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Mt Eden Prison, Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Mt Eden Prison, Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyMarch 24, 2021

Making women’s prisons more gender conscious won’t solve anything much

Mt Eden Prison, Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Mt Eden Prison, Auckland (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Kelvin Davis’s call for prisons that meet the unique needs of women is a bandaid solution to a systemic issue, writes Jared Davidson.

New Zealand has a prison problem. Besides having the fifth-highest imprisonment rates in the world and the highest proportion of sexual and interpersonal violence offences, recent events have laid bare the violent treatment of prisoners at the hands of the state. Rioting at Waikeria brought national attention to its squalid, overcrowded conditions; now, the “cruel and inhumane” treatment of Mihi Bassett and other incarcerated women has led corrections minister Kelvin Davis to call for a review into the systemic issues at Auckland Women’s Correctional Facility.

“It’s inappropriate for women in prison to be treated as if their needs were the same as male prisoners,” Davis told reporters. “I believe the management of the women was just unacceptable, it was inappropriate, and they were let down. Their needs weren’t being met.”

The state’s response is typical. As long as prisons in New Zealand have existed, there have been countless commissions, reviews and reports drawn up, tabled and then quietly filed away. When a commission of inquiry into the prison system was launched in 1989, it joined “a long lineage of enquiries” that criminologist John Pratt predicted would “go the same way as its ancestors.” The inadequacies of the prison system and its proposals for reform are noted by the government of the day, “only for another report some years down the track to make exactly the same criticisms. And so the whole edifice has stumbled on over the years.”

Mihi Bassett at the Manukau District Court in February. (Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly)

That the edifice has not only stumbled on but crumbled into ruin should be clear to anyone. Prisons do not reduce harm or solve social problems. Throwing a government report at the treatment of women and non-binary prisoners is not going to help. Nor is making prisons gender-conscious. After all, prisons and the caging of human bodies are deeply rooted in a world of male dominance and interpersonal violence. It will take more than another review or a gender-attuned prison culture to address the patriarchal roots of the prison system.

Prisons were a Pākehā institution brought to these shores from England; part of colonisation’s quest to bring unruly bodies and the land itself to order by putting prisoners to work. The genealogy of capitalism and the genealogy of the prison in England are the same. Both were deeply concerned with the social danger posed by the labouring poor to the insecurity of private property – including women who transgressed gendered divisions of labour. To combat this threat and to make sure women accepted their role within the world of waged work, in the 16th century the English state went from hanging women as witches to moulding them inside the innocuously-named House of Correction.

Like the Dutch rasphuis and spinhuis (gender-segregated temples of toil) or the French Hôpital de la Salpêtrière with its chambres de correction, English houses of correction aimed to break resistance to capitalist property relations and put the poor, vagrants, idlers, thieves and petty criminals to work. By the early 1600s, around 170 houses of correction could be found throughout England. Like the workhouses of the 18th century, houses of correction worked on the less eligibility principle: that conditions inside would be so bad that people would rather accept exploitation than ever enter them. Houses of correction were the granddaddy of modern prisons, forcing obedience to the patriarchy of the wage both inside and out.

In New Zealand during the 19th century, women made up a small percentage of the prison population. But echoing Davis’s recent concerns, they were not catered for in an overwhelmingly male-dominated and male-designed prison system. Confined to ill-equipped cells and watched, worked and abused by men, women were largely overlooked by reforms to the prison system in the 1880s.

Perhaps that’s because a gendered division of labour underpinned the entire prison system. Women made and mended the men’s clothes, washed their laundry, sewed their mattresses, repaired their boots, scrubbed the floors, baked bread, and completed a vast array of domestic duties. When they weren’t reproducing the labour power needed for male work outside of the prison, they picked oakum – the unravelling of old rope – for no other reason than to keep them working.

Prisons were (and are) an important part of reproducing gender norms. As historian Bronwyn Dalley found in her studies of imprisonment, in 19th and early 20th century New Zealand “imprisonment was a means of defining femininity and masculinity, and demarcating boundaries between some activities and others”. When prison authorities realised that the number of women prisoners were growing, and that male prisons couldn’t account for their needs, they opened a prison just for women in 1913. At Addington Prison, punishment included work deemed appropriate to women’s needs: more indoor domestic labour. Women prisoners were forced to conform to an idealised image of womanhood, “to become good women, proper mothers, obedient wives or daughters” and acceptable to the dictates of the market.

So, when Davis calls for gender-responsive prisons that meet the needs of women, he is basically calling for more of the same. As Bronwyn Dalley argued, prisons without men were still prisons.

Rather than solve social problems with prisons, we need to address the social problems that send people to prison in the first place. As American geographer and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, prison abolition is “figuring out how to live in the world in which prison is not necessary”. It not only means responding to the harm that occurs between people in new ways, it means preventing the very circumstances that lead to harmful behaviour in the first place. Doing so shouldn’t end with putting people into cages.

Organisations like JustSpeak and People Against Prisons Aotearoa have called attention to the woeful state of New Zealand’s prisons and the impact of incarceration on women, trans and non-binary people, and people of colour for years. Not only have they documented cases of abuse such as that experienced by Mihi Bassett, they also provide alternatives. Elsewhere, innovative online toolkits such as He Ara Mataroa – Tools to Stop Violence arm us with community-led ways to address sexual and interpersonal violence free of the state.

Changes to our prison system are urgently needed. Meeting the needs of all inmates should be the bare minimum of care within any prison. But meeting these basic human rights shouldn’t come at the cost of more imprisonment. Building gender-conscious prisons is not the answer. Building a world without prisons is.

Jared Davidson is a Wellington-based archivist and historian. He is the author of the upcoming book Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand.

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