Inside the N.Z. prison system
Tui Motu interviewed Kim Workman, National Director of the Prison Fellowship of New Zealand.
He had bad news – and good – to tell us
Imprisonment in NZ
In the last eight years the prison population has gone up by 50 percent – to over seven thousand. Meanwhile the overall crime rate per head of population has actually gone down. There is no clear relationship between the crime rate and the number of people in prison. It is simply not true that the more people you lock up the lower is the rate of crime.
Indeed for all sorts of reasons what can happen is exactly the opposite: if you take men away from their families, the children are seven times more likely to themselves end up in prison than the children of non-prisoners. Without a father present the prisoner’s family can become increasingly dysfunctional.
Prison sentences are getting longer, partly due to New Zealand’s punitive culture. John Pratt, a criminologist at Victoria University, has observed that New Zealand puts more people in prison and for longer sentences than, say, Canada, Australia or the United Kingdom. We have a culture, he says, that marginalises people who do not conform or belong to a narrow morality range. Anyone who breaks the law outside that range is seen as ‘on the outer’.
The churches have a real task on their hands to change this culture: the Gospel urges us to care for these people and bring them back, not lock them up. The basic Christian message is forgive. Sometimes, says Kim, when I speak to some Christian groups I wonder if they have forgotten the New Testament exists!
Right across the world minority indigenous groups – especially the Aboriginals in Australia – are grossly over represented in the criminal justice system. New immigrant groups add to that imbalance: the poor and underprivileged always figure more in the prison statistics.
The government has moved in recent times to target assistance to places where crime rates are higher, like South Auckland. Twenty percent of the families there produce 80 percent of the crime. These families are not changed by seeking to impose alien values on them but by working on the values they have and supporting the natural leaders in those communities.
And this is already happening. Sam Chapman, a Maori in South Auckland, has been working with Mongrel Mob members and achieving remarkable results in keeping them out of prison. The leaders become persuaded they do not want their children to end up the way they were. Change is happening in those communities from within.
Out of seven thousand people in prison at the moment no more than five hundred (perhaps five percent) represent a real risk to the community in terms of violence: these are the ones who need to be kept out of circulation. Over 40 percent of those sentenced go to prison for less than six months – for drunk driving, minor burglary, benefit fraud etc. What are they doing in prison? They have no opportunity there to do anything to pay back the people they have offended.
The prison experience is more likely to do harm than good. Those 40 percent should be dealt with either by a restorative justice process or by community service. They need to be given a chance to pay back to society what they have taken. As an alternative to prison, home detention usually results in less re-offending.
Ho Karowai Whakapono
This Faith Based Unit, with 60 beds, a part of Rimutaka Prison, Upper Hutt, has been in existence since October 2003. It is the initiative of a group of Christian churches. Prisoners volunteer to join it. You cannot railroad people into a Christian environment like this. They have to come prepared to explore the Christian faith.
They need to become committed to a programme, like getting up early in the morning for devotions. They do not have to be Christians: we have had Buddhists and Muslims. What we are providing is a sanctuary within the prison system for those who want to change. Twenty percent of those entering prison identify that they have a spiritual need. They may say: my life is empty and I think God may be the answer; the other programmes haven’t worked for me; or simply I’m sick of offending and of being in and out of prison: there must be something better.
It isn’t easy to change when you are surrounded by other prisoners who harass you. But when they come into the programme they are not being proselytised. They come to a commitment at their own pace and in their own way. There is an hour and a half Bible study every night; there are services of worship. They get a real understanding of what Christian commitment means.
It is a bit of a culture shock for those who may have been in prison for eight or nine years already. There is a heavy emphasis on encouraging interpersonal relationships. There can be hugging – which is very strange for a person used to punching and throttling as the usual forms of physical expression.
They find relations between prisoners and prison officers quite different: it’s no longer ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The emphasis is on brotherhood and trust, with the officers being held accountable for their behaviour too. They are all equally members of the ‘body of Christ’.
After about eight months each prisoner is linked to a mentor who comes from outside the prison. We try to match mentor to prisoner. The mentor visits the prisoner regularly, provides pastoral care, and when the prisoner is released, helps with employment, accommodation and relationships. Often the mentor’s church group will also welcome the released man.
The mentor’s task is to provide spiritual and social support. If prisoners have encountered Christianity for the first time when they were inside, then going to a mainstream church outside will be a daunting experience for them. The evidence is that if they come out with a belief system, the released prisoner is more likely to survive later crises.
We don’t expect instant miracles. Eighty percent of inmates have drug or alcohol problems; 20 percent have mental health issues. The prisons are not equipped to deal with these, so very few have had adequate treatment. Nevertheless, those who come through our programme are less likely to re-offend and the seriousness of their offences is less. And many do not re-offend at all.
We have been running Ho Korowai Whakapono now for three years. That’s not yet long enough to be sure we are on the right track. But the indications so far are good. Drug use and violence are well down. The Wellington Regional Manager has been extremely supportive. He says that of all the specialist focus units introduced into the system, this is the one that has caused the least hassles.
So far the unit is unique in New Zealand although there are plans to start another. It is one of the nine units within the Rimutaka Prison complex. The inmates live separately although they will mix with the other prisoners at work. Our people have won the reputation of being good workers, requiring minimum supervision. Sometimes they have had pressure on them from the other prisoners to use drugs: they simply have to learn to manage that.
Restorative justice within the prison system
The restorative process can take place at any time along the course of a sentence. In the case of serious crime it would be rare for the victims – or the victims’ family – to be ready to meet the perpetrator at the very start. They are too hurt and angry. But some way down the track, even a victim may initiate the meeting. Or the prisoner may request it. And both have to agree.
When the victim meets the offender and hears his story, the image of a monster becomes replaced by the image of a human being, who is perhaps dysfunctional, frail and vulnerable. The victim becomes compassionate towards this person. There is extraordinarily healing for the victim.
What is often not recognised is that many offenders have an underlying sense of remorse, but they have no way of expressing it within the prison system. The restorative process provides that. And they become motivated to reduce their own offending, and their empathy towards the victim grows. We are trying to persuade the Department of Corrections to fund this process so we can expand it.
So far we have only managed a handful of cases, but I’m sure if we were able to advertise it and the funds were available, it would increase fivefold. (Tui Motu asked how readers might contribute. It is through the Prison Fellowship website: www.pfnz.org.nz.)
Also, Jackie Katounis, manager of Restorative Justice services, is very interested in any victims of crimes who are willing to go into a prison and talk to prisoners about the impact the offence had on them and their lives. The Sycamore Tree Project which the Prison Fellowship runs needs a flow of victims who are willing to tell their stories. These tales can have a profound effect on offender and victim alike.