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Locked Up Down Under: Aspiring Lawmakers Point Out Prison Shortcomings

By Christopher Zoukis 

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.  Image courtesy

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.

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Professor Publishes Book on Prison Education

By Kimberly Weinberg / Bradford Today  Image courtesy

Dr. Tony Gaskew, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, understands the concept of social justice from both a personal and academic perspective.

In his new book, “Rethinking Prison Reentry: Transforming Humiliation into Humility,” Gaskew uses his experiences as young black man in inner-city Chicago, a major crimes police detective, a federal prison volunteer and a scholar to examine the role higher education and the criminal justice system could play in expanding the definition of social justice.

Gaskew spent 10 years assigned as a member of the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, investigating and arresting thousands of violent criminal offenders. Throughout his professional career, there is very little that he has not seen or experienced.

This includes how the institutionalized oppressive nature of the criminal justice system and its by-product of mass incarceration have negatively impacted the lives of black males across the nation.

Born in one of Chicago’s most violent inner-city neighborhoods — commonly referred to as the “Wild One Hundreds” – Gaskew describes how his journey as a young black man growing up surrounded by poverty and crime shaped his collective outlook on life and the criminal justice system.

“My dad encouraged my brothers and me to explore careers in policing and to immerse ourselves in educational endeavors as early as the age of 5 and 6,” he said.

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Prison Book Restriction Harms 'Studying'

By Katherine Sellgren / BBC News  Image courtesy

Inmates are allowed 12 books in their cell but new privileges regulations, introduced last year, stopped them receiving parcels, including books.

The Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) is urging ministers to improve access to books and materials to assist learning.

Prisons minister Andrew Selous said he was "committed to improving education".

The Ministry of Justice said prisoners had access to libraries and could ask to have books ordered in.

Distance Learners

In a report, Brain Cells: Listening to Prisoner Learners, the PET said the restriction on the number of books prisoners could have in their cells was "inadvertently impacting on higher level and distance learners who need a variety of sometimes specialist books".

The report went on: "We recommend this is reviewed urgently to ensure that it does not inadvertently inhibit learning, and encourage prison governors to use their discretion in the meantime.

"This is especially important as currently staff shortages are making it increasingly difficult for prisoners to access prison libraries."

The trust said the restriction was affecting prisoners' "ability to study and hence impacting on their rehabilitation and risk of reoffending".

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Wyoming’s Prison Education Programs Help Keep Recidivism Rates Low

Wyoming’s prison system boasts the second best recidivism rate in the country. Twenty-five percent of offenders in the state will return to prison for a parole violation or new crime—compared to 40 percent nationally. The Wyoming Department of Corrections credits its education programs—including a mandatory G.E.D course for all inmates without a high school degree— with keeping inmates from landing back behind bars.

Zach Fuhrer dropped out of high school at age 17 and had no intention of ever setting foot in another classroom.

“It was a struggle for me,” Fuhrer says. “I didn’t want to go to school, man. I’d rather work and make money, you know what I mean?”

Now 31, Fuhrer is serving three to five years in the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington for aggravated assault.

When he got here in June, the Corrections staff told him he was required to take the Adult Basic Education—or A.B.E. class—and work toward a high school equivalency certificate—similar to a GED. Fuhrer didn’t think he could handle it.

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New Jersey's Jailhouse Goldmine: A Moral Obligation to Provide Effective Rehabilitation?

By Christopher Zoukis

Like most municipalities, Cumberland County in southern New Jersey needs to raise its revenues.  Last year it found a very effective way to do just that: fill up its jail.

Jails as For-Profit Businesses

While most of the developed world see institutions like hospitals, universities, and prisons as essential public services, the reality is that they are also businesses.  Patients, students, and prisoners are commodities to be traded.  These men and women are at a vulnerable time in their lives and need the best that the world's richest country can offer them, but instead the institutions charged with their care look to see how they can profit from them.

Cumberland County Jail: Selling Jail Space

In 2013 Gloucester County officials decided to close their jail.  To the south, Cumberland County Jail's population had fallen by almost two hundred over the preceding five years leaving empty beds.  The two counties agreed to a deal, and the first inmates from Gloucester County arrived at Cumberland County Jail, in Bridgeport, in June 2013.  Today there are usually at least a hundred Gloucester County inmates in Cumberland Jail at any given time.

The deal gives Cumberland County $10,000 a day for the first hundred inmates, then $83 a day for each additional one.  For one hundred Gloucester County inmates, Cumberland County stands to make $3.65 million each year.  Indeed, in the first fourteen months they have billed Gloucester County over $4.3 million.

Cumberland Freeholder Director Joseph Derella sees the program as an example of the county developing much needed new sources of revenue.  He believes the program is exceeding expectations and wants to extend it further.

Jail Populations as an Indicator of Success?

In what Cumberland County Jail's Warden Bob Balicki sees as an unintended but beneficial program, the municipal and New Jersey State Police are now locking up around seventy more people a month than they were before the program started, thus boosting the jail population even higher.  Despite all the extra inmates at the jail, Warden Balicki has seen no need for extra staff.

Although many inmates remain in local jails for just a short time, many others can spend a year or more serving sentences or simply waiting out lengthy court proceedings before being sent to state prison.  It's a miserable and anxious time, and being held further away from families and friends means fewer visits, and widens rifts between inmates and those on the outside.

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Prison Education: The Ultimate, Undeserved Freebie?

In this video, Richard French examines the idea of providing education for prisoners.  Although the idea sounds like the "ultimate undeserved freebie," close inspection of programs such as Hudson Link prove that prison education turns around lives, reduces recidivism, saves money and redounds to the advantage of communities. 


How Prison Health Care Could Reduce Rearrest Rates

By Christopher Zoukis

Recidivism is a growing problem in the United States.  There are many factors that cause released inmates to return to a life of crime and, eventual, incarceration.  Fewer opportunities, lack of access to prison education, lack of sustainable employment, and other factors contribute to America's sky high recidivism rates.  But another factor, which is not often considered, is also worth a hard look: health care in American prisons. 

Image courtesy

Every year approximately 600,000 U.S. inmates are released from correctional custody.  Many of these men and women are released from prison with chronic physical or mental illness.  Few of those released have access to meaningful private health care or are knowledgeable about the public health care system.  Many of the physically and mentally ill former prisoners end up becoming a drain on local, state, and national economies simply because they don't have the capability to improve their own mental or physical health and thus can't live a productive, respectable life.

Why Lack of Health Care May Increase Recidivism

Due to the aforementioned issues, there appears to be a correlation between recidivism and access to meaningful prison healthcare; a lack of prison healthcare appears to result in enhanced recidivism rates, and the reverse is also true.  Furthermore, there is a decrease in rearrests for those in low income communities who have access to healthcare.  One is left to wonder, how come enhanced access to healthcare results in reduced re-arrest and recidivism rates?

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