Before colonisation Maori had a justice system in which the community were directly involved in deciding punishment. The death penalty or banishment could be imposed, but the most common punishment was confiscation of the perpetrator’s possessions for the benefit of the victim.
Europeans come from a tradition where criminals were paraded in the town centre. They were abused and shamed in various ways. The stocks sufficed for petty crimes. Lashing was popular. Regular public hangings were a reminder of the consequence for serious offence, and if you were silly enough to fail at treason, you ran the risk of being pulled apart by horses tethered to your limbs.
With the Industrial Revolution punishment of criminals shifted from being exacted against the body to being taken out on the soul. Instead of public humiliation, criminals were deprived of their liberty, locked away from public sight in buildings that resembled factories.
This is the system introduced by our colonial forefathers and is based on the idea of the State acting on the victim’s behalf. The law is broken, and if deemed serious enough, the State, and the State alone has the power to take away the perpetrator’s freedom (on behalf of the victim)
Today in Hawke’s Bay we process crimes against the State at Mangaroa prison which looks like an industrial complex. And that’s what it is, not with the same commercial imperatives as an abattoir or cannery, but the same industrialisation of processing its product.
We have chosen punishment to be constant surveillance in a sterile environment, and our current prison model looks more like animal husbandry than a humanised institution. Prisoners are caged, fed and watered, exercised, and managed on a strict timetable. Their lives more resemble those of battery chickens than human beings.
However, at Mangaroa, we have a factory where the poorest, least educated, and most social deprived members of our society, are processed into harder criminals.
Most of the prisoners in Mangaroa didn’t stand a chance. Neglected and abused as children, illiterate, addicted to alcohol and drugs, some mentally ill, they are societies failure more than their own. Instead of recognising our failure to support the poorest and least capable members of our society, we degrade them further by locking them away in soulless prison factories, out of sight, out of mind.
Those who advocate more and longer prison sentencing must be driven by an ideology which blinds them from seeing that mostly it is not sin that produces crime but deprivation; that imprisonment of the criminal escalates rather than diminishes crime; that punishment brutalises the society which administers it even more than the criminal who receives it.
New Zealand’s second highest ranking in the OECD for imprisonment is not an indicator of our toughness on crime. Rather it exposes our weakness in supporting those least able to support themselves in a society they find hostile and alien. It is a sign of our callousness and cruelty.
This year a Ministry of Education screening tool trailed on 197 New Zealand prison inmates, showed that 90% were not functionally literate and 80% were not functionally numerate.
Among these inmates are the serial serious offenders who are of greatest concern and have aroused the public’s call for harsher and longer sentencing.
Out of perhaps 50,000 cases a year processed in the criminal justice system, around 3,500 can be categorised as ‘lifetime offenders’. The mean cost to victims and ratepayers of an offender’s lifetime of crime is $3m. (The Origins of Serious Offending – About Time)
Numerous longitudinal studies, but most relevantly the Christchurch Health and Development Study, point to a child’s birth circumstances and upbringing being the prime factors in leading to adult imprisonment. Tomorrow’s prison inmates can be identified very early on in their lives, and initiatives are now underway to support those children and their families.
For as little as $5,000 invested in early recognition and intervention, the State can save itself $3m in future costs, and save a life.
Teenage delinquents are harder to soften. John Key’s ‘boot camp’ idea takes it’s name from the military and smacks of past failures, like Corrective Training with a 94.5% re-offending rate. Instilling discipline by force is archaic, but giving troubled youth the opportunity to ‘fresh start’ in a composite Marae/ Outward Bound model, linked with special needs education and mentoring, is more likely to succeed.
John Key says, ‘we’ve got issue with 1000 young New Zealanders.’ Instead of sending them off to, ‘Army style correction camps,’ Key should change his punitive attitude, and seek compassionate solutions to their illiteracy, low self esteem, lack of social skills, and victim mentality.
Probably there will always be psychopaths and others so severely antisocial they need to be drafted out. Imprisonment is here to stay. But an aim of any civilised society should surely be to reduce the number of citizens so degraded.