a red tinted photo of a prison with barbed wire (it's mount eden prison I think, all gothic old stone)
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyOctober 4, 2022

Our prisons are breeding grounds for crime – what needs to change?

a red tinted photo of a prison with barbed wire (it's mount eden prison I think, all gothic old stone)
Image: Tina Tiller

With prisoners leaving the system with a harder mindset than they had going in, change is urgently needed.  A new podcast aims to be the first step in a process to change the way we view the system.  

It was in 2012 that Tommy Doran was first held in prison on remand. At the time he was 18 and addicted to methamphetamine. For the next five years, he was in and out of the system – mostly on remand, but then later sentenced to prison time. 

His memories of the last time he was in prison in 2017 are of being locked in his cell for 23 hours a day without any kind of rehabilitation programme offered. In an overpopulated and understaffed prison, the emergency button in his cell was instead used like “room service” for the basics – “we’d ring that and sometimes we’ll be sitting there for an hour waiting for response,” Doran recalls.

Over those years circling in and out of prison, his experience was of a system that, despite costing New Zealand $1.3 billion this past year, did nothing to address the root cause of his problems. “I always came out of prison and pretty much just went straight back to what I used to do,” he says. In fact, the characteristics he developed to eventually recover from drug and alcohol addiction and to stop committing crime – honesty, vulnerability, openness – were the exact traits he says are rejected within the current prison system. 

Now a criminology student at Victoria University, Doran is hosting a new podcast alongside actress Ana Chaya Scotney (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Tāwhaki Ki Ngaputahi) called True Justice. The five-part series produced by justice advocacy group JustSpeak shares the stories of people who have been through the prison system, from the point of arrest to life after prison.

Tommy Doran co-hosts a new podcast focusing on stories of people who have been in prison. (Photo: Kirsten Johnstone)

Doran’s experience within the system isn’t an anomaly. In New Zealand recidivism rates are high. Around 70% of people released from prison are reconvicted within two years. And of those who manage to stay out of prison for two years after their release, 49% are eventually re-imprisoned. In this way the current system is comparable to an enormous revolving door. These reoffending rates beg the question – if prison doesn’t deter people from crime, is it time to shift away from this form of punishment and toward something new?

JustSpeak executive director Aphiphany Forward-Taua (Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto,Ngāti Hinerangi, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Porou, Whānau-ā-Apanui) believes real transformation toward a prison-less Aotearoa is necessary. “It’s time to have a discussion about getting rid of prisons, we’re well and truly overdue,” says Forward-Taua. “It’s not going to happen overnight but we need to create a very clear, stepped journey.” 

After hitting a peak of almost 11,000 in 2018, the prison population now hovers below 8,000. That reduction in prison numbers is the most dramatic in New Zealand’s history. Still, the latest figures from corrections show that while just 16% of the general population in New Zealand identify as Māori, 53.4% of people in prison were Māori. We often think about prison numbers as just that, numbers – that’s important, but can often negate the fact that each prison stat is an individual with their own whānau, friends, stories and needs.

The first step in that transformation, Forward-Taua explains, is their aim for the podcast: changing hearts and minds. Despite the system relying entirely on taxpayer dollars, she reckons most of us aren’t entirely cognisant of what it’s really like in prison. “I think part of the reason there isn’t just-ness experienced by those who end up in the criminal justice system or in our prisons, is because lots of people don’t know the additional punishment that prisoners experience when they are in prison,” she says.  

When Doran was in prison he noticed what he felt were injustices beyond being locked up, but believed at the time that was just how prison was meant to be. “It’s the deprivation of people’s liberty that is the punishment,” Forward-Taua explains. Beyond being removed from society, anything else that takes away people’s rights within prisons is additional punishment. Being deprived of medicine or sanitary items, living in unclean conditions, not being fed properly, being housed in unsafe environments or being isolated for extended periods of time (a condition which has been especially exacerbated by the pandemic) are all additional punishments, despite likely being familiar experiences for people in prisons in this country. 

If anything, the pair say the conditions within prison only enhance antisocial behaviour, which leads to reoffending. “For people within prison, rather than challenging those behaviours, you have to be paranoid, you have to be on your toes, you can’t show emotion, you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t be honest, otherwise, you get walked all over,” says Doran. “So, you’re being conditioned into being a cold, hardened sort of person – and you come out like that,” he adds.

Our approach to justice revolves around the commonsense saying, if you do the crime, you do the time. With rising rhetoric around crimes dubbed catchy names like “smash-and-grabs” or “ram raids” there’s a growing pressure on decision makers to respond with a tough on crime approach. That’s counterproductive, though, says Doran. “Most people are going to get out one day,” he says. “If they’ve done no rehabilitation, just been treated like caged animals for the past however-many years, they’re gonna get out, and act no different, if not worse than they were before they went in.”

JustSpeak executive director Aphiphany Forward-Taua. (Image: Supplied)

For the taxpayers footing the bill, Forward-Taua questions why we wouldn’t “want that money to be invested in a system that actually fosters and nurtures long lasting and meaningful rehabilitation, so that whatever the harm is that they’ve caused victims, never happens again to anyone else.”

“We need to fix society so that people don’t even need to get to this place where they’re in prison,” Forward-Taua says. Whether that be housing, food, education, healthcare, rehabilitation or  mental health support. “Don’t do the bottom-of-the- cliff approach, go to the top of the cliff and make sure everyone has everything that they need.” 

Our high reoffending rates are because the issues that caused the person to offend aren’t addressed, says Doran. “I feel like people who don’t understand what prison abolition is, when they hear that word, they just start freaking out, because what’s going to happen to the people who are a genuine risk to the public?” says Doran. Those types of offenders shouldn’t necessarily be released to the public, he explains, but there still should be attempts to rehabilitate. At the same time, lower level offenders shouldn’t be treated the same way as higher-level offenders, as they are in our current one-size-fits-all approach to justice.

The evolution away from prisons means an alternative vision of justice that revolves around dealing with the source of harm at its very core. “I’ve seen people that you did not want to cross paths with: gang members, serious recidivists, violent offenders rehabilitate and become functioning members of society,” he says. “I saw that take place in the community.” He points to the incarceration approach taken by Norway where community rehabilitation and restorative justice for offenders is emphasised, and putting people in an institution is an absolute last resort. They also have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. That kind of approach here would see a redirection of the billions of dollars a year that go to prisons, to community providers and supporting people to make sure their basic needs are met.

“As a society, we’re so wedded to this system and the idea that if we let go of it, we might lose something,” says Forward-Taua. “Actually, the only thing we would lose is a system that oppresses and continues to subjugate people.”

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