A guest blog post by Kendra Cox (BSW student, University of Auckland and organiser with People Against Prisons Aotearoa. Iwi affiliations Te Ure o Uenukukōpako, Te Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tuhoe and Ngāti Porou)
A few weeks ago the recently elected Labour-led government announced that they are considering taking up the torch for the proposed Waikeria prison expansion floated under the National party in 2016 (Department of Corrections, 2016). The prospective expansion to the Waikato facility, just south of Te Awamutu, has ballooned from an extra capacity of 1500 to 3000 in the last eighteen months (Fisher, 2018a; Otorohanga District Council, 2017). The newest figures would raise the capacity of Waikeria Prison from 778 to nearly 3800, a higher number than our three largest correctional facilities combined. This ‘mega-prison’ has been celebrated by some, who are keen to see the influx of cash and jobs to the rural Waikato (Biddle, 2017). But the rapidly increasing prison population, which exceeded 10,000 last year and is now nearly 10,700 (Fisher, 2018a), has to be measured in more than just economic stimulation for the regions. Mass incarceration in Aotearoa should be measured instead by the human cost of families and communities ripped apart, of lives destroyed, and of social problems that continue to find a foothold and flourish in an increasingly unequal society.
It sometimes seems that prisons, like the rest of our political and economic systems, are an immutable force that are too powerful to reckon with. But the history of prisons in Aotearoa and Te Waipounamu go back less than a quarter of the time that people have lived in these lush lands. Prisons and an imported colonial justice system have been used in New Zealand since their beginnings to punish those that don’t obey the politico-economic paradigm. First, the might of the criminal justice and correctional system was wielded against Māori rebels like the peaceful community of Parihaka, and later against poor and working-class people broken and marginalised by capitalism. Prisons now, as then, are used to crush people who do not or cannot fit the expectations required of productive New Zealand citizens. These people are still overwhelmingly Māori. They are still overwhelmingly people that are excluded from participating in society the way that most of us are accustomed to. It’s not a coincidence that Waikeria prison is on stolen Māori land, taken from Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Raukawa by the Crown under the Public Works Act. It’s not an accident that prisoners with a custodial sentence – around 7000 people – can’t vote. It’s not an oversight that prisoners only make up to a dollar for every hour they work and have none of the legal rights of other employees. Prisons do wonders for continuing the exploitation and marginalisation of certain groups but do little to rehabilitate people and heal the communal wounds often caused by that exploitation and marginalisation.
There is enough hard evidence out there to convince even some of the more punitive-minded among us that prisons don’t solve social problems (No Pride in Prisons, 2016; Lamusse, 2018). Prisons don’t fix the harm caused to victims and survivors of interpersonal violence, they usually don’t make the perpetrators less violent, they don’t stop addiction and substance abuse, and they certainly don’t fix the economic conditions that force people into stealing and dealing. We know, instead, that many incarcerated people have neuro-disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and struggle with mental illness (Warhurst, 2016; Coster, 2017). Often, people with mental health concerns or a risk of violence towards themselves or others are placed in solitary confinement, rather than receiving the care and support they need (Lamusse, 2018). Just last month, a young man – Kaine Morrell, who had recently been moved from the youth wing of Christchurch Men’s Prison to the general population – killed himself after being placed in solitary confinement (Bayer, 2018). Chucking someone in a box and telling them to think about what they’ve done won’t work when their conditions on the outside are just as punishing, and when they haven’t received enough – if any – therapeutic care. So, what does this mean for social and community workers who are often tasked with this therapeutic care? Social and community workers who are often part of organisations that aid in state surveillance and punishment of these exploited and marginalised communities, who sit on parole boards, and who, somewhat contradictorily, tend to want to see these people and communities overcome their struggles?
There is no rational or compassionate reason for social workers to support the proposed Waikeria expansion. When the capacity exists, the justice and correctional systems will work to fill it – otherwise it becomes a failure, a weapon of wasted taxpayer dollars for the parliamentary opposition. There is already significant pushback against the proposed Waikeria expansion (Fisher, 2018b), a contestation of the status quo that social workers should add their collective voices to. Social workers have a unique viewpoint informed by a broad spectrum of social, psychological, and legal theories, as well as a practical understanding of what trauma, structural and interpersonal violence, and marginalisation does to individuals and communities. This theoretical and practical knowledge should be utilised to dispute the ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric of mass incarceration. The laws and policies behind mass incarceration in Aotearoa are all specific decisions on the part of legislators, policy makers, politicians, and lobbyists, and require strong and concerted opposition. Part of resisting neoliberal technocratic social work practice is engaging politically with the structures that prevent the ‘empowerment and liberation of people’. The current paradigm of locking more and more people away, leaving communities broken and trauma unhealed, can be changed. And social workers can help change it.
Feature image credit: Accompany Collective
Bayer, K. (2018). Candlelight vigils to protest prison suicide after teen dies in cell. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12005931
Biddle, D. (2017). Otorohanga had big plans for prison expansion. Stuff. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/98570135/Otorohanga-had-big-plans-for-Waikeria-Prison-expansion
Coster, D. (2017). Imprisoning the ill: Are NZs prisons becoming de-facto mental health units? Stuff. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/94992193/imprisoning-the-ill-are-nz-prisons-becoming-defacto-mental-health-units
Department of Corrections. (2016). Government approves plans for increased prison capacity. https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/government-approves-plans-increased-prison-capacity
Fisher, D. (2018a). New Zealand Herald. Mega prison plans head to Cabinet as Jacinda Ardern urged to keep Waitangi promise. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11999192
Fisher, D. (2018b). Andrew Little: ‘Longer sentences, more prisoners – it doesn’t work and it has to stop. New Zealand Herald. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11999980
Lamusse, T. (2018). Solitary confinement in New Zealand prisons. Retrieved from https://esra.nz/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Solitary-Confinement-in-New-Zealand-Prisons.pdf
No Pride in Prisons. (2016). Abolitionist demands. Auckland, New Zealand: No Pride in Prisons Press. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3UKzIM2_BiyUDB1YUlHUDBIcmc/view
Otorohanga District Council. (2017). Proposed alteration for designation to Waikeria prison: Planning report under section 198D of the Resource Management Act 1991. Retrieved from http://www.otodc.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/Notified-Applications/Wakeria-Prison-Expansion/FINAL-Waikeria-s198D-Report-30-June-2017-.pdf
Warhurst, L. (2016). Neurologically disabled overrepresented in prison. Newshub. Retrieved from http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2016/05/neurologically-disabled-overrepresented-in-prison.html