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Prison Fellowship & Sensible Sentencing Trust

Prison Fellowship of New Zealand: Sensible Sentencing Trust

“If Garth McVicar (of the Sensible Sentencing Trust) and I can spend a week together, and then agree that we need new approaches to prison, and that the current system is not working, anything is possible.” That was the comment of Kim Workman, National Director, Prison Fellowship about his visit to the UK, Netherlands and Finland, as part of the Minister of Corrections fact finding visit. “At the end of the day, all New Zealanders want the same thing, - safe communities, a reduction in te numbers of victims, and working with offenders so that they become useful members of society.”

We won’t get that if the media, politicians and the community use the issue to divide rather than unite. We have to stop talking “conservative vs. liberal”, “tough vs. soft”; “right vs. left”. We also have to stop being either “pro-offender” or “pro-victims”. In my experience, young victims are offenders waiting to happen. What we need is a political accord to sit down and come up with a prison reform agenda that will provide workable alternatives.

One of the outstanding prison reformers, Professor Andrew Coyle of the International Centre of Prison Studies in London put it this way, “Toughness exists in the absence of information”. We need to persuade the government to set up a process by which information about crime and punishment, and about alternatives to imprisonment is made widely available to the community. Then the community can form a view based on factual information.

Commenting on his experience, Mr Workman explained that the Finnish and Dutch prison systems operate from the viewpoint that prisons are schools of crime, and that most prisoners are harmed by the experience. “They set out to minimise the harm, and address the total needs of the prisoner. They do the basics well – provide work, basic education and training for employment, recreational, cultural and spiritual activity. Those are the areas in which the New Zealand system is falling short.

It seems to me that there are three things our Corrections system should aim to do: • Lessen the harm that the experience causes prisoners through work, education and employment training, life skills training, and rehabilitation.

• Hold prisoners accountable for the harm they have done to their victims, families and the wider community

• Assist them to plan for their effective reintegration back into the community, from the first day they enter the prison.

For twenty years or so, we have been promoting the idea that effective rehabilitation can happen in prison. Yes it can, but the conditions have to be right, the people have to be right, and the providers/trainers have to be skilled and equipped. It is very difficult to do. The results with these programs so far, indicate that we are expecting far too much, and getting far too little. We have spent a huge resource on programs which haven’t worked.

Some of the funding spent on rehabilitation inside prisons, would be better spent by developing community based rehabilitation programs, or dedicated secure residential treatment centres, which operate not as prisons, but as therapeutic communities. This should be accompanied by a change in sentencing practise, so that those in need of drug and alcohol treatment, or with mental health issues, can be properly treated.

We also need to focus on taking the short term offenders out of the prison system, and into an expanded community service regime.


Kim Workman National Director Prison Fellowship of New Zealand

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