by Don Franks
“New Zealand has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world, second only to the United States, with over 5000 people currently in our 17 prisons. We could be excused for thinking the problem is huge, too big too handle …”
Social reformer Celia Lashlie wrote that in 2002. Today, 10,645 inmates are crammed inside 18 overflowing jails.
Successive government policies paved the way for this massive increase.
The previous Labour Government began by stiffening bail laws. They reversed the burden of proof so that offenders with 14 or more previous convictions had to prove they were not a risk to the community or face prison on remand rather than get bail.
Increasing public concern at the country’s soaring rate of racist incarceration has forced the present government to make changes, of rhetoric at least.
“New Zealand needs to completely change the way criminal justice works”, Labour’s justice minister Andrew Little recently said.
His comment followed an open letter from 32 leading academics in criminal justice calling on the Government to reject the building of a mega prison in Waikato designed to hold up to 3000 inmates.
Labour now talks of reducing prison numbers by 30 percent over 15 years, but commits to no detailed coherent plan.
National leader Simon Bridges sticks with tradition: “The reality is no one likes prisons, but to… soften up the laws, will make New Zealanders less safe.”
As politicians dither and bicker, Celia Lashlie’s 2002 book The Journey to Prison, Who Goes and Why is worth rereading. It still offers valuable insights.
The author was a single parent, graduate in Maori and Anthropology, writer and probation officer. In 1985 she became the first woman prison warder employed in a men’s prison. Later she came to manage Christchurch women’s prison. She died in 2015.
Her book sought “. . . to contribute to the debate, providing an alternative perspective to the one that suggests sending people to prison for longer and making prisons more uncomfortable will somehow see the problems were are currently facing resolved. . . many (offenders) are abuse victims who have suffered from a level of abuse from when they were small children, the scale of which we cannot even begin to imagine. . . . put simply, there is nothing the system can do to them that hasn’t already been done.”
The Journey to Prison offers experienced opinion on prison in relation to sex, race and, without actually using the term, social class.
In her earlier days as a prison warder Lashlie saw paid employment as a possible escape from the system:
“When the inmate made the decision to complete the sentence he was serving and not return, he left prison and within a day or two was employed as a labourer on a building site and the justice system never saw him again. The problem today, or at least one of them, is that there are no jobs as labourers waiting for the men or women, who come out of prison.”
“The gap between rich and poor has widened to a chasm and we now have both third generation unemployed and third generation prison inmates. In fact, when I spoke about this issue recently to a group of school principals, one of them put up his hand and corrected me. He said for him it was now fourth generation- he had just enrolled a child from a family in the area whose great grandfather had been a pupil at the school. None of the adults in the family were in employment and all the male adults in the family had served a term of imprisonment.”
Fifteen years down the track we can add yet another generation to the unbroken continuation of social decay. There has been no relief of poverty.
So-called ‘unskilled’ work is no easier to come by in 2018 than it was in 2003. In any case, the lower rungs of employment in New Zealand give no guarantee of prosperity. Inequality of income has now grown to the extent that there are around 683,500 people in poverty – one out of each seven households (Christian Social Services report).
Celia Lashlie is “. . . not suggesting poverty or lack of advantage justifies criminal behaviour. . . but. . . it has often occurred to me that the people who dismiss any link often do so from a position of relative wealth. They have no idea about what it’s like to live hand to mouth, to see no hope of changing that way of life on the horizon and to want better for your children. It seems that as the gap between rich and poor has widened in our society, so too has the arrogance of the ‘rich’ grown in terms of the views they hold about how everyone else should live.”
Why the author put quote marks around the word ‘rich’ is not clear; in context it’s certainly a synonym for “capitalist class”.
Socialist terms don’t form part of Celia Lashie’s The Journey to Prison, but the work concludes with something of a nod in that direction. After noting parliament’s consistent failures to deliver, she wonders:
“What if we, the voters, designed and took ownership of a 20 year strategy, a strategy that took into account the fact that not all problems can be solved overnight. . . what if the strategy was owned by the community rather than by the politicians. . . the essence of this idea is that we would lead the politicians rather than the politicians leading us. . . I am not sure at this stage how the development of the 20 year strategy might begin but I do have a strong sense that it is possible. . .”
Wishful unrealistic thinking?
But while politicians committed to capitalism call the shots, radical change is unlikely. While private profit remains the social priority, bloated prisons and the discarded social backstreets which feed them look set to be with us.