Turning the tide on our growing prison population

Today, a small group of the Poverty Action Working Group gathered to discuss the increasing prison population in Aotearoa New Zealand. This article is intended to reflect some of what was discussed, but in reality the conversation roamed, dipped and dived in a far more entertaining way than what is relayed here. Hence the value of face to face conversation and the importance of talking together. Not only do we get to figure things out a little, we are no experts and this is just our conversation, but we also get to know each other a little more and that’s a pretty good mix of outcomes.

There are a number of somewhat intuitive things that can be done to reduce the prison population. We could, for example, build less prisons and fund community based alternatives instead. We could also reduce poverty and inequality because these issues relate to violence, abuse and drug use. Actually, reducing poverty would probably be the most sensible thing that we could do if we really wanted to reduce prison rates. However, there is a little more to the story.

Jobs and houses do definitely matter and there is no doubt that financial struggle creates stress that can lead to crime. However, in the work of reintegrating someone into community who has been in prison, there is sometimes an assumption that if we give people a job and a house then everything will be fine.  The reality is, the people who ended up in prison often had jobs and houses before they did what they did. A job and house is not all that we need. However, it’s certainly related to achieving a sense of security that matters to all of us. This sense of security can also partly come from community and knowing that someone else is looking out for you, caring for you and that you are not alone.

Community building takes time, social ability and also a resonance of valuing or perhaps a like mindedness.  A lot of people are growing up today without a sense of values because they don’t necessarily have a sense of themselves or their identity. Values can change overtime and can be influenced by who we connect with. Education can support new values to develop and also new peer groups to form. When we socialise we expose ourselves to new relationships and values that in turn shape who it is that we are becoming. Our social groups reinforce ideas and values that may or may not be conducive to positive social outcomes.

How are values configured, and what are they influenced by? How do the stories that we know develop our conceptions of who we are? The reality of our prison population in Aoteaora New Zealand is that it is fed by a toxic mix of poverty, colonisation and institutional racism.  Today we discussed how the stories of colonisation are relatively silenced in our community. Over the last two years, on the 28th of October, Anglican Action together with Poverty Action Waikato have marked the signing of He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni (known in English as the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand). For many people in Aoteaora New Zealand, this significant day and event is unknown. We discussed the celebrations that are happening up north this year and the marking of the land wars that will happen on this day.

Why is it that ANZAC Day is our national War Memorial Day but we don’t acknowledge our local wars on this day? Is it because we think that the people who battled were not New Zealanders? These wars were waged by the English Militia who recruited the Irish, who they had not long starved, to fight their war against Māori. These wars are our wars, but many of us don’t know about them. It’s time we all knew.

Do we know the stories of Kirikiriroa? Do we know the history of Garden Place in Hamilton, a special place for the mana whenua, and about the hill pulled away to make room for the city centre. If we were to acknowledge the precolonial history of this special place, would some of the turmoil and ongoing reconfiguring of the city centre be calmed?  How might our history be acknowledged? Did you know that Hamilton East was called Irish Town – do we know our stories and what do they mean for us?

Knowing our stories of colonisation would build understanding and potentially reduce institutional racism – the racism that sits beneath and is entwined with the makeup of our prison population, 50% of which is Māori. We think addressing institutional racism, along with addressing poverty, would turn around the trend of the rising prison population.  And we could also reverse the Bail Amendment Act. It used to be that most people who were arrested could get out on bail and await their trial. Now this act has toughened things up and people are more likely to await trial in jail. The regulatory impact statement of the Bail Amendment Act was that it would increase the prison population by a few hundred. The reality is that it has increased our prison population by 1200 or more. People who are already in prison and go to trial are more likely to then end up back in prison – it’s called the Judge’s unconscious bias. The closer you already are to prison, the more likely you are to be sent there.

Our discussion today might not have changed the world but we did come up with some ways that we think we could turn the tide on our growing prison population.  We reckon that we came up with a pretty good list, what would yours be?

  1. Stop building prisons
  2. Increase community based sentences
  3. Reduce poverty and inequality
  4. Build community, values and identity
  5. Know the stories of colonisation in our spaces and places
  6. Reduce institutional racism
  7. Reverse the Bail Amendment Act




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