New Zealand’s general election has come and gone and one of the issues that didn’t get airtime was how the country tackles its imprisonment rates. We’re 65th worst out of 216 countries, hardly on the right side of the equation for a country that is pre-destined to be world-changing. This really matters – it’s a challenge for every New Zealander to get engaged – and enraged – about, and which should have leaders sweating creative and committed policy. Every person in prison represents a systemic (and family) failure. It’s an ugly equation for all concerned.
In relative terms a number of New Zealand’s crime statistics are healthier than those of other countries. Nothing in the world beats the murder rate in the US. But imprisonment rates in New Zealand are high – 199 per 100,000 – and ironically for us, a full one third higher than Australia. While undoubtedly prisons have an important role to play in responding to crime, what this approach often fails to recognise is that – in the words of NZ-US leadership psychologist John Wareham: “All prisons are mental prisons. They lock from the inside and you own the key, so only you can let yourself out."
John knows. As well as coaching international executives, he has spent several years working with inmates at New York’s Rikers Island prison, the world’s largest, helping to liberate people from negative mindsets so they can change their lives for the better. His book How to Break Out of Prison concentrates his wisdom on the subject and he’s continuing to do groundbreaking stuff – like holding a retreat with Denis O’Reilly earlier this year for members of gangs in Hawke’s Bay on Fatherhood, Gangs, Drugs and Choices. As a long-time supporter of the Turn Your Life Around (TYLA) Trust, a programme to inspire and re-direct at-risk young people, it’s an approach I believe in, heart and soul.
Recent suggestions of a decline in the level of incarceration in New Zealand and the possibility of a further drop over time are welcome, especially as Corrections has been trending to becoming the biggest government department, a billion-dollar business. This is a classic case of the need for exceptionalism – why be happy with a gradual ascent into “respectable” territory when we could be world leaders? Finland had a remarkable turnaround from 190 people in 100,000 in prison in the 1950s to about 70 in 2006. An academic paper Scandinavian Exceptionalism in an Era of Penal Excess contains a remarkable story that we are miles away from matching with current policies and practices. There is a very high correlation between alcohol, drugs, and illiteracy – and commiting crime again and again. There are few resources in the New Zealand criminal justice system addressing these needs.
It’s time to believe in something better and stage our own escape.