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 prisonsociety.typepad.com

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.

Most candidates were concerned about the provision of medical and mental health care.  Less than one in ten felt that health services should be provided by the prisons, and only one candidate felt that those with serious psychiatric illnesses should be housed and treated in prison.  Instead, almost all favored sick inmates being treated outside of prison by appropriate medical experts.

Almost 90 percent felt that not enough was being done to rehabilitate offenders.  Just 15 percent thought that prisoners had good access to education programs, and only 11 percent thought access to vocational training was good.  Eighty-five percent wanted to see more prisoners allowed out on day-release to work.

With regard to living conditions, there was concern about the amount of time inmates spend locked in cells, with a majority believing eight hours to be the maximum reasonable each day.  There was strong support for extended visits with children, and for full-day family visiting on weekends.  Almost two-thirds supported conjugal visits with partners.

We're Not So Different

The parallels with American correctional systems are clear.  African-Americans and Hispanics are grossly over-represented in our jails and prisons.  Black Americans compromise just 12 percent of the population, but more than 40 percent of those in prison.  They typically receive 20 percent longer sentences than their white peers for the same crimes.

Most U.S. psychiatric hospitals were closed decades ago with the intention of providing more compassionate care in the community.  Failure to provide that care, however, means that there are now more than a million men, women, and children with mental illness in America's prisons, three times more than in all the country's remaining mental hospitals.

The provision of education and vocational training is patchy and inconsistent across the U.S. prison systems.  Many inmates receive an hour or less of classroom time each weekday and, by our estimates, more than 600,000 receive no education or training appropriate for their needs.

Or, Maybe We Are Different

What is strikingly different about the views of these aspiring New Zealand Parliamentarians is their pragmatism and progressive thinking.  It is hard to imagine many candidates for the U.S. mid-terms proposing the easing of parole restrictions, increases in work release opportunities, and conjugal visits.  Nor are they likely to espouse emulating Scandinavian practices, often seen as overly lenient and "dangerously socialist."  Yet, offenders released from Scandinavian prisons are the least likely to commit further crimes, and the most likely to re-integrate into society as productive citizens.  Isn't that what we should be aspiring for?

The New Zealand parliamentary candidates were asked for their personal thoughts, and perhaps that is what is needed here in the U.S., a thoughtful, honest conversation unconstrained by party political orthodoxy.  But which Congressional candidate would be brave enough to tell us what is in their heart?  He or she would get my vote -- that is, if I could vote.

Howard League's Political Candidate Survey

To learn more about the Howard League and their survey, read The Scoop's article Howard League: Political Candidate Survey Results.