There is something very compelling about the Radio New Zealand story described in the video below and I congratulate NZ Ballet for taking the initiative to do outreach work with the women incarcerated in Arohata prison: it is an excellent project that recognises the humanity of people in prison (and God knows, the women could do with a distraction at this time of year). However, even more compelling are the facts the presenter drops into the narrative: that the female prisoner population in Aotearoa has quadrupled in the last five years, that three-quarters have mental health issues and many others have histories of domestic violence.
In fact prisoners are three times more likely than the general population to have a mental health problem, with the likelihood higher for women prisoners than men: 74% and 62% respectively (Department of Corrections, 2016). The news story neglects to mention that Māori (who make up 16% of the New Zealand population) comprise 51% of the overall prison population or that a massive 63% of the female prison population are Māori (Department of Corrections, 2017). That’s a surprising omission. Nor does it mention that the vast majority of offences of sentenced female prisoners relate to theft, fraud, drug offences and breaches of lower level sentences. The relationship between incarceration, structural inequality, colonisation, sexism and racism in Aotearoa prison policy is explored in detail in a recent text by McIntosh and Goldmann (2017). They also highlight the overincarceration of Māori women linking this to poverty, domestic violence and sexual victimisation (McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017).
The recent election manifesto of the New Zealand Labour Party (now part of the coalition government) recognised the problem of the growing prison population in NZ.
In the last nine years New Zealand’s prison population has reached a record 10,000 people, while the cost of running the prison system has ballooned 60% to almost $1billion each year. National’s response is to throw another $1billion at the system, locking up more and more people in institutions that are proven failures at addressing re-offending. There are better ways to spend $1 billion. Labour believes that prison should be a last resort. Prisons can increase reoffending and make us poorer and less safe in the long-term. Too often they have become dumping grounds for people who need treatment more than they need punishment. (New Zealand Labour Party, 2017)
Indeed, the new Corrections Minister has pledged to “Set a target of reducing the prison population by 30% over fifteen years, including a specific target to reduce Māori over-representation in the prison system” (New Zealand Labour Party, 2017). Of course this is welcome, but is it enough?
A more ambitious and progressive perspective on the way forward for prisons in Aotearoa has been articulated by People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA). Their manifesto Abolitionist Demands: Toward the End of Prisons in Aotearoa is highly recommended reading. They spell out short term, intermediate and long term goals for policing and criminalisation, courts and sentencing, and for prison conditions and incarceration. I suspect some of their longer term aspirations – such as the abolition of the police and their replacement with tikanga Māori processes – are likely to raise a few eyebrows, but there is much to learn from this document and it is important to establish a longer term horizon for deeper structural change.
For all those languishing in prison, justice will come. (People Against Prions Aotearoa, 2016)
What is self evident is that we need to address the damage done by many years of neglect at the hands of successive governments, and reverse the neoliberal programme of incarcerating the poor (Wacquant, 2009). Enriching the environment of prisoners through ballet, education classes or any other humane reform is to be encouraged and welcomed. However, if we are serious about prison reform then PAPAs manifesto will take us closer, as will tackling broader structural inequality, systemic racism and pervasive sexual violence. What’s the plan for that Minister?
Image credit: Iriss
Department of Corrections (2017). Factsheet – Statistics for Māori offenders. Retrieved from http://www.corrections.govt.nz/news/media-releases/2017_media_releases/waitangi_tribunal_report_on_maori_reoffending/fact_sheet_-_statistics_for_mori_offenders.html
Department of Corrections (2016). Comorbid substance use disorders and mental health disorders among New Zealand prisoners. Retrieved from http://www.corrections.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/846362/Comorbid_substance_use_disorders_and_mental_health_disorders_among_NZ_prisoners_June_2016_final.pdf
McIntosh, T. and Goldmann, B. (2017). Locked up: Incarceration in Aotearoa New Zealand. In A. Bell, V. Elizabeth, T. McIntosh & M. Wynyard (Eds.), A land of milk and honey: making sense of Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 251-263). Auckland: Auckland University Press.
New Zealand labour Party, 2017). New Zealand Labour party Manifesto: Justice. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/nzlabour/pages/8485/attachments/original/1505175899/Justice_Manifesto.pdf?1505175899
People Against Prisons Aotearoa (2016). Abolitionist demands: Toward the end of prisons in Aotearoa. Auckland: PAPA.
Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the poor: The neoliberal government of social insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.