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Narrow visions of justice

The Howard League for Penal Reform (Canterbury)

Newsletter Number 52 – October 2008

Narrow visions of justice

Over the last month or so many people have contacted us and expressed disquiet over the tenor of law and order policies being advanced as we approach the general election. We thought it useful to gather these policies together in our Fact Sheet this month so that people could more readily identify the apparent problem.

For us, the key issue is the focus of the policies on offer. Not only do these reinforce notions that crime is rampant and we are all at risk (when all official evidence indicates that crime rates have been dropping in NZ and world wide since the 1990s) but the policies deliberately promote the idea that the solution to crime lies in strengthening the institutions of criminal justice. Absent is any broader vision aimed at addressing the crime-nurturing social and economic environment in which all New Zealanders live their lives. A look at the summary we provide illustrates this point. Apart from the Maori Party and to some extent the Greens, the law and order policy of the other contenders is preoccupied with control – with extending the powers and severity of criminal justice institutions, most notably via the police and courts. Repeated reference to the more exceptional serious offences – murder, serious violence and sexual violence – adds grist to this political tunnel-vision.

In contrast, the Maori Party place social environment and reciprocal, mutually responsible human relationships at the heart of their law and order policy. They recognise where the real problem rests – in the weakening of a social and economic environment in which people look out for one another, where shared values of care, welfare and respect for others takes precedence over individualism and vengefulness. Real social harmony, they say, rests in the well-being of individuals, whanau and communities. Not for them, Tasers, more police funding, heavier sentences, more prisons and the bolstering of control. This is an authentically ‘bottom-up’ law and order policy. It resonates with first-hand experience and grass roots knowledge. It also speaks to the consequences of three decades of a particular brand of economic policy which has laid waste to (at least) a generation of young Maori (See our Fact Sheet & Newsletter June 08.

The penetration of economic individualism into all spheres of life (with the unregulated free market principles, practices and aspirations of possession and consumption that go with it) - and its association with crime policy - has been carefully traced and analysed by the leading criminologist at the London School of Economics, Robert Reiner (Law and Order, An Honest Citizen’s Guide to Crime and Control, Polity Press, 2007). His work systematically traces the rise of punitive penal policies in Britain and the USA with the adoption of neoliberal economic policies. (In NZ ‘new right’ economics was embraced in the 1980s by the Third Labour Govt.) With reference to an impressive array of international evidence, Reiner argues that this now ‘commonplace’ economic approach has been the fundamental factor underlying both the threats of crime and violence, and the increasingly authoritarian control tactics adopted to deal with it. The unprecedented rise in crime in the 1970s and 1980s, and the politicisation of law and order stem from this same ‘root cause’.

For Reiner and others, neoliberal societies, in contrast to social democracies (such as in Scandinavia), have generated cultures of egoism, short-termism and irresponsibility towards others: to a ‘corrosion of character’. Individual success is the driving aspiration. On social and political harms, he argues that the inequality and competitiveness which flows from these policies produce many adverse social circumstances, notably, poor health, social conflict and violence. More centrally, neoliberalism weakens the levers available to governments to regulate the economic and social divisions, the exclusion and injustice that are the root causes of crime. Reiner well concludes, ‘levels of crime are only partly a function of how well our criminal justice institutions operate, and are primarily shaped by wider social, economic and cultural factors’.

The quality of children’s visits to prison

In early July, we received complaints from prisoners and families about the sudden removal of toys from Christchurch Men’s Prison main visits centre. This prison can hold 900 men, so a lot of visiting children can be anticipated. The toys had apparently been used in a fight during a visit. Such an event is highly unusual and unlikely to be condoned by other prisoners or visitors. Blanket removal seemed excessive. We wrote to Regional Manager, Paul Monk, asking that the toys be reintroduced because of the need to normalise visits by children as much as is possible in what is a highly controlled and fraught setting. As it is, visitors are stopped from taking virtually everything inside with them by way of toys, push-chairs, food and fluids for their children.

Toys can make all the difference to the atmosphere and quality of the visit, especially when a dad is trying to restore a relationship with his kids or struggling to engage with them on weekly or special visits. We think the rhetoric of promoting positive parenting skills needs to be matched by a commitment by Corrections to provide every means by which this can happen. The presence of toys can also provide some distraction while parents talk through their many difficulties.

When the visits centre was built in 1999, we were assured by Mr Monk, that designated play areas would be included in the visits rooms and that toys would be available. In August, Mr Monk replied to us confirming our information and advising that toys were also being used to move drugs around the visits area from visitors to prisoners, sometimes by using the children. The information came from their internal intelligence team. The types of concealment had also seen the removal of the Coke vending machine. He advised that a national review into this matter, two years ago, had agreed toys would be provided during visits.

So in response to our complaint, he had asked two senior managers to identify appropriate toys, not for the visits rooms, but for the reception area. (We do wonder, given the way things work, who will know they are there?) Two letters followed repeating this promise and newly claiming an obligation ‘to assure children’s safety whilst they are visiting’. At best, this claim masks the heavy-handed approach adopted once the fight provided an excuse to remove the toys. The visits area has surveillance cameras. Prison staff oversee the visits. Visitors are intrusively screened and prisoners strip-searched after visits. Booth visits or prohibitions orders can be slapped on anyone found with drugs. We have no problems with that. We do object to the blunderbuss approach taken by the prison. On 7th October when we visited, there were no toys, just an echo of hollow words.

Meeting the literacy and numeracy needs of prisoners

In September, following our request, Corrections provided us with current information on the state of literacy and numeracy amongst prisoners. Until recently, they had screened for these needs by using the Burt Word Recognition Test (previously used in NZ schools) and by use of a separate numeracy tool. These tools found that 12% needed literacy help and 17% needed numeracy help. A new screening tool developed by the Ministry of Education was trialled more recently on 197 new prisoners. This found that approximately 60% of prisoners do not possess the basic literacy skills to engage in society and 90% were not considered functionally literate.

Additionally, approximately 35% of prisoners do not possess the numeracy skills to engage in society, and 80% are not considered functionally numerate. It is clear that the earlier tools used by Corrections significantly under-reported the true extent of theproblems faced by prisoners. The information went on to say that if one applied these results to the general prison population, some 3600 prisoners per year have a high literacy need, while 2100 have a high numeracy need.In response, since July this year, two providers have been contracted to deliver literacy and numeracy courses in all NZ prisons. Around 1850 prisoners per year will participate. The level of unmet need will be reviewed in a year.

Fear-mongering in Otago

As we noted in our August Newsletter, the competitive ferocity between media has seen the loss of ethical constraints amongst many journalists. Sensationalism is the goods. Last month a classic example of this fronted the Queenstown-based Dunedin ‘Magapaper’ - D scene (5.9.08). The whole front page of this tabloid featured the heavily tattoed face of a prisoner transferred to Otago, one of 24 prisoners moved South over 2 days while repairs were done at Hawkes Bay Prison. The article was aimed at boosting the sales of this interloper. Headed ‘Conair’ and featuring gang regalia, the 2-page spread shouted ‘gangsters’, ‘mob rule‘, ‘invasion’, ‘menacing sight’, ‘a powderkeg that could explode’, and went to lengths to point out the ‘comforts’ of ‘Club Milburn’. It opined that these men could be released locally! 30 posed photographs of the faces and restrained hands of the men were shown. In our view, the complicit prison officer escorts involved deserve to be sacked.


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