liberalization began in the 60’s is making prisons much  tougher. An “old lag” from the 1940’s would not recognize life in today’s prison: work is voluntary, inmates can wear their hair how they like, dietary fads are indulged, the cells are centrally heated. A very far cry from a cold cell in Mt Eden or Mt Crawford with a pisspot instead of a toilet, and 10 hours hard work  a day in  the quarry next door while dressed in striped pyjamas.

How did that work? Sadly recidivism figures for New Zealand were not kept back then. It is clear however that in England, there was, as Hitchens notes:

“…a small, slowly circulating group of more or less incorrigible crooks and troublemakers, going in and out of prison despite its dismal conditions… the  important figures, however,  are the unrecorded ones for people who might have committed crimes but chose not to because they knew what to expect  if they did” (Hitchens: 2004, 143)

In other words, the “habitual criminal” is not a 21st century phenomenon created by relatively benign conditions: there have always been criminals incapable of reform; what has changed is the number of them as a percentage of the population as a whole.

A return to 1920’s penal policy is most unlikely even with a National led government: it is positively unthinkable with the government we have now.  That doesn’t change two inconvenient truths: firstly,  100 years ago all but a small minority avoided prison like the plague, and secondly, harsh conditions designed to make life in prison  most unpleasant is the one thing we haven’t tried in recent times.

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