Invisible Sentences

Rachel spent a week interning with JustSpeak in early October learning about criminal justice issues in New Zealand, and reflecting on the how systems in New Zealand the United States perpetuate racialised inequity and the erosion of strong and healthy communities.

I left my home state of Ohio at the beginning of August to begin my year in New Zealand! I graduated from Davidson College in the United States in May with a degree in sociology, and I am currently abroad for the year on a Watson Fellowship. The Watson Fellowship is an experiential learning opportunity, during which recent graduates from participating universities in the United States travel abroad for one year to explore an area of interest. My project explores justice systems and incarceration in New Zealand, South Africa, and Rwanda, with a focus on community-based initiatives and responses to structural inequity.

Invisible Sentences: New Zealand and the United States

New Zealand faces incarceration rate trends that parallel those of the United States. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 5% of the world population and 25% of the world prison population (ACLU, 2017). From 1970 to 2015, the United States prison population grew roughly 7.5 times (Sentencing Project, 2015).

Although no country in the world touches the United States prison rate of 666 people per 100,000, New Zealand is one of the highest in the OECD with 212 per 100,000 (World Prison Brief, 2017). The New Zealand prison population has increased almost 300% from 1983 to 2013 (JustSpeak, 2014).

U.S. Incarceration Growth

(The Sentencing Project, Trends in U.S. Corrections, 2015)

New Zealand Incarceration Growth

(Unlocking Prisons, JustSpeak, 2014)


In New Zealand, as in the United States, incarceration rates are racialized. These disparities are connected to deep histories of structural inequity. The New Zealand national population is 15% Māori, while the New Zealand prison population is 50% Māori (NZ Department of Corrections, 2017). Who bears the brunt of this phenomenon?

Children with Parents Incarcerated

I have had the opportunity to work with Pillars, an organization based in Christchurch that supports children with parents incarcerated. Children with parents incarcerated may face adversity including financial stress, lack of home stability, and post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly from seeing a parent arrested (Children of Prisoners Māori Data, 2011). Pillars calls these effects on children “invisible sentences”.

Invisible sentences are a global phenomenon. In the United States, there are an estimated 5 million children who have had a parent incarcerated, or 1 in 14 children. This statistic means 1 in 9 Black children, or almost twice the rate of white children, which is 1 in 17. This reality also disproportionately affects children living in poverty, children in rural areas, and children whose parents have less formal education. Furthermore, these statistics are an underestimate, as they only account for parents incarcerated who were living with their children (Murphey and Cooper, 2015).

The Atlantic explores the way disparities experienced by children with parents incarcerated are reproduced and amplified in the United States here, here and here

In New Zealand there are 20,000 children with a parent incarcerated (Pillars, 2013). Just as disproportionate racial incarceration translates to disproportionate racial impact on children in the United States, so it does in New Zealand. In New Zealand, half of children with a parent incarcerated are Māori (JustSpeak, 2017). New Zealand kids with a parent in prison are then seven times more likely to go to prison themselves (Rethinking crime and punishment, 2015).