The end of mass incarceration


An interview with prison reformer Vivien Stern who has been on a mission to bring about a radical transformation of the prison system.

This week while Charles and Camilla were swanning around Aotearoa wining and dining at the expense of locals, a member of the British House of Lords was here having a very different sort of a tour. The Baroness Vivien Stern has been on a mission to bring about a radical transformation of the prison system, and is talking to anyone willing to listen.

“The tide is turning against these high numbers of prisoners. I don’t say that it is an ethical impulse. I think it’s because the money isn’t there. And when you’ve got less money, you think ‘Godness me, we’re wasting a lot here!’” she told Indymedia.

In 2011, finance minister Bill English described NZ prisons as a “moral and fiscal failure.” NZ’s approach to criminal justice has been driven by penal populism and the desire by both sides to appear “tough on crime.” The results have been devastating: NZ has the second highest rate of incarceration in the OECD with roughly 203 out of every 100,000 people in prison—yet the crime rate is falling.

But Vivien is optimistic and says there are trends to prove change is coming. “Texas is interesting,” she said, “because it is an extremely hard line place; many people are still executed there, and their prisons are not where one would wish to be. But there was a deal done between the Republicans and the Democrats in the Texas congress. They brought in a whole set of new laws that many people who currently went to prison would be dealt with through probation, treatment programmes, put in half-way houses… And the astonishing success of this has really caused a lot of interest around the world. They thought that they were going to have to build a large number of new prisons; they now have 2000 empty prison places... From everyone’s point of view, you can’t argue against it especially since crime rates have fallen even more than before in Texas. It’s a very good story.”

Her message is long overdue here, but the entire basis of the NZ prison system—not just the numbers inside—is in need of transformation.

“Information of who exactly is in your prisons is not very readily available, but there is no reason why New Zealand should be any different from anywhere.” Vivien joked with her listeners at the Rethinking Crime and Punishment public lecture that “you never hear of a banker going to jail, although that wouldn’t be an all bad thing.”

“In the prisons all around the world the people that mainly populate them are people from disadvantaged sectors of society: people who are poor, people who have missed out on whatever its society provides to its citizens, people who have already been victims – especially the women who have already been victims of a lifetime of abuse, violence and neglect – and of course, whichever population is in the minority. There is no question that Maori are grossly overrepresented in the population of people locked up. You see the same pattern only worse in Australia and the United States.”

The percentage of the prison population that is Maori men is approximately 51% and Maori women 70% against an overall population in NZ society of about 18%. A seminal study by Moana Jackson in 1998, He Whaipaanga Hou: Maori and the Criminal Justice System—A new perspective noted the tendency to make simplistic casual linkages between historical injustices and offending. He suggested that a more complex view including acknowledging institutional racism and monoculturalism was essential to understanding why so many Maori were in NZ’s jails.

A recent Department of Corrections study has backed up what Jackson said twenty years ago: that the discretion allowed at each step in the criminal justice system (from arrest through to imprisonment) was infused with discrimination against Maori. Add up all those small doses of injustice, and NZ has got a big problem.

Moreover, the growth in the prison population in NZ reflects a crunch point not only in racial and class oppression, but gender oppression as the rapid rise of Maori women in prison demonstrates.

“Women have had a fairly bad time lately in terms of imprisonment in that prison population in a number of countries have gone up quite a lot and women’s imprisonment has gone up many more times than men’s. It has become more common to lock up a lot of women and probably more acceptable,” said the Baroness.

“It used to be a very small number…really small number…and the way that they were dealt with was extremely specialized and not part of the main system, but as the numbers have grown they have become more and more subject to a system devised by men, run by men and organized around men, and their position within prison systems has worsened considerably.”

Significant evidence shows that the experience of women going to prison has different effects than men including serious disruption for children and family life.

Given the more than 8,000 people in NZ’s jails, change really can’t come soon enough. The end of the age of mass incarceration could go down a very dark path to mass surveillance. Already technology is being used to monitor people through GPS devices, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that extended to include inserting GPS devices under the skin for tracking people at all times—and pre-emptively in advance of committing a crime.

Such technology accompanied by an attitude that “if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide,” is capable of creating an environment where the entire world is a prison under the watchful eye of the State.

There is a different possibility, of course. “You seldom get the chance to start from scratch,” said Vivien of a prison system. But what might a just criminal justice system look like?

“First requirement is that a criminal justice system should be as small as possible. Many many things can be dealt with in other ways. In Norway for example, many things are dealt with through mediation. They don’t get to the criminal justice system…All that damage that you get and all that expense is spared.”

“When people are in court, they should have all of the protections available so that you do not have miscarriages of justice. And then the punishment should really have prison as a last resort. In Germany, many prison sentences are passed, but only about 15% are actually served.” The rest of them are accepted as having been served conditional upon the successful completion of certain conditions.

“Then the prisons themselves should ideally be small. The way people are treated should be as individual as possible, and people should be able to have access to whatever it is they want to do to keep their brain going. It is very important that outside people should be coming in, and people keep skills alive or develop new ones. And their should be an opportunity if people want to do something for others because prison makes people feel worthless, and being able to help other people makes people feel less worthless.”

“There are places more or less like that: where people are treated as human beings temporarily deprived of their liberty, but going to be expected to go out and take up their lives again as fully functioning members of society.”

It is hard to know if the struggle for improved conditions for prisoners now simply entrenches an unredeemable system by making it more adaptable. For as long as prisons have existed, there have been people seeking to reform them into ‘nicer’ places. Radical change can really only come with an examination of how and who gets to define ‘crime’ and whether we really believe that punishment is an appropriate answer to transgressions of social boundaries.


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Great interview, thanks! Nice to see original content like this on Indymedia.

great reading, thanks

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