Sick and Tired of the ‘Prison Bashing’


Mt Eden Prison - Stop The Prison BashingI’m sick and tired of ‘prison bashing’. Apparently according to some warped neoliberals such as Nigel Latta and Roger Brooking (just to name a few), prisons are not effective at reducing crime and are therefore ineffective and redundant. In fact, Roger Brooking goes one step further and proposes that prisons actually create more crime.

These guys and people who think like this should have their heads checked, and given their experience should know better. Of course prison doesn’t reduce crime, that is not the purpose of prison. Locking people away won’t reduce crime and it shouldn’t be expected to. All to often seemingly intelligent people are confusing prison (justice in the form of punishment) with treatment and rehabilitation (helping offenders to reduce criminal tendencies).

It is true that the threat of imprisonment does have some effect on crime (contrary to the title of this post) in the form of deterrence. However this effect is difficult to quantify and, in my opinion, negligible compared to direct action (treatment programmes). It is also true that treatment and rehab programmes are carried out in prisons. However, when they don’t work and prisoners reoffend, somehow the neolibs blame imprisonment rather than the obvious fact that the programmes didn’t work.

Here’s an analogy which directly explains this way of thinking. Do you think schools that give more detentions (prison) have better or worse NCEA results (crime)? Should we reduce detention in schools to help increase NCEA results or do you think that maybe putting more focus on better teaching and learning (treatment) will give a better result? Or perhaps there is a million other factors that could also be influencing this relationship? The fact of the matter is that the two are not directly related. Trying to influence NCEA results by changing the way detention is administered is nonsensical.

Record high imprisonment rates and crime rates in New Zealand are strongly correlated. This makes complete sense of course because if you have more crime, you will have more people going to prison. Unfortunately too many people are making the incorrect assumption that somehow the relationship is reversed and the higher prison numbers are actually causing more crime i.e. the ‘prison isn’t working’ mantra. Remember Statistics 101: correlation ≠ causation. Blaming prison for the occurrence of crime in society and offenders behaviour once they are released from prison is asinine.

The focus needs to moved away from prison and more towards the main causes of our record high crime rate, which I believe are; inequality, social and mental health support services and family support services. I won’t delve into these too much here suffice to say that neoliberal policies have led to rising inequality (both here and around the world) and cuts to social services and mental health support are appalling.

Reducing crime in society benefits everybody. We all want that. I’m all for implementing systems of treatment and rehabilitation which could effectively reduce the amount of crime in New Zealand. However, the main point of this post is that it is important to make a clear distinction between imprisonment and treatment. There needs to be a disconnect when we talk about crime rates and prison. The two are just not connected.

Prison is doing it’s job, which is to lock up offenders who come through our legal system. However high this number is is no reflection on the prison system itself. We need to stop pointing the finger at prison as failing when our focus should be on our inability to help these people to stop reoffending and also on the systems in our society which have created this record high crime rate.

There are treatment programmes in prisons. A lot of them fail, but it is important we continue to try and do the best we can and look to provide the most effective treatment and rehabilitation programmes to help offenders. But what about preventative programmes in the community (before a crime is committed) or programmes after a prisoner is released, why does no one look there?

So please, stop bashing prison for being ineffective at fighting crime. Don’t fall into the neoliberal trap of reducing prison sentences to miraculously somehow reduce crime. Prison is not the cause, nor the answer to reducing crime.

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