Friday 8 January 2021

On Prisons.

"Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." Prisons are places of unceasing emotional and physical violence, unrelieved despair and unforgivable human waste.

IT WAS NATIONAL’S Bill English who accurately described New Zealand’s prisons as “fiscal and moral failures”. On the same subject, Labour’s Dr Martyn Findlay memorably suggested that no prison should be “escape proof”. Such an institution, he said, would crush all hope, and with it the inmate’s soul. English’s and Findlay’s words are important. They show that, on both sides of the political divide, there have always been politicians who understood the sheer awfulness of prisons. They are places of unceasing emotional and physical violence, unrelieved despair and unforgivable human waste.

And yet, New Zealanders cannot seem to get enough of these places. Politically, it is extremely dangerous to follow the lead of English and Findlay. Voters will punish those who speak up on behalf of prisoners with an eagerness matched only by their readiness to torment the prisoners themselves. Like so many of the English-speaking peoples, New Zealanders are a brutally punitive bunch. Their parliamentary representatives might pay lip-service to the idea of rehabilitation, but the vicious legislation they have passed testifies strongly against the sincerity of such protestations. What the people want, the people get: and what the people want is for convicted felons to be punished – long and hard.

Other nations with which we like to compare ourselves approach the whole question of crime and punishment from a very different perspective. In Scandinavia, particularly, people seem to have little difficulty grasping the fact that the number of people who constitute a constant, clear and unacceptable danger to society is actually extremely small. That these individuals must be kept away from their fellow human-beings in secure facilities is accepted as an inescapable, if regrettable, social reality. But, aside from this hardcore of incorrigible sociopaths and psychopaths, most criminals are regarded as victims of circumstances over which they have never exercised very much control. These are people to be healed – not further harmed.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when New Zealanders stopped understanding that the bad things that people do to one another cannot be undone. Restitution can be made, compensation can be paid, but time cannot be put into reverse.

We cannot unmake the misery inflicted upon us by our fellow human-beings. All we can hope to do is gain some understanding of why such deeds were done, and to do our utmost to ensure that they are not repeated – especially by the same offender/s.

A thousand years ago, much of Anglo-Saxon justice was devoted to assessing the proper quantum of “Wergild” – the amount to be paid out in compensation for a man’s life. Certainly, our ancestors believed that truly terrible crimes merited truly terrible punishments – usually violent death. But crimes of passion, crimes of pride, unpremeditated and instantly regretted: these were treated with much greater understanding. (It helped that those meting out justice had grown up alongside the accused.)

In contemporary New Zealand, however, there is a worrying and growing incapacity on the part of ordinary Kiwis to come to terms with the sad, bad, deeds of their fellow citizens. How can we “come to terms” with what the media insists on describing as the “evil” of the offender/s? If the victims of crime must endure “a life sentence” then so, too, must the perpetrator/s. Anything less can only result in the guilty “getting away with it”. Better by far to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”.

Except, of course, locking them up and throwing away the key leads inevitability to the disgraceful situation at Waikato’s Waikeria Prison. With New Zealanders demanding better treatment for this country’s chickens and pigs than they demand for its prison inmates, is it really any wonder that human-beings, locked-up in fetid, filthy cells, and denied even a shred of dignity by guards no less persuaded than the rest of the community that their charges are “evil”, will, if they still possess an ounce of self-respect, rise up in protest?

And what does it say about the ubiquity of the very “evil” we claim to be locking away, that those responsible for bringing the Waikeria crisis to an end deliberately denied the protesting inmates fresh water – as the most effective means of forcing a “resolution”?

When will we all, like the British poet’s, W. H. Auden’s, schoolchildren, finally learn:

Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 January 2021.


Lindsay Mitchell said...

" guards no less persuaded than the rest of the community that their charges are “evil” "
I can tell you that many Corrections Officers would be deeply offended by that cheap shot.

Trev1 said...

Bill English was right. Prisons represent failure. Every effort must be made to reduce the prison muster. The mentally ill should not languish in our prisons, we need to find a way where they can be humanely cared for in a medical environment while protecting society from any threat more serious disorders might pose. And I find it deeply ironic and indeed alarming that this government is now apparently giving serious consideration to imprisoning people for the crime of free speech. So much for human rights.

Geoff Fischer said...

Our people risked their lives to take water to the soldiers of the British Crown as they lay wounded on the battlefield, and we are disappointed that, one hundred and sixty years on, the colonial regime has still not learned to show compassion for its enemies, or even for its own people.
The nation of Aotearoa deserves a government that is honorable, courageous, strong, righteous, compassionate and merciful. It deserves nothing less than restoration of te rangatiratanga, and it will have rangatiratanga.

Nick J said...

Great column Chris. I dont see any issue with the Scandinavian approach.

A few years ago i was bushwalking above Wellington on one of the many new tracks then being cut. A PD gang was busy cutting and digging. It caused me to reflect that this was a work in which the gang could derive pride and satisfaction, a positive achievement. Im uncertain if this is ever communicated to the PD gangs, but they certainly do need our gratitude at their good works, to let them know that they belong, they are us.

Shane McDowall said...

The worst thing about our justice system is that the victims of crime barely get a look in. At best they might get to make a statement in court about how the offender turned their lives upside down.

Prisons are not a first resort as in days of yore. If memory serves, Dover Samuels was sentenced to imprisonment for allegedly stealing some linen from a hostel. These days you have to kill someone or be on your fifth-or-so conviction before you actually wind up in one of Her Majesty's Hotels.

In an ideal world we would have separate prisons for gang members, people on long sentences, and short termers. Gangs are recruiting from inside our prisons and make life hell for non-gang inmates.

While I agree with the sentiments of your article, the fact is anyone can be a critic. What alternative to prison do you have Christopher ?

pdm said...

I always looked at prisons as a place where criminals were sent as punishment for their crimes and to keep the rest of the population safe from them.

Nothing wrong with that philosophy even now I suggest.

greywarbler said...

Kim Workman and the prison reform group must feel deep sadness also those working for positivity and pride in prisoners. Double bunking was unforgiveable. How can a 'decent' , wise society turn people out of prisons after a period, worse in their drives than they went in, brutalised further by prison experiences, and make the general public, and in particular their families - partners, guinea pigs to see if they will commit further experiences?

Bringing in the three strikes and you're out was a last resort idea for the hardened
criminal but any use that system might have provided was spoiled by setting too low a benchmark for the third offence which cut its value to ribbons.

Kim Workman - Wikipedia
Sir Robert Kinsela Workman KNZM QSO (born 1940/1941), commonly known as Kim Workman ... Workman has been a long-time advocate of prisoners' rights and for reform in the criminal justice system: he founded the Robson Hanan Trust, ...

...As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;...

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good...

And the more we punish these law-breakers without humane attempts to guide and give better approaches, the more we punish ourselves. If we don't respect their humanity, it shows that we don't respect humanity at all; respect is not intrinsic to all, in the eyes of the smug and powerful, it has to be earned, at their discretion. All should remember 'There but for the grace of God go I.' Which pays reference to our own potential for flaws and goodness, whether we believe in God or not. It realises our own advantages in life that have put us on a different path from the anomic, from the time we were mewling babies, our universal beginning.

This is another occasion to make my oft-repeated request, that we help and support all parents to become successful in their roles of bringing forward people healthy in body and mind to the fray of complex living that our 'civilisaton' has built over centuries.

greywarbler said...

Trev1 That is a thoughtful comment that I agree with. Good to hear sensible suggestions that deal with reality in an ethical way. We need to keep reminding government that they are not just there to punish, but to work on citizens needs, and one striking example that we have not shown this oversight is the decline of mental institutions to the point that they were considered irretrievably harmful and done away with. This has left prisons as a sort of modern bedlam, with pills to deaden the spirits and brains of the mentally troubled.

greywarbler said...

Going back to the 1967 rock musical 'Hair'. This from the film of 1979; Cheryl Barnes tells our problems now, in her song from then - 'Easy to be Hard'.

...And especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice

Do you only
Care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend...

How can people have no feelings
How can they ignore their friends
Easy to be hard
Easy to be cold

Easy to be proud
Easy to say no!

Chris Morris said...

Nick - in answer to your query. PD workers are used to do MTB tracks in both Rotorua and Taupo. I know from working alongside them that they take pride in their work. Getting on those work gangs is very desirable for them as they are out of the public gaze and they do something really productive. More than a few have gone onto fulltime work because of the experiences gained.
But then most on PD are there because they have done something stupid. They are generally not there for recidivist violent behaviour. It is those that society need to be protected against. And more than a few are very unlikely to be able to be rehabilitated, no matter what their treatment is - Robertson, Burton and Bell come to mind.
I also believe about a third of prisoners are there because they are on remand. Many on their court case get guilty but are released near straight away because they have already served their time. If we had a faster justice system, maybe there would be less prison muster and better screening could be done.