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Let’s stop pouring money into prisons. They don’t work. And there is an alternative

As New Zealand’s prison population passes 10,000 for the first time, the abysmal failure of NZ’s imprisonment culture must be confronted. Ahead of a hui in Wellington tonight, Di White argues for a new approach

Imagine this: it’s 2016 and the government has announced a $1 billion package to build a new cancer treatment facility in the Waikato. That’s about the same amount of funding for the entire Waikato District Health Board in any given year. It’s more than twice as much as our annual national spend on the environment. A necessary injection of funds to meet the crushing demand for cancer treatment services across the country, the minister says. It will eat up most of our budget savings, limiting our spending in other ways, but it’s the only way, we’re told.

But then we get wind of the bizarre truth. All evidence points towards the fact that this new cancer treatment facility will be ineffective in treating its patients’ conditions. In fact, perversely, this facility will actually make people sicker. It will increase the spread of cancer within the community. More people will get cancer in the future as a result of this new facility. Why would the government spend $1 billion of scarce tax payer funds on a facility that they know won’t work? Why splash that kind of cash on something that will make the community far worse, rather than better, off? This can’t be right, we say, as we grab our placards and run to the streets.

Indeed, it’s not. There is not going to be a new cancer facility in the Waikato. However, last month the government announced $1 billion to build a facility of a different kind in the region: a new prison. And while it will not spread cancer, it will spread a range of other diseases: crime, intergenerational disadvantage, poverty and social exclusion.

Prisons represent one of the greatest public policy failings of our time. We have invested billions of dollars in a project that was always bound to fail. Take a person who has suffered great trauma and subject them to more trauma. Take someone who is unemployed and lacks a formal education and put a label on them that no employer will ever want to recruit. Take someone who has been socially excluded and put them in isolation. It reads like a step-by-step guide to how to make someone more disengaged, hurt and harmful.

Auckland South Corrections Facility, Wiri. Photo: Phil Walter / Getty Images

Auckland South Corrections Facility, Wiri. Photo: Phil Walter / Getty Images

Whether or not prisons are effective can hardly be considered a debate any longer. They are not. End of story. Most politicians and policy makers will not dispute this (at least, privately). As stated in one recent study: “A large review of the findings on the impact of imprisonment on reoffending suggested – especially if one focused on the highest quality research – that the impact of imprisonment was either non-existent or that imprisonment of offenders increased the likelihood that they would reoffend over the alternative – imposing a non-prison sentence.” Essentially, at best prisons do nothing and at worst they make people more likely to reoffend.

However, if there is one thing that has been lacking across successive governments of all persuasions in recent decades when it comes to prisons, it’s courage. Instead, we see government after government pulling out the oldest tool in the political shed: fear.

Through both overt and more insidious tactics, we are constantly told that we are unsafe. That down every alley and behind every wall is a drugged up offender waiting to brutally attack us. That, sure, prisons are expensive and unpleasant, but unfortunately they are the only way to protect the public. If our government doesn’t build a new prison, it will be abdicating its responsibility to keep you, your family and the nice elderly lady down the street safe. And yet, this is in the face of the clear and compelling evidence that prison will make someone more likely to reoffend. That building more prisons will, ultimately, make us less safe.

A courageous government would start by accepting that prisons have failed. We tried them and they didn’t work. We could sit around playing the blame game but it doesn’t really matter because both sides of government have been complicit in the explosion of our prison population. It’s time to take our fingers out of our ears and try something else.

Over the past 15 or so years, justice reinvestment has become a new model for addressing crime and offending in our communities. Its focus is on divesting money from prisons and pumping it into the communities where crime is most pervasive. The nature of disadvantage and the role it plays in driving the kinds of criminal offending we punish (given that as a society we turn a blind eye to much of the offending perpetrated by those in positions of privilege) means that most offenders come from a small number of communities. Put another way, prisoners do not come from a broad cross section of postcodes; particular areas and communities that are marked by broader disadvantage are disproportionately represented in our crime statistics – both in terms of offenders and victims. With a targeted focus on investment in these specific communities, justice reinvestment is about carefully considering where funds are most likely to have an impact at addressing the drivers of crime.

So far, international experience has suggested that justice reinvestment has real potential to both reduce reoffending and realise substantial savings. In the US context, eight states where justice reinvestment policies had been in place for more than a year were projected to save a total of $4.6 billion through reduced prison populations. In the five years since introducing justice reinvestment approach, the state of Kansas, for example, saved $80.2 million, saw a 7.5% reduction in its prison population and saw a decrease in reconviction by 35%. This was through investing in substance abuse programs, halfway houses for those on parole, increasing education for prisoners and expanding specialist therapeutic courts.

Across the Tasman, Australia’s first major justice reinvestment project is taking place in the New South Wales community of Bourke. It’s a town with a population of just over 2,000, of whom 37% identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It’s also a community that spends over $4 million each year to lock up children and young people. Back in 2013, the community decided enough was enough and developed a proposal for justice reinvestment, which is largely being funded through philanthropic sources. Some of its tactics are as simple as funding driving lessons for young people, given that unlicensed driving is a major problem that can result in imprisonment for young people in the outback community. If successful, the pilot has the potential to be a ‘catalyst for the rest of the nation’ in how it addresses criminal offending.

The link between investment in social supports and education and reducing crime is not a new one. In Finland, substantial investment in social services and education over the space of 50 years led to a radical reduction in their rate of incarceration. It has gone from having one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe to the lowest. Back in the late 1960s, the dots between criminal policy and social policy were drawn, and through a mixture of decriminalisation and sentencing policy the prison population dramatically reduced.

Finding the savings in the prison system is surprisingly simple, given the extraordinary cost of building prisons and housing prisoners. One new prison bed costs upwards of $500,000, and then over $100,000 each year to house a single prisoner. Over the next five years, the projected cost of the 1,800 recently announced prison beds comes in at a truly staggering $2.5 billion. For organisations that works with communities in areas such as housing, alcohol and drug treatment and other therapeutic supports, the potential for what this money could do is limitless. If we invested even a fraction of $2.5 billion in the small number of communities where the vast majority of crime is taking place, we could be looking at an absolute game changer.

In the face of these possibilities, a less courageous government might throw up its hands and say that they are simply meeting the demand. That, sure, these nice reinvestment projects sound all well and good but the government needs to make sure there are beds for people who belong in prison. Indeed, this has been the attitude of the current government. And there’s no denying that prisons are overcrowded, which in itself causes significant problems and rights concerns. But the solution to overcrowded prisons is not to build more prisons. You reduce prison populations through legislative and policy change – as the Finnish example proves. The prison population is not driven by how much crime is taking place; it’s driven by the types of offending that, as a society, we decide to punish through custodial rather than community-based sentences or responses. Do not let a government tell you that they are simply responding to demand for prisons because they are very firmly in the driver’s seat.

For too long, we have allowed this pointless destruction of lives and waste of public funds. We have allowed governments to use fear to cover up an abysmal failure of government policy. Just last week, New Zealand’s prison population hit 10,000 people for the first time in history. We’re about to spend $2.5 billion over the next five years to keep making the same mistake. Now is the moment for justice reinvestment in New Zealand, for better, more effective and more humane responses to social problems. More than ever, we need a government that is prepared to stand up and show some courage.


JustSpeak tonight hosts Prison: A moral and fiscal failure? at Wellington Girls’ College from 6pm, looking at New Zealand’s use of prisons, featuring a mix of comedians, politicians, poets, activists and more. More details here.

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