The New Zealand Prison system: Who are the real criminals?

post by Hollie Oswald

Another year has gone by and the New Zealand prison population continues to rise at a devastatingly fast rate. With one of the fastest growing prison numbers in the world the ‘tough on crime’ attitude Aotearoa has adopted seems to be failing us. Contrary to popular belief, prison does little towards rehabilitating inmates and instead rates of re-offending increase after being incarcerated (Corrections, 2017). We currently have 10,695 citizens sitting in prison cells, which not only has astronomical costs on society, but also inhibits individual’s opportunities to contribute to communities (Corrections, 2017). The prison crisis facing the nation is a longstanding problem that has seen similar punitive solutions throughout the different governments. Yet we seem to invite the wool to be pulled over our eyes so we can continue to ignore the structural and circumstantial drivers of crime.

The “three strikes” law and our present legislative setting, perfectly depict this skewed version of reality where locking people up for longer will inherently keep us safe (Northcott, 2017). Safe from who? Safe from what?

Safe from the thousands of individuals who suffer from mental health issues, safe from those who have been generationally oppressed, safe from those who have been limited in education, safe from those who have been stereotyped from birth? From this point of view our justice system, at best, is an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. Waiting for those who will inevitably fall.

Although the 2018 budget has indicated a slight distinction from other years by not shoving billions of dollars into building bigger, ‘safer’ prisons. It seems as though there is either a lack of money, or lack of motivation to invest in the preventative measures we so clearly need (Sawicki Mead, 2018). No additional funding was given to mental health and little to no investments were made in the incomes and education for the most vulnerable people in our nation. Despite the ridiculously large amount of research and literature devoted to looking at the causes of crime, which include: low levels of education, poverty, mental health, lack of housing, addiction and unemployment.

The lack of recognition of the structural causes of crime, reflect and align perfectly with our colonial history and the continuous subjugation of Māori people. Even though Māori only make up 13-15% of our entire population, they also represent over 50% of the prison population. This statistic alone is offensive, yet outlines the current state of Māori people in our country. The inequalities and disparities, between Māori and non-Māori can be seen through a range of different health and social outcomes. These unacceptably broad differences expose the insignificant impact of one of our founding documents, The Treaty of Waitangi. No reference of our colonial past is mentioned when discussing the lack of Māori representation in the police, legislators, lawyers and judges. Nor is there any explanation as to why Māori are 7 times more likely to receive a custodial sentence and 11 times as many Māori remanded in custody compared to our Pakeha counterparts. This blatant institutional racism and assumption of superiority for western models, not only pose major threats to our economy but aim to keep indigenous people at the bottom.

As an indigenous person, reflecting on these issues in society can be somewhat defeating at times. The holistic state of my people and the generational effects of colonisation, seem to go unnoticed and ignored in mainstream discourse. However it emphasises to me the importance of self-sovereignty and the role culture has on our identity and world view. The prison system is just one example of the many institutional decisions being made for Māori people, with little inclusion of indigenous voices. I have learned that our voices are our strength and our weapon. Social workers are caught in a unique position between the most vulnerable individuals in society and the power of the state. Thus, we must use our agency to highlight these problems within our society, and commit to our social justice responsibilities.

Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

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