It’s an Ill Wind

My apologies for such a delay between posts. I’ve been no more flat out than usual but for some reason the muse seems to have deserted me and I’ve been struggling with expressing my ideas. It may have to do with my unpalatable conclusions. In recent times I’ve been trying to find a simple way to make a point about the perverse consequences of our current criminal justice framework. I present a message that few people want to hear. I hold a minority viewpoint about how to treat offenders. These are my beliefs in this regard:

I believe that imprisonment should be used only as our last resort and that the State is the only body that has the right to incarcerate.

I believe that every individual has the potential to make changes for the better and, that as human beings we are by nature essentially good.

I believe that vengeance is the preserve of the Lord.

In pursuing policies consistent with these beliefs I accept that I am politically incorrect. However, when some commentators criticise my stance they claim I am ‘PC’, that is ‘Politically Correct’ whereas the opposite is clearly apparent. In New Zealand “Politically Correct” is used as a pejorative term. It is often misapplied to those who stand for issues around human rights and justice. However, in the land of the long white cloud the correct politics of the day are flowing in exactly the opposite direction. We seem to be determined to apply our criminal justice system as a suppressive tool. The criminal justice debate has been dominated by right-leaning lobby groups. They have used radio talkback and popular media to whip up a moral panic. This shows up in opinion polls, and, in some instances fed by the angry prejudices of politicians, triggers suppressive strategies. When the only tool you want to use is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Consequently our lawmakers conjure more laws, provide more weapons, and weave tighter nooses as an answer to every emergent counter-social symptom or behaviour – currently, use of knives; boy racers; youth gangs; assaults on Police; use of methamphetamine. Moreover it looks as if, consciously or not, that we have chosen the poor young brown as our preferred target population. We are doing this in the name of reducing crime, and building stronger and safer communities. Yet, clearly, we seem to be reaping the very opposite at every turn of the screw. It worries the crap out of me.

It has been said before – I remember Rod Oram’s sage words about the kneejerk responses around our nation’s economic development – that our Government lacks a coherent vision. In similar form our nation’s criminal justice responses look to be ad hoc, and, moreover, they ignore systems thinking. We turn on the hot tap here and crank up the pressure somewhere else oblivious to the fact that we’ve just scalded to death the poor bastard using the shower. Social sector policies and criminal justice sector programmes end up neutralising each other. When we incarcerate individuals we impact on their family too. If we imprison a young mum or dad in some form we also imprison their children – or at least set up conditions that statistically make it more likely that the children themselves will end up in the criminal justice system. In this, the current construct of the New Zealand criminal justice system produces the opposite outcomes as those sought in the much heralded “Drivers of Crime” initiatives, co-launched by Ministers Powers and Sharples, and the celebrated “Whanau Ora” policy framework. The fact of the matter is that by disproportionately locking up the younger members of Maori communities we will erode if not extinguish any likely progress of ‘Whanau Ora’ programmes. Moreover our stubborn refusal to intelligently and productively deal with the very sector of the Maori population that freak out mainstream New Zealand society, the low income, under-educated, under-employed and sole parented whanau Maori, aka gangs, means that we will continue to reap what we sow.

“Seeds for tomorrow”

So why do we do this? Well one reason might be this: not my words, but those of then Prime Minister Helen Clark as reported by Sir Ian McKellan in a Sunday Star Times article in May 2010:

“For example, I met Helen Clark while I was in Wellington. I was invited to her official residence, and waved in by a lone policeman who didn’t even check who I was, then I had a barbecue with her. I congratulated her on the public’s enlightened attitudes towards racial issues, but she disagreed. She said to me that New Zealand was really a very racist country , and she was determined to do everything she could as prime minister to change that”.

Crikey. As explanation ‘racism’ would be perfectly consistent with what we experience as expressed in the statistics. Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples was reportedly aghast at the latest unemployment figures which have Maori unemployment running at well over 17% compared to average of over 6.8% in the general population. Whilst New Zealand has a general rate of 200 citizens imprisoned per 10,000 population, Maori are imprisoned at a rate of 700 (mainly young members of whanau Maori) per 100,000. The welfare review working group advises us that whilst 12% of all working age New Zealanders are reliant on a welfare benefit this jumps to 27% amongst Maori. If the game of life were a game of footy and “our” team was penalised at the same ratio (seems to be about 3:1) that Maori as a group incur as compared to all other New Zealanders then we’d be crying the “refs a crook!” or that “the game is rigged!”, and we’d be right. Helen Clark didn’t need to get a job at the United Nations to find out what the UN special rapporteur Prof James Anaya describes as the ‘extreme’ social and economic disadvantages amongst Maori which is “dramatically manifested in consistent and persistent high levels imprisonment”. Helen already knew these things because she’d heard from special rapporteurs before. In general terms what the UN thinks about us seems to be tiresome to most Kiwis. Joanne Black, Listener columnist and Radio NZ ‘The Panel’ opinionista referring to Prof Anya’s findings sums up the response of the mainstream

“…that these troubling conditions ‘result from the historical and ongoing denial of human rights of Maori’. At that point he may have lost some of audience who think that one or two other factors, especially those to do with personal responsibility, attitudes to women, drug use and alcohol, and which apply to many offenders regardless of race, might also be relevant. Anya has returned to New York to write his ‘full report’ but we’ve got the gist, so perhaps he could skip it and move on for another speed-dating course with the downtrodden somewhere else. Australia perhaps?”
NZ Listener, August 7

We just don’t want to hear. That’s the real criminality at play in our land. We resist investing in solutions that might seem to ‘favour’ Maori but are delighted to spend on average $91,000 per person to keep these whanau members in the prison system. And keep them we do. In general 52% of prisoners are back in prison within five years of release but that increases to 58% if the prisoner is Maori, and jumps to 71% if the prisoner is under 20. And, as I have previously noted we seem to especially target the younger members of the Maori population, so we effectively set up a sort of bizarre loyalty scheme that has these whanau members coming back to jail time and time again.

A recent study into prisoner and prisoner family health ‘Health in Justice’ commissioned by the National Health Committee helps us understand why. Where imprisonment is a common factor within a whanau it is no surprise that there is also likely to be a cluster of negative factors that include low levels of education, low socio-economic status, high drug and alcohol use, experience of violence and fragmented employment history (Ministry of Health 2006). These factors interact to contribute to a perpetuating cycle of negative outcomes. As a coping mechanism families

“generally took a matter of fact attitude without investing significant energy in challenging or changing the situation. There was frequently a belief that the system was loaded against them. Trying to engage with ‘the system’ or argue for better care would only waste their energy and leave them feeling more frustrated. It was seen as preferable to just accept what was unfolding”.

“Linked to these attitudes was a tendency to understate their health problems and have low levels of confidence and trust in ‘helping’ organisations. A number of families were affiliated to groups such as the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. These families tended to operate within their own networks using their own resources. The Government policy of not trusting these groups appeared to accentuate the distrust by these groups towards mainstream helping agencies, and encouraged detachment from such services. A significant opportunity to address the negative health outcomes recorded in the interviews could be gained from a fuller appreciation of how these groups function along extended family lines and an acknowledgement of their desire for positive outcomes for their family members.” – Health in Justice

Again, this is already known by the decision makers. Corrections Minister Judith Collins was recently interviewed by Guyon Espiner on TV One’s ‘Q + A”. Talking about the high level of Maori in prison Collins explained,

“When we have a quite significant group of people who unfortunately often feel that they are not part of the system, not part of the social connections that the rest of us have, there is more of a likelihood towards crime…wherever you have a group of people who feel that they are not part of society, or not part of the society like the rest of us – you’re going to end up with problems, and we’ve seen that with gangs, who have targeted Maori.”

This response begs the question. Being Maori has been identified by Dept of Corrections as itself being a ‘criminogenic factor’. Are we locking them up because they are Maori? That would be cynical enough. I think, however there is a deeper quirk in the prevailing psychology of the nation – it arises from “settler-twitch” a deep anxiety about our right to be here fused with neo-liberal ideology around responsibility for self and other individualist percepts. Accordingly what otherwise might be considered as institutionalised racism, or alternatively an innocent but awful systemic failure has contextualised as a market opportunity. We have made another leap towards a Kafkaesque reality. Colin James (Dominion Post, Aug 9) puts it like this:

“Last month Corrections Minister Judith Collins celebrated the economic value of the new South Auckland prison; $1.2 billion over 30 years. Social and human defeat is trumpeted as economic victory. And just in time: the construction sector is in a parlous state”.

Dear Jesus! Regardless of whether it is unintended or deliberate outcome the introduction of the ‘Three Strikes Policy’ will result in a guaranteed supply of long-stay inmates. In turn that condition enables implementation of a new phase in the industrialisation of New Zealand’s criminal justice system, the privatisation of prisons. This is seen by the current Government as a good thing. The financial multiplier argument advanced by Minister Collins (in herself a splendid personification of vertical integration as she holds both the portfolios of Police and Corrections), reveals that a perverse economic purpose has now been created for the poor, young, brown, relatively uneducated and relatively underemployed members of our society. This implicit underclass is being positioned as the raw material for the criminal justice industrial complex.

Raw material for the negative spend economy

Angela Davis (refer Nga Kupu Aroha ‘Looking through a Kaleidoscope’ June 2007) was the first person I know of who described the criminal justice industrial complex as facilitating institutional slavery. It takes a certain dulling of the human senses to think of another human being as being a slave, less than human. The Nazis created the notion of an ‘undermenscht’ a sub species, to desensitise ordinary Germans, and thus enable public complicity with Nazi slave factories and concentration camps. The supposed German (Christian) moral underpinning of human rights and justice, equality in the sight of God, and the practice of faith, hope, and charity were drowned in a torrent of derogation: it was a period marked by the language of hate.

I hear it today, the language of hate, right here in Aotearoa. It pours out of radio land (both private radio such as Radio Live, and, sadly, publicly funded radio, like Jim Mora’s show on National Radio, as well as in our newspaper columns. I’ve previously quoted the Mayor of Gonville (white knight mayor Michael Laws) with one of his Sunday Star Times rants:

“The true timebomb that ticks in this country – our growing underclass, predominantly brown, transient, illiterate, dirty and diseased…So too the children with brains atrophied by their parents’ willing ignorance. And imbuing that warped world view upon the next generation”.

In like form the knight mayor recently claimed that Northland (where Maori comprise 29.31% of the population as compared to the average of 14.6% in New Zealand as a whole) and the East Coast (where Maori are around 50% of the population) have:

“more than their fare share” of persons who live a lifestyle on welfare, commit crime, are drink/drug dependant, and raise their children in third world conditions…[who]…involve their children in their evil ways and are beyond help and beyond redemption”.

Last year I got fired up at MP Shane Jones for calling gang members ‘slaves’ and his claim that, as undermenscht, we are “not even people”. He strikes a popular chord. Going gang busters always gets the media. This was reflected in the opinions of TV Cop Graeme Bell, another member of ‘The Panel’ commenting (National Radio June 2nd) on the reported assault on three French freedom campers at Mangamuka, in Northland which was committed by people, Bell alleged, despite firm evidence (remember Basteurd!), were three “young Maori thugs”. Bell found the public admonition of the incident by Maori leaders, like Shane Jones and Kelvin Davis, “unusual”. More Maori community leaders speaking out like this would result in lower Maori statistics in prison, Bell continued to opine. “Start at home rather than blaming a poor upbringing or colonisation”. Way to go National Radio. We don’t actually know who the perpetrators are but hey, Maori fullas will do. Whilst we’re at it we’ll let our commentator denigrate holding a political consciousness without the balance of holding him to account. Muck in muck out. The same theme about ‘Maori leaders speaking out against crime’ was picked up by Karl du Fresne later in the month in his Dominion Post column. All balanced comment there too, by corry! Another example is the treatment given by the New Zealand Herald around an alleged gang colours incident in Whakatane where an adult dressed in blue was claimed to have assaulted a four year old child playing in a community playground because the child was wearing red. It was portrayed as a Black Power vs Mongrel Mob incident.

The Police PR machine went into overdrive and the story actually was carried as the lead story on the front page of the New Zealand Herald, the country’s largest metropolitan paper – the editorial team apparently considered it to be the biggest issue in the nation for the day. There didn’t actually seem to be a lot of Police work going on in sorting out the facts or locating the perpetrator. The various descriptions of the bloke had him dressed from head to toe in blue and festooned with more scarves than a Morris Dancer. You would have thought that he would stick out like a sore toe in a small provincial New Zealand town. Predictably the Mayor of Whakatane called for legislation to ban gang patches – this makes a great distraction from resolving pertinent issues like the Council liabilities for leaky buildings. Everyone jumped in on the issue, and the talk-back programmers thanked God for manna from heaven. As with so many of these beat ups when it came to the light of day it was one exaggeration after another. The Police had brought charges against some unfortunate bloke. He had indulged in a bit of domestic bullshitting that got out of perspective. As a criminal case it just didn’t stack up and was dropped. Predictably there was minimal media coverage of the ‘disabuse’. You could easily come to the view that there is a “soften up” process going on as to the public view of poor Maori communities. Poor Maori (as distinct from ‘good’ employed Maori) are consistently being positioned as being absent in the performance of civic duties – in the Mangamuka instance it is implied that a poor rural Maori community might normally endorse or be complicit with such despicable behavior as to attack defenseless visitors – and thus there is an implicit justification of the denial of the rights of citizenship as noted by Prof Anaya. The reality about the altruism of Maori is the reverse. The MSD annual Social Report clearly demonstrates that Maori have a higher rate of volunteerism than the rest of us as a whole. Similarly, in my experience, Maori community leaders regularly confront misbehavior and wrongdoing, and are not timorous about it either. Yet, for the criminal justice industrial complex to operate in Aotearoa it seems we need an undermenscht and it seems that, purposefully or not, we’ve determined that’s going to be the youthful underbelly of poor Maoridom, who, at the glimpse of a scarf, we call ‘gangs’. Gangs are a contentious issue in Aotearoa and have been so for some time. As the late Justice Sir Clinton Roper put it:

“There is probably no subject in the field of law and order that can provoke more selective and distorted coverage from the media, or more emotive, and often ill-informed, rhetoric from those in authority, than gangs.” – Roper Report 1987

Sir Clinton led the most comprehensive examination of New Zealand gangs that has ever been undertaken, but his findings and recommendations for an inclusive and developmental approach to dealing with gangs and youth crime generally were for the most part ignored.

Inclusvie behaviour

Instead, for the next twenty or so years, successive Governments have eschewed home-grown remedies and adopted a North American gang management model. This has primarily focused on suppression as a strategy. Gangs have become a by-word for organised crime and gang members have been positioned as the folk devils for many social ills. It is a state of moral panic. Over this period the New Zealand Police have increasingly been given increased powers, harsher penalties have been introduced, and the prison population has soared to previously unequalled numbers. Prisons are widely acknowledged as the primary recruitment point for gangs so consistent with data I have already cited the cycle looks to continue unabated. I see little hope of a circuit breaker. It was nearly two years ago that Pita Sharples called the Black Power and Mongrel Mob leaders together and asked them to ‘walk beside him’ in bringing peace to the streets and in combating methamphetamine. A core body of pro-social leaders from both groups has done exactly that. It might have been expected that Government might resource such a response in a formal way, but departmental mandarins (who voted for them?) have run interference to prevent any comprehensive resourcing beyond ad hoc support. If he was true to his stated intent then Sharples seems to have been pretty much neutralised within TPK about driving any initiative around gangs on the basis of perceived political risk.

There is a split in Maoridom around the issue – as demonstrated in my gripe about Shane Jones. The University trained and employed Maori middle class are embarrassed by the behaviours of the young and poor: they may be their kith and kin but are rejected as their ilk. I’ve previously recounted the fantastic work being done by Mongrel Mob leaders Roy Dunne and Edge Te Whaiti, and others, in peace keeping and driving down demand for methamphetamine, but getting support for them through a sustainable programme is an ongoing struggle. “Te Kau Plus”, the Maori middleclass foray into Maori exporting drew $4,000,000 in support from Te Puni Kokiri. A recent evaluation couldn’t see any benefits accrue. Te Puni Kokiri have put a comparatively microscopic sum into the work with Roy and Edge and had three evaluations that all said it was a worthwhile investment and produced good outcomes. (It would only have needed to have saved one and a half years in jail for one person per $100,000 to have delivered a cost benefit). Still even from TPK there is no desire for policies that promote whanau ora amongst the brown undermenscht.

So, with Three Strikes, privatised prisons and the economic multiplier at play we now have the mechanism for turning this all into a business that will make money for some, but, I fear, will cost our nation dearly. We have joined the global criminal justice industrial complex, an invention of modern day capitalists. This construct disproportionately sucks the life out of the poor and typically “of colour” communities to produce handsome profits. The British firm that received such terrible raps for their abysmal facilities in Britain is tendering to run jails here as are the American crew that helped run Guantanamo Bay.

To mark our loss of innocence we have experienced the first death, whilst on duty, of a New Zealand Correctional Officer. In a piquant commentary on the global nature of an emergent international and mercenary “Correctional Workforce”, the victim was an American. He could as easily have been a Brit or a South African. His name was Jason Palmer, a former US Marine. Palmer leaves a grieving wife, two children, and a twin brother who had been prescient about his sibling’s death.

US-born Jason Palmer – Image source:

I don’t want to sound callous, but you don’t have to share the brother’s foresight to say “get ready for more”, albeit that this death was accidental, the result of a “lashed-out” punch rather than a deliberate intention to kill. As in our treatment of the gang phenomenon we have bought into a North American model with the running of prisons, and we will reap the same consequences as North American communities. There have been about 90 Corrections officers killed in the US over the past decade – around eight a year on average. If you lock people up for longer and longer, in some cases forever, overcrowd them, subject them to increasingly harsh regimes, remove their remaining rights of citizenship such as the right to vote, and treat them with contempt every step of the way, how do you think they are likely to respond?

Our jails are neither a happy place for inmate, nor staff members, alike. Just as with the majority of inmates, many of our prison officers are of Maori and other Polynesian ethnicity. In the main they are low waged. Their families live in the same low decile neighbourhoods as do the inmate families. These are prison towns – like Whanganui – where the business of mass incarceration has replaced the manufacturing and service industries of the old economy. In these towns the kids of the jailers go to school with the inmates’ kids. Away from the protection of the institution, the correctional officer is subject to pressure. This might be the lure of quick money for a favour to an inmate, or, equally, because of the fear of a threat, intimated or direct. A year ago, in Baltimore USA, Erica Carr, a staff member at a women’s prison, was gunned down, early morning, in her car, in a residential suburb. There is some belief the hit was linked to her work role. It’s a scary prospect for those on the industrialised “corrections” frontline in New Zealand, just as is the prospect for low income Maori and other Polynesian mums and dads, of seeing the sons and daughters of their community disproportionately incarcerated because of their racial and or social profile.

Profile of potential or pathology: you choose

One more thing to get off my chest. Minister Judith Collins has recently determined that prisons will be smokefree. This policy has been introduced in the name of prisoner and staff health. New Zealand prisoners have very poor health. They score poorly on measures of mental health, alcohol and other drug use, chronic disease, communicable disease, disability, head injury, health risk and protective factors, and oral health. The lifetime prevalence of alcohol abuse and dependence among men in prison is approximately twice that of men in the wider population. The lifetime prevalence of severe drug disorder is eight times that of the wider population. Research has found that 89% of prisoners have suffered a substance abuse disorder at some time in their lives, primarily alcohol and cannabis abuse and dependence. The same research found that nearly 60% of prisoners had a personality disorder. And is it likely that being in jail will improve a person’s health? Not at all! Regardless of background, an individual arriving in prison enters a setting that is globally recognised as unhealthy and non-therapeutic.

“Internationally, common catalysts for poor health within prisons include ‘crowding, exposure to violence, illicit drugs, lack of purposeful activity, separation from family networks and emotional deprivation’. Other major contributors to poor health are a culture of intimidation and exploitation, an institutional environment in which health needs are not prioritised, and, particularly for remand prisoners, the uncertainty and stress inherent in being in the criminal justice system.” – Health in Justice

The Health in Justice report concludes that what is needed is a change in organisational mindset, “away from a preoccupation with the behavioural management of risk, to a primary concern with the therapeutic and clinical needs of prisoners, and ultimately their whanau”.

With so many issues around prisoner health, far from being a health initiative – as sensible a thing as not smoking is – the “No Smoking’ policy is cynically intended as an indirect punishment, a signal to the old white grouch constituency that “this Government” is grinding the bastards down. Where will this lead us? What possible benefit can result? Ask, in the words of Cicero, “cui bono?” who stands to gain?

Arohanui. D

Tags: criminal justice  Denis O'Reilly  Judith Collins  

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