What to do when your country is addicted to prison

In Aotearoa New Zealand we have a prison addiction. We are sending our people – and in particular our Māori and Pacific Island people – behind bars in greater and greater numbers. In the words of our Minister of Finance, Bill English, prison is a moral and fiscal failure. But in the five years since Bill English made this statement his colleagues still haven’t got the message.

Throwing more money into prisons and hoping they will go away is a Government in denial about how they are contributing to this rise in prison numbers. We’re reaching crisis point with almost 10,000 prisoners on any given day and rising.

Just because the Government is silent on this issue doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be. The best way to deal with an addiction is to acknowledge it and face it head on. Addictions are often linked to other issues, and for a prison addiction that means not shying away from talking about colonisation, poverty and inequalities.

Join us on the 16 July as our public discussion series continues, with a forum focusing on the youth criminal justice system in Auckland https://www.facebook.com/events/901077299997106/ and in a forum with expert witnesses from the Waiting Tribunal case against Corrections in Wellington on 27 July.

This year, as our prison numbers escalate JustSpeak will provide spaces for public discussions so that those with lived or work experience in prisons can share their experiences and together we can propose solutions. As part of that project, JustSpeak is hosting a series of public discussions in South Auckland and Wellington on the human impact of our prisons.

Our first public discussion was held on the 16th of April in Manukau. Speakers who work with prisoners and their families were invited to share their stories and experiences. Over sixty people attended the forum, and there was significant community engagement, insight and suggestions.

Sarah Boyd spoke from YouthLaw. Sarah has worked with many youth offenders in her career. She narrated the story of factors that protected her from a life of crime: access to a good home, tertiary education, and family that loved and supported her. Fair access to the necessities of life and the advantage of pro-social influence should be available to all; it is unfortunate that some young people miss out on these protective factors.

Tracey Mouat and Corrina Dixon represented Pillars, which works to support the whānau of prisoners to help break the cycle of inter-generational crime. Children of prisoners often serve an invisible sentence of their own along with their parents, and they are often far worse off when their parents are in prison. By working to support these children who feel abandoned by the system, Pillars helps them to reduce their likelihood of entering the criminal justice system as an offender. Pillars would love to see less imprisonment so that fewer children are affected by it.

Lua Maynard works as an anti-violence facilitator at the Friendship House. He grew up in Los Angeles and moved to New Zealand. Friendship House has specialised in the delivery of programmes designed to engage men actively in eliminating their violent behaviour, especially within the family environment. Noting how many Māori and Pasifika men become entangled with the criminal justice system, Lua encouraged us to push for a better criminal justice system.

Reina Harris is a social policy analyst from the Salvation Army, who had kindly supported JustSpeak and the forum. The Salvation Army published the State of the Nation report in February which outlined the statistics on child poverty and overall crime statistics. She highlighted the fact that we are approaching the highest recorded number of Māori prisoners in Aotearoa, a significant problem that needs to be addressed in the Beehive and Parliament.

Our last speaker was Tracey McIntosh, an associate professor in Sociology at University of Auckland. Her experience of working with women in Auckland Women’s prison and teaching them creative writing had shed some light into the potential and promise that is currently locked behind bars. Tracey shared some of the poems that the women had written, which astounded the audience as to the strength and emotion in these creative writing pieces. One in particular was titled ‘She Screamed’; a poetic outcry of a woman’s grief and despondency of her life experiences. We were left with the impression of what could have been, had these women not fall into the path of prison.

The discourse of institutional oppression, privilege, and the power of opportunity stayed on our minds as the forum came to a close. It gave us a good starting point to start speaking out, so that we can change the criminal justice system to stop the epidemic of mass imprisonment in New Zealand.

Written by Grace Angelia, JustSpeak Co-National Communications Coordinator