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Mandela Day: Howard League calls on MPs to visit prisons

Today (18 July) is Nelson Mandela International Day when the United Nations highlights the importance of humane conditions of imprisonment. In New Zealand our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. At 214 prisoners per 100,000 people, we have the fifth highest incarceration rate in the OECD,[1] behind the US, Turkey, Israel and Chile. Putting aside the debate on whether or not we should put people in prison, overcrowding and insufficient staff negatively impact on all aspects of prison life: limiting access to programmes and health services, resulting in high hours of cell confinement, and hindering the ability to ring family and friends. Understanding this is vital for all New Zealanders but particularly so for Parliamentarians. Consequently, the Howard League is encouraging all MPs to visit a prison to support the kaupapa of Nelson Mandela Day.

"The extreme conditions that prisoners experience are not just one-off occasions" Christine McCarthy, President, Wellington Howard League said. "It's difficult for most of us to really understand what it would be like to have no control over every aspect of your life. Prison processes are not built to fit around the humanity of the people in prisons. I mean many prisoners in New Zealand are regularly having dinner - and being locked up for the night - at 3.30pm when everyone else in the country is having afternoon tea. One prisoner who wrote to us puts the "pleasure" of prison dining really into perspective: "77 pieces of bread in a week!""

Current President of Canterbury Howard League and former prisoner, Cos Jeffery reflecting on his time in prison said: "The one enduring memory that still bugs me is the prevalence of violence that exists in New Zealand prisons. I'm not at all convinced it has changed much at all. A sense of helpless frustration was at the root of most of the violence that I experienced and observed inside. Double bunking - two prisoners to a cell combined with 23 hour lockdowns most weekends - has to test even the most mild mannered person."

Alan Bell, President, Otago Howard League agrees: "Most people wouldn't want to spend up to 23 hours a day locked in a small room with their spouse, their chosen life-partner, let alone a complete stranger who may have complex mental health issues, a history of violence, or gang affiliations."

There is currently much debate about the criminal justice system. It has been called "broken" by the Minister of Justice, and the Criminal Justice advisory group's first report He Waka Roimata paints an equally sad picture which no one appears to have disagreed with. There seems to be no dispute regarding the need for change. Nelson Mandela Day is an important reminder that we need to better understand what prison is really like if we are going to have the robust and realistic debate needed to transform New Zealand's criminal justice system. The people who will be leading this change are our politicans. It is vital that they visit prisons and talk to prisoners and properly scrutinise this aspect of our criminal justice system

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