When New Zealand political candidates for an upcoming election were canvassed for their thoughts on the state of the prison system, they expressed the usual all too familiar concerns:
- The over-representation of minorities, and institutional discrimination against them by the system;
- Not enough being done to tackle drug and alcohol abuse;
- The inappropriateness of holding those with serious psychiatric illnesses in prisons; and
- A lack of adequate education and training for prisoners.
While American observers would be shocked to hear our own politicians expressed such views -- or that they would even agree to answer such questions -- these aspiring lawmakers are competing for seats in New Zealand's 2014 parliamentary elections, and maybe there is much to learn from their thoughts on the matter.
Britain's Howard League for Penal Reform sent questionnaires to all candidates and asked for their personal views rather than their parties' official policy.
None of the candidates who responded were entirely happy with the current state of the prison system. More than three-quarters would like to see New Zealand learn from the correctional systems of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, thought to be the most progressive and effective in the world.
Recent trends of particular concern were the ever-increasing number of defendants held on remand, and the growing difficulty in obtaining parole, both of which are swelling New Zealand's prison populations.
Minorities Suffer More Than Most
The treatment of women and minorities was seen as a major issue. Not a single candidate felt that the particular needs of female prisoners were being met, and 85 percent felt that more needed to be done for Maori and Pacific Islander peoples, who are over-represented in New Zealand's prisons.
Many felt that minorities face institutional discrimination in the criminal justice system, which compounds the effects of poverty and inequality, together with the increased rates of mental illness and drug and alcohol problems in their communities.