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Aging prison population a complex issue

Aging prison population a complex issue

There is less truth today in the saying that many men stop committing crime because of "a job, and the love of a good woman".

Kim Workman, Project Leader of the Rethinking Crime and Punishment Project, was commenting on today's Department of Corrections report which showed that growth in overall prisoner numbers has almost entirely been amongst older offenders. In 1980, prisoners aged 30 years and over made up 20% of the sentenced population; they now comprise 58% of the total.

"There are a number of factors which are contributing to the aging prison population, and only part of has to do with the increased length of prison sentences."

"Three decades ago, most male prisoners between the age of 25 30 years were in a stable relationship. This was a major factor in motivating them to desist from crime, particularly if children were involved. That has changed dramatically. Men, especially those who live on the poverty line, are more likely to have a string of relationships over time. While they have children to successive partners, the couples do not commit to each other long term. Even if they are in a stable relationship at the time of being sentenced, the longer sentences being imposed make it more likely that the relationship will not survive the sentence. Over 50% of all relationships disintegrate during a prison sentence."

Celia Lashlie, a member of the Rethinking 'think tank' agrees. "There is much more mobility and acceptance of having a succession of partners in society at-large today, which in turn can mean a more casual approach to relationship building is being taken by some. Because women are also mobile, it is easy enough for a man to find a partner following release from prison. If there is no commitment to the relationship, there is no commitment to living a stable, crime free existence. On the positive side, women are less willing to continue in a violent, abusive relationship than was historically the case."

Both agree that once released, prisoners are tolerated less within the community than was once the case. "In recent times we have become much more than ever before a country of "haves" and "have nots", a real gap now existing between the rich and the poor" explains Celia, "a reality that is increasingly aggravated by a punitive streak that exists within some in our society who cling to the mythology that this is a land of equal opportunity, a place where everyone can make it IF they try. Employers and community members are less willing to support prisoners who want to rebuild their lives. The jobs available are usually casual or temporary, paying minimum wages. Given a choice, many older prisoners find it too tough to break out of old habits and return to the easy money involved in minor crime, or drug dealing. They may have the dream of a different life, but to make it real, they need hope, real hope, and I think that has become a commodity many in the community are no
longer willing to offer them"

Both have ideas about how it might be possible to break the cycle. "The prisoner's reintegration strategy should start on the first day of their sentence" said Kim. " The Department of Corrections has yet to develop a comprehensive prisoner reintegration strategy especially one that manages prisoner reintegration during the prison sentence. Family and whanau relationships should be sustained over the duration of the sentence otherwise we risk the children of prisoners from becoming the prisoners of tomorrow. That would involve a pro-active approach encouraging whanau visits, holding whanau days, providing expanded parenting courses, and relationship counselling prior to release."

"If marriage relationships are no longer the norm, then we should focus on developing other systems of support and accountability. Where an ex-prisoner has a group of people prepared to commit over the long term, or the prisoner finds a raison d'etre for living, it becomes a lot easier. The acquisition of skill, a spiritual or cultural belief system, or membership in an organisation, can make all the difference."

For Celia, a major area of focus is the women in prison, a forgotten group of people whom the Department of Corrections continues to pay minimal attention to. Many of these women are, despite their very best intentions, raising the criminals of the next generation. "Give these women hope, show them that their decisions matter, that they are the ones who will determine the level of opportunity their children will experience in their lives and miracles will happen. It takes a village to raise a child and sitting at the centre of the villages the children most at-risk are living in are women, strong women who can with the right level of support, be major agents of change".

The real challenge however, is how to change the attitude of employers, community stakeholders and the public toward those prisoners who want to go straight. "In comparatively repressive countries such as Singapore, they recognise that prisoners deserve a second chance, and employers are treated as civic heroes if they support prisoners to succeed. The real issue is not employment and accommodation it is community stigmatisation", said Kim


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