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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Books |
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Counterfutures 3: Incarceration

New Zealand society does not just have a tolerance for a high incarceration rate but an enthusiasm for it. This quote from Tracey McIntosh sets the tone of Counterfutures 3: a collection of critical essays, creative non-fiction, interviews, and reviews exploring leftist thought and practice regarding incarceration in Aotearoa.

As described by John W. Buttle in “Imagining an Aotearoa/New Zealand Without Prisons”: “Mass incarceration is not just about prisons, but includes the whole criminal justice system and the web of laws, regulations, and policies that constrain those who have been convicted, in and out of prisons.” As a collection, Counterfutures goes further than linking mass incarceration with vague theories, weaving together reflections on race, gender, politics, and power, and the way these concepts interrelate with incarceration and punitiveness. In doing this, Counterfutures asks not only why does incarceration look the way it does, but attempts to address how we contextualise and characterise “criminals” and “crime”.

Some pieces are informative, and historical. Mark Derby and Warwick Tie’s “Feculent Hovel” paints a graphic opening image of the systemic discrimination in Aotearoa’s penal culture. Pip Adams’ “In the Car” explores a personal, reflective snapshot which humanises the experiences of those she has encountered within the penal system — their codes, practices, and patterns. Each piece is carefully selected, critically analysing a different facet of our understanding of incarceration. Ever-present in the text is an awareness of the powerful cultural hegemonies governing the political and social economies of both Aotearoa and wider frameworks of Western thought.

Perhaps most telling of the narrative that Counterfutures seeks to establish — and the centre/right narrative it wishes to disrupt — is “Demanding Explanations”, Ronald Kramer’s review of Greg Newbold’s Crime, Law and Justice in New Zealand, and Newbold’s response to this review. Newbold’s book charts “major crime related events from New Zealand’s history,” and seeks to place these within broader social contexts. Kramer’s critique questions the ideologically-loaded approach with which Newbold undertakes this exercise.

It is pertinent, I think, to begin with Newbold’s conclusion — “In retrospect, if I had been able to read Kramer’s review prior to publication, I would have changed nothing.” His rhetoric encapsulates the defensiveness and ignorance with which leftist discourse is often met.

Crime, Law and Justice, according to Kramer, fails to contextualise much of its empirical evidence, making reference to an indigenous “culture of poverty,” the women’s movement, and popular culture, without critically assessing correlative and causative links. For example, according to Newbold, while “there is absolutely no way of determining what percentage of rape complaints are actually true or false,” he has over a period of time “collected a large dossier containing hundreds of proven cases of false and malicious rape complaints.”

Newbold’s response to Kramer’s review, predictably, misses the point — confusing a series of smug pats-on-the-back from those in positions of power in the criminal justice system for a critical reflection on the robustness of his arguments. After all, “students at UC [University of Canterbury] love it.” This narrative weaves wider concerns about the way feminist, socialist, and Marxist discourses are marginalised as “radical” in the face of mainstream academic literature, and brings with it a level of intertextual awareness.

Counterfutures real strength lies within this degree of reflection. As posited in the interview with No Pride in Prisons, “we can’t separate the prison from the social system and the historical conditions that brought it into existence.” An awareness of this brings with it a sense of enlightenment — incarceration, while systemic in our society, does not have to be so. Decarceration, or prison abolition, may not be our present reality, but that does not mean it can’t ever be. To borrow a phrase from Moana Jackson, every change is but a shift in reality.

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