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International Prisoner's Justice Day

Forty four years ago, on 10 August 1974, Canadian prisoner Edward Nation died in the segregation unit of an Ontario prison. He had bled to death after the emergency call button in his cell, which had been deactivated by guards, failed to work. His death prompted an annual observance by Canadian prisoners in the years immediately following. Today, August the 10th, is globally recognised as International Prisoner's Justice Day. It is a day that aims to achieve much needed prison reform. As we know, and as Bill English so concisely stated in 2011, "Prisons are a moral and fiscal failure."

The Huffington Post in 2012 wrote a blog titled: "What to Think About on Prisoner's Justice Day". It stated that it is "a day for us to ask many questions about our prison system as a whole" and identified overcrowded jails and increased of segregation as key issues. Recently New Zealand prisons have claimed numerous headlines. We know our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. Our incarceration rate is an embarrassment. In terms of locking up people, we are the fifth worst in the OECD (behind the US, Turkey, Israel and Chile). For every 100,000 people in our country we lock up 220. Australia locks up 167, the UK 141, and Canda - at almost half our rate - 114. For every 100,000 Māori in New Zealand we lock up 720. This is higher than the US's 655 per 100,000, which leads the OECD in this terrible statistic.

The conditions that prisoners live in often gets less air time. Two big issues we frequently hear about are difficulties accessing rehabilitation programmes and difficulties keeping in contact with whānau and friends. Different prisons offer diffferent programmes. These may or may not be the programmes required by the Parole Board for a specific prisoner. Prisoners may or may not complete programmes in time to met their first parole hearing, and, if not, it is almost certain that they will remain inside adding to our overcrowded prison crisis.

Contact with whānau and friends are well known to aid rehabilitation and reintegration back into the community. This is no doubt why the Corrections Act states one principle guiding our corrections system is to encourage and support contact between prisoners and their families (s6(1)(i)). The minimum standards for this contact is also stipulated by the same Act. These include a visit from one family member or friend each week for at least 30 minutes (s73(1)), and at least one outgoing phone call of up to five minutes' duration per week (s77(3)). People unable to live in their regional prisons often don't get any visits because family live too far away. Limited weekend visits mean it can be difficult to see your children if they are at school during the week. On top of that visiting spaces and conditions are not exactly family-friendly. One letter we recently received told of a prisoner's family having to travel five hours for a 45 minute visit with him. Access to telephones is variable, and for most prisoners they are only accessible in the hours that you are not locked up in your cell and not working. The information we gain from prisoners indicates they are locked in their cells on average over 15 hours per day. Depending on the prison you are in you there can be almost one phone per prisoner, or only one for every 33 people. In one instance we have heard of up to 88 prisoners using one phone. A prisoner in that unit wrote to us saying: "I'd hate to think how many issues over the past few years only having one phone for 88 men has caused. Let alone the missed contact between loved ones I experienced." The average across New Zealand is one phone for 20 prisoners.

In New Zealand there is no minimum standard for cell sizes. This adds to the concern that the Corrections Amendment Bill, which is currently proceeding through Parliament, will shift the current preference of single cells to double bunking. For many prisoners double bunking adds to the anxiety of living in a prison. They identify experiencing nightmares, the lack of privacy, the inability to have a space to think and process emotions, and unbearable toilet smells as adding to this stress. This does not seem to us to support facilitating rehabilitation. One inmate observed in our annual survey that "double bunking in Springhill is like a hell on earth." The Bill's proposal to legitimise police jails as prisons, without needing all of the minimum requirements stipulated in the Corrections Act, also disturbs us greatly.

These are just a few of the issues facing people inside our prisons. Many New Zealand prisoners are illiterate, have mental health problems, and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The reasons why they are in prison are often not straightforward. It is old news to say that while offending is reducing, in New Zealand we are locking up more and more people. This situation will only change with a change in political will. On days like today it is particularly important for those of us with the luxury of freedom to think hard about this.

Christine McCarthy
President, Wellington Branch, Howard League for Penal Reform.

The Wellington Branch of the Howard League is one of three branches (the others being Canterbury and Otago) of the National Coalition of Howard Leagues, which dates from 1924 in New Zealand.

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