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What To Do About Prisons: On Greg Newbold’s

Tristan Egarr



With the opening of a new prison down in Milton, wide-spread furore over Graeme Burton’s rampage on parole, and allegations of corruption in Wellington’s Rimutaka prison, incarceration has been a major focus of the New Zealand media this year. Prisons are so over-filled that 150 inmates are currently being kept in police cells and vans. New Zealand has the fourth highest per-capita prison population in the developed world (behind the USA, Mexico and Poland), with 8000 prisoners currently behind bars; last week, the government announced that it intends to spend $1.2 billion on new prisons in the next seven years. Meanwhile, more than 70 per cent of prisoners re-offend after release.
Earlier this year, University of Canterbury criminologist and former Paremoremo inmate Dr. Greg Newbold released the first complete history of imprisonment in this nation, The Problem of Prisons: Corrections Reform in New Zealand Since 1840. Salient talks to Dr. Newbold about his response to the trouble surrounding imprisonment.
Punishment and Reform: The Twin Engines of the Prison
Prison policy in New Zealand has been the centre of a long-running debate over whether criminals should be punished or rehabilitated. When our prison system was nationalised back in 1880, their chief administrator – the mustachioed ex-army Captain Hume – emphasized a harsh and regimented programme: inmates were to be kept in separate cells, forbidden to speak to each other, and only allowed to exercise in circular marching rings. Despite the harshness of his administration, Hume argued that by organising those tainted by crime according to rules and timetables, prisons could help normalise inmates. He even advocated parole for those effectively cured. But within the first months of his tenure, prisoners in Lyttelton gaol and a floating hulk in Otago Harbour mutinied against their strictly ordered regime; despite policies advocating order and restraint, prison guards cannot help but rely upon physical force to control inmates, given that some will inevitably resist incarceration. This limits a guard’s ability to act as a counsellor or therapist.
Nevertheless, official prison policy in this country continues to single out the rehabilitation of offenders as its central purpose. The Integrated Offender Management regime, introduced in 1995, advocates a “psycho-therapeutic” approach focusing upon the “rehabilitative needs” of prisoners. In the meantime, minimum non-parole periods for many sentences have been extended, departmental cut-backs and overcrowding have seen a decrease in work-training schemes, and National’s clampdown on inmates’ possessions in 1998 has made conditions inside our prisons harsher than they were 30 years ago. Rehabilitative rhetoric is not matched by reality.
The Many Functions of Imprisonment
Punishment and rehabilitation have always been intertwined. In The Problem of Prisons Greg Newbold argues that imprisonment is not primarily a rehabilitative mechanism – nor should it be. He writes that although rehabilitation programmes have “the potential to create a more thoughtful, compassionate human being than one who receive no treatment at all”, a focus upon rehabilitation alone is flawed because most prisoners’ problems are not of the sort that can be fixed by “clinicians in white coats”. Instead, he groups rehabilitation along with four other major purposes of imprisonment.
Newbold told me that prisons are primarily a form of “social sanitation” and their most important direct consequence is that demonstrably dangerous criminals are kept away from the public. Prisons achieve this custodial purpose even when they fail to reform. The tension between safety and rehabilitation has driven debate over how lenient parole boards should be, and what Department of Corrections funds should be spent upon. Given that most New Zealand prisoners have problems with drug use, the fact that only 120 places in drug-treatment programmes exist has been identified as a problem which the government is currently seeking redress. However, Newbold said that we should not expect too much success from such programmes, since most criminals have “life-management problems”, of which drug abuse is simply one symptom.
A third function of prisons is deterrence. Newbold writes that white-collar fraudsters are not a direct threat to the safety of the community, but that because “suit-wearing businessmen… are generally fearful of prison”, imprisonment remains a useful deterrent against such crimes. On the other hand, violent crimes which do not involve rational fore-thought and planning cannot be addressed by deterrence.
Fourthly, incarceration satisfies many victims’ desire for retributive punishment, allowing them to feel that they have been given their pound of flesh in return for the pain they’ve suffered. While this sounds like an awful thing to spend the taxpayer’s money on, Newbold argues that since many victims want retribution, and since one of the major purposes of the justice system is to compensate victims, retribution is an inevitable part of imprisonment, no matter how unpalatable. This includes allowing people like Kevin McNeil, son of murdered Tokoroa schoolteacher Lois Dear, to read out emotionally-charged victim impact statements during sentencing.
Finally, imprisonment serves to reinforce the state’s power over individuals, imposing order and restrictions upon a person’s freedom when they are judged to have breached their bond with the social contract. Imprisonment substitutes state justice for vigilantism.
Prison History: “A Graveyard of Abandoned Fads”
By looking back over a century and a half of imprisonment, Newbold is able to trace the rise and fall of alternately harsh and sympathetic approaches to punishment, with little discernable impact upon crime statistics. The Problem of Prisons covers the various policy regimes concisely and clearly, outlining major trends, events and personalities during its chronological first half. Newbold shows how the liberal approach to parole instituted by Labour’s Criminal Justice Act 1985 led judges to impose longer sentences, which brought about a massive growth in the prison population. Subsequently, politicians have begun talking about “truth in sentencing” – increasing the minimum non-parole period from one-third to two-thirds of a sentence, while encouraging judges to reduce the length of sentences.
The second half of the book isolates and analyses particular policies, such as home-detention, open-ended sentences, and privately-run prisons. Intriguingly, the sole privately-run prison to have operated in New Zealand, the Auckland Central Remand Prison, is described as both more humane and more orderly than government run facilities, yet it returned to state control in 2005 after only six years of private management. Newbold also lambasts the way millions of dollars in resources are spent on addressing the over-representation of Maori in prison by tackling the ‘Maori mind’, as if the diverse number of Maori and part-Maori communities in New Zealand could all be lumped together into a single consciousness.
While The Problem of Prisons has a historical element, the book’s focus is firmly upon the present. The only previous major history of New Zealand’s prisons, John Pratt’s Punishment in a Perfect Society: The New Zealand Penal System 1840-1939 (released in 1992) concentrated largely upon the colonial era, detailing Maori responses to imprisonment.
Pratt recounts one chief who, when sentenced to two months imprisonment in 1843, said he would rather be executed than suffer the humiliation and indignity of captivity. Then in the 1880s, Te Whiti and other leaders of the Parihaka community were imprisoned in exile in the South Island, away from mainstream prisoners, in order to impress upon them the superiority of Pakeha culture.
These events are not mentioned in Newbold’s book. He told me that this is because, rather than going over ground already covered by Pratt, he wanted to write a book which could “be an influence on the direction of prison policy… to contemplate it historically but to focus on the current situation.” Similarly, he does not address the changing definitions of crime, leaving aside the matter of why people are arrested to focus upon how to treat people once they are arrested. For while a successful prison policy will require that people who shouldn’t be in jail are not sent there, it is likely that such cases will always exist, and administrators must be prepared to deal with them.
What We Gain From Jail
“A penal system must be conceived as a mechanism to administer illegalities differently, not to eliminate them all.” – Michel Foucault
The French philosopher Michel Foucault famously argued that prisons were a way for society to regulate the relationship between criminals and the state, rather than cure crime. Their inability to effectively rehabilitate most offenders supports this view, although it does not make them a redundant institution.
Despite the rhetoric surrounding rehabilitation, New Zealand’s prisons have always relied upon violence, and it is difficult to see how they could have been administered without such force. During his time in Paremoremo, Greg Newbold learned that a guard’s central concern is to enforce order, preventing violence and escape. While some prisoners are willing to change their behaviour and engage in education and work schemes, others will resist being institutionalized by threatening and attacking guards. Gang-affiliated prisoners have even reached out and threatened guards’ families unless they are allowed to smuggle in contraband. Crackdowns on the amenities allowed to inmates in 1998 led to major prison riots in Paremoremo. Attempting to punish prisoners through austerity puts guards’ lives at risk.
Newbold reminds us that we cannot expect prison to reform most inmates, but that we also need to ensure a decent standard of living, both for prisoners’ sake and for the safety of the men and women who guard them. He told me that the best prison guard is neither a bully nor a psychological counselor, but “a guy who can manage men without throwing his weight around, who can ensure security by his presence, his honour and his dignity”.
And while reformative programmes cannot be expected to prevent crime, they “allow people to help themselves and make prisons relatively benign places. They keep prisoners occupied so that they don’t run around smashing things”.
This pragmatic argument is a much-needed counter to the misplaced belief that prisons are able to cure all inmates if they are well-run, and the equally mistaken belief that we can simply lock bad people up, throw away the key and ignore their welfare. Instead of vainly trying to use the prison to cure entrenched social problems associated with poverty and bad parenting, we need to redirect prison policy towards what it can do: minimize the harm these problems cause. To some extent, New Zealand’s prison policy does succeed. Whereas prison rape is a common and largely accepted occurrence in American jails, it is almost entirely absent in New Zealand’s institutions. Dr. Newbold concludes that “successful prison programmes are good management strategies” rather than ultimate solutions to social disorder. Prisons can help repair or at least manage damaged people, but they cannot cure the causes of crime.
The Problem of Prisons: Corrections Reform in New Zealand Since 1840, by Dr. Greg Newbold, published by Dunmore Press, is available from Vic Books.