|"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.