Social work and the un-justice system

This is a guest post from Bex Rillstone. Bex graduated the MSW(P) Programme, University of Auckland, in 2018. She has worked as a housing social worker in South Auckland and as a Family Start social worker with a kaupapa Māori NGO. Bex now works in a male prison, delivering rehabilitation programmes. She also sits on the Labour Party Justice Policy Committee, advocating for changes within the Justice and Corrections systems.

I have been working in a men’s prison for almost two years now. There is something unsettling about working within a Justice system that remains so fundamentally unjust. Many people have asked me why I choose this line of work. The answer is that I purposely chose to move towards my fear rather than away from it. I already knew, from international research and national recidivism rates, that the prison system doesn’t work – for perpetrators or for victims.

I went in with eyes wide-open, knowing I would be fighting an uphill battle and that I may, at times, be a lone voice for change. May I also note, that working as a Pākehā within a Pākehā-designed system that disproportionately incarcerates Māori, is a tension I anticipated, and indeed it is one I sit with every-day.

There are aspects of my work that I really enjoy, such as holding space for people to share their experiences without feeling judged, sometimes for the first time. Hurt people hurt people (another blog piece in and of itself). The use of empathy and therapeutic alliance to unpack what has led someone towards crime opens a space for hope and healing. This process, in turn, can provide safety and transformation for families, victims, and society at large.

I am focusing on male correction facilities in this piece, simply because I am familiar with this context and notwithstanding that, 94% of New Zealand’s prisoners are men. It shouldn’t take a man being sent to prison for him to have access to therapy and rehabilitation, but I want to use the opportunity I have, in the here and now, for transformative engagement with a group of people that are often excluded from our systems of support. In contrast to public opinion, it is such trauma-informed work, that helps to make our communities safer.

While there are therapeutic interventions happening in our prisons, and a variety of other initiatives, including those driven by the Labour-Led Hokai Rangi Strategy, I am under no illusion that prisons are serving our people. Besides the obvious justice issues such as the disproportionate incarceration of Māori, and the impact on families and children, I have seen first-hand the way that incarceration creates more harm than good.

The fact of the matter is that the “tough on crime” narrative and subsequent measures, such as longer imprisonment terms, increase the chance of recidivism and the harm caused by offending. Incarceration does little more than further expose men to anti-social thinking, re-affirm negative attitudes towards society, and recruit young vulnerable men into gangs and criminal networks. Truly, if you want to get better at committing crime – prison is the place to be.

 As it currently stands, our correctional system is doing the exact opposite of correcting unhelpful behaviour; if we are wanting to reduce re-offending, incarceration is not the way to go. It is much harder, yet much more meaningful, for perpetrators to engage in a process of restorative justice, rather than sitting in a cell all day.

Of course, as social workers, we care about more than just whether people re-offend or not. We care about individuals feeling empowered to live healthy lives, with the confidence to contribute positively to their families and communities. We care about long-term safety for victims and society. We care about equitable outcomes for Māori, Pacifika peoples and other minority groups who are often unwilling participants in Western institutions of power and control – be it Corrections, Oranga Tamariki or other state systems.

This begs the question of what role social workers should play in this space. As a profession that is uniquely centred around the theme of social justice, should we continue to tick boxes within a system that doesn’t work, or are we brave enough to advocate for the eventual abolition of incarceration as a form of punishment? As we know all too well, we might have to start with doing both – working within, and against, this system at the same time – until we have gained enough influence for policy makers to take real steps towards alternative methods of dealing with crime.

What are those alternatives you might ask?

We do not have to reinvent the wheel here – effective international models of rehabilitation can be adapted and applied to the New Zealand context. We are also privileged to have access to indigenous models of restorative justice that can help to inform a collaborative way of dealing with crime and harmful behaviours.

Some innovative approaches are already happening in the community correctional space such as the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Courts. This model addresses the underlying factors that lead people to have harmful substance use, and holistically engages with them in an intensive community programme rather than incarceration. Additionally, we can look at extending parts of the youth justice model (i.e., the Youth Aid programme) to adults – again developing our community resources to address social determinants of crime and focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

We won’t get rid of prisons overnight, and undeniably it would be harmful to do so until we build capacity for effective and successful community rehabilitation. But I am sure now, more than ever, that we must start taking tangible steps to deconstruct the prevailing narrative that incarceration is the only solution to managing crime and risk. As social workers let’s be people who move towards our fear, rather than away from it. We need to be more engaged and active in the Justice field.

I identify as an abolitionist of sorts – I work in the prison system while advocating for radical reformation. The case for the abolition of incarceration is not a popular one. But social workers are never going to be universally popular if we truly want to be a part of doing transformative work. Besides, popularity is over-rated.

Image credit: Truthout.org

4 thoughts on “Social work and the un-justice system

  1. Kia ora Bex,

    It was so nice to see something come through with your name on it. Great to know you’re still fighting the good fight.

    What a delight to read and a great piece. Thank you..

    What I felt strongly through it all was the courage you showed writing it, critiquing your own space, while working within it. We need more of it from our profession.

    A lot of us could take a lesson from that!

    Indeed, popularity is so very much over-rated.

    Hasta la victoria siempre amiga

    Luis

    1. Many thanks Luis for your encouragement! I think the more of us that speak up, the more others gain courage to do so as well. Social work really is the profession of speaking up, sometimes we forget that!

      Keep up the great mahi

  2. Fantastic piece. totally agree that we must be courageous to face our fears and do something to achieve transformative change than to just accept a system that we already know does not work. Thank you Bex for this provocative and insightful article.

    1. Fa’afetai lava Tavita. It has been a pleasure to work alongside you- fellow comrade for change! I admire your passion and your ability to speak your truth. Thanks for your continual encouragement. Bex

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