Guest Post: What does “tough on crime” mean?

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In his attack on the 3S law and the 2013 changes to the Bail Act, the most coherent argument Andrew Little has made is that “tough on crime policies don’t work”. What exactly does the phrase “tough on crime”  mean? Does it mean a Sentencing Act that automatically cuts all sentences of two years or less in half, meaning that no such sentence means what the Judge says it does? Does it mean a parole system which allows  most prisoners to apply for release after one third of the sentence has been served? Perhaps it means a parole system which on occasion releases prisoners despite their still being assessed as being a medium to high risk of reoffending? Or perhaps he thinks serving time in New Zealand jails is “tough”? Let’s start there.

Because of UN conventions which the Clark government signed up to, prisoners in New Zealand jails cannot be required to work. Prisoners live in centrally heated cells – Phil Goff once told me that underfloor heating was a better solution because “they’d only damage heaters.” Giving prisoners a couple of woollen blankets instead didn’t seem to occur to him as a sensible alternative. The cells are Spartan, but clean and well lit. All but the most dangerous prisoners, such as two time killer Graeme Burton, are kept in cells with windows.

The food is basic but more than adequate. Prisoners’ special dietary requirements – perhaps preferences would be a better word – are catered for. Most prisoners are allowed to receive visitors, and in many jails they are allowed to cuddle their loved ones. Before policies tightened a few years ago, cuddling the baby was often a method of receiving drugs hidden in its nappy.

Perhaps the greatest contrast with contemporary as opposed to historic prisons is the interface between staff and prisoners. In short, modern  prisoners can pretty much do what they like to guards, but the guards’ ability to retaliate to their violence is very limited – the guards  know that their every move is being watched on camera, and when a prisoner “nuts off” and they try to restrain him using methods they have been trained to employ, their every move will be closely scrutinised on video, over and over again. Guards feel the authorities are more inclined to find them guilty of misconduct than hold the prisoner to account.

Four Corrections Officers are currently suspended at Paremoremo prison, where our most dangerous prisoners are kept. Each is being investigated for supposed excessive use of force. I am told that the typical incident where such allegations arise goes down like this: the prisoner attacks a guard, often viciously, and without warning. When a colleague attempts to come to the injured guard’s aid, the prisoner immediately throws his hands high in the air to ensure such submission is captured on camera. The guards then need to try both to prevent the prisoner going off again, and give aid to his or her injured colleague. – but without touching the inmate.

Woe betide the officer who instinctively uses pepper spray to make the prisoner back off – he or she will almost certainly be suspended, pending an investigation into excessive use of force. In other words, we expect prisoner officers to treat what the Corrections Department euphemistically calls “some of our most challenging citizens” with kid gloves, and even defending themselves from attack can put their jobs at risk. A few years ago a guard at Springhill prison was killed after a prisoner king hit him. Serious injuries to guards are common. What happens to the prisoners who perpetrate these acts? Very little. There is no solitary confinement or Number 1 diet – bread and water – any more.  Tough on crime? I don’t think so.

In my view, we haven’t really been “tough on crime” since at least the late 1950’s. Lefties now speak in hallowed terms about Ralph Hanan, the National Justice Minister who persuaded sceptical colleagues to support the abolition of capital punishment in 1961. That led to various prison “reforms” which have pretty much continued in the direction of ever easier prison  conditions and policies ever since.

But as recently as the mid 70’s prisons were deliberately designed to be places you didn’t want to go back to. I have a friend – I will call him Ron – who served a year in Mt Eden in 1977. He was convicted of an offence for which he readily concedes he was guilty. He was received by the “screws” in the old Mt Eden prison without any inquiries into how he was feeling, or what his dietary requirements were. He was shown his “slot” – his cell – a 15X10 foot cold stone room with two old army blankets and a “piss pot” in the corner.

It was the middle of winter, and he immediately complained that there was no glass in the small windows. The answer? “Too fucking bad…you cunts smash them out, so stay cold.” Ron was left until the next morning when he was expected to present himself at the door, piss pot in hand, ready to “slop out”, wash in cold water, and go for breakfast – half a bowl of rolled oats and a mug of tea.  Then it was exercise – an hour in an outside enclosed yard, no centrally heated gym – before going back to the cell and lock up until the evening.

A cold unheated cell in Mt Eden. No TV. A book if you asked nicely and had followed all instructions and rules to the letter. A “smack over the head” as Ron calls it if you talked back or didn’t comply quickly with instructions. The only change to that monotony being a church service on Sunday which most prisoners attended, because it was better than the cell.

I can almost see the lefties sneering as they read this and saying “Garrett really is mad – does he seriously think we should go back to that?” Well, actually I do. We have tried everything else: Kim Workman’s disastrous He Ara Hou,  where the guards didn’t wear uniforms and the prisoners called them by their first names and got taken on fishing trips; Maori focus units which show some short term reduction in reoffending rates, but at least they don’t cost much. Faith based units: ditto. For young offenders we have tried the army – successful for a small number – boot camps, which mostly turn out fitter criminals, and Graeme Dingle taking them all camping and kayaking at huge public expense. Nothing much works.

That leaves something like my friend Ron experienced – or something much worse than that. Until 1941 flogging and whipping were used on  both adult and juvenile offenders, the former mainly sex offenders. The Crimes Amendment Act 1941 abolished both capital punishment and whipping. When capital punishment was restored in 1950, whipping wasn’t. It had had no marked deterrent effect, and its removal had not resulted in increased violence in prisons.

No, I am not suggesting we go back to the 1930’s and start flogging and whipping prisoners, whether adult or juvenile. But just maybe, the “making prison somewhere you really don’t want to go back to” idea  is an option worth considering. But you can bet your arse that  won’t be part of the “ comprehensive conversation” Little claims he wants to have at his proposed summit on criminal justice in August.

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