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September 28, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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NZ Prisons—what’s going on in there?

“The way we punish crime involves more than just the sanctions we impose. Every dollar spent in prison is a dollar less for education, health, and social welfare. The way we punish offenders tell us a great deal about ourselves.”

So says Professor John Pratt (James Cook Research Fellow at VUW), talking at the third DO SOMETHING! seminar ‘New Zealand Prisons—whats going on in there?’. Professor Pratt, Phil McCarthy (General Manager Rehabilitation, Department of Corrections), and Kim Workman (Rethinking Crime and Punishment) formed a panel speaking to a capacity audience on the complex dynamics of New Zealand’s penal system.

The general attitude of (middle-class, pakeha) New Zealand towards prisoners seems to be ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’. However, with 8500 prisoners currently incarcerated (a number predicted to exceed 10,700 by 2016), with recent news that our prisons will reach capacity by mid-2010, and with our rates of imprisonment being the second highest in the Western world, we can’t afford to condone that kind of attitude any longer. In contrast to Scandinavian countries, which have some of the lowest incarceration rates in the Western world, our attitude seems to celebrate degradation of prisoners. We as a society are quick to judge, ignore the relationship between disadvantaged statistics and imprisonment, and then we wonder why prisoners have problems reintegrating back into society. Maybe if we educated the 52% who have no qualifications, educated the massive number who are illiterate, cared for those who fell into drug and alcohol abuse at incredibly young ages, and offered encouragement instead of condemnation, prisons could truly be a place of rehabilitation.

This requires a big change in New Zealand’s psyche towards what prisons are for. In the meantime, there are practical things that individuals and communities can do to help make this happen:

  • Commit to becoming more informed about our penal system. A good place to start is Caritas’ booklet A Justice That Reconciles (free to a good home here)
  • Join and financially support an organisation working in the area. Options: Rethinking Crime & Punishment (rethinking.org.nz) and the howardleague.co.nz.
  • Volunteer with a prisoner support agency (two options are the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society parts.org.nz, and Prison Fellowship pfnz.org.nz), or with the Department of Corrections volunteering@corrections.govt.nz (lots of options: teaching, counselling, mentoring, running recreational activities)

For audio of the whole meeting, and video interviews with Professor John Pratt, Phil McCarthy and Kim Workman, go to www.dosomething.org.nz

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