Screw on the loose, Greg Newbold

The Journey to Prison: Who Goes and Why
Celia Lashlie
HarperCollins, $34.95,
ISBN 186950433X

Over the last few years, Celia (“Ces”) Lashlie, through her outspoken and sometimes controversial rhetoric, has become a well-known and popular speaker on criminal justice issues in New Zealand. She is qualified to do so. Beginning her professional life in 1984 as a probation officer in Lower Hutt, she then joined the prison service and in December 1985 became the country’s first female prison officer to work in a male institution. Having served over three years at Wi Tako and Ohura Prisons, she then worked in a number of roles at Head Office in Wellington before being appointed General Manager of Christchurch Women’s Prison in 1996. She remained there until 1999 and in 2000-2001 was employed as Area Manager for Specialist Education Services in Nelson.

The Journey to Prison is a collection of Ces Lashlie’s reflections and observations, based on her 15 years of experience with corrections in New Zealand.

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To begin with, it is important to recognise that a decade-and-a-half of work in corrections does not make one an expert on criminality. There are lots of people – prison staff as well as inmates – who could qualify on that count. But working or being in prison for several years does give an informed perspective on the subject, and it is a perspective which is likely to be different from that of the person on the street. Although the book begins with an interesting but frustratingly brief account of the author’s career in corrections, it is intended not as a biography but as an opinion about crime and justice. Liberally sprinkled with illustrations and anecdotes, it covers four substantive areas: men in prison, women in prison, the cannabis issue, and problem families.

Ces Lashlie is an energetic writer with strongly-held views. She is firmly opposed to children smoking cannabis, believes that young people who constantly smoke cannabis destroy their life-chances, and observes, at some length, that many inmates have had appalling childhoods that are largely responsible for their criminality. Few would disagree. She is passionate about these things and at times appears to be preaching from the pulpit. Occasionally, she gets a bit carried away. She tells of a woman whose earliest memory, at the age of two, is of her father and grandfather dealing drugs at the kitchen table. But a kid doesn’t have a reliable memory at that age and certainly wouldn’t be able to comprehend a concept such as pushing dope. OK, so maybe the girl was seven.

She also tells of a young Maori at Ohura who learned Kapa Haka and Te Reo and who, having taken his tikanga on board, decided never to offend again. “That was the moment when I learned how simple it can be,” she says: “connect the disenfranchised young man to the culture and history from which he comes … and he will do the rest himself.” Hmmm. The young fellow may have made a decision at that point, but did he really carry it through? She doesn’t say. She seems to assume that he went straight, but if he did, he’d be a rare exception. Prisons are bursting with young men who swear they’re going to give crime away, but over 90 percent re-offend. And the worst recidivists are Maori, upon whom the Department of Corrections spends millions every year, teaching them about their tikanga and their reo. If only stopping crime were really that simple.

Ces Lashlie blames a lot of today’s youthful offending on marijuana smoking. To be sure, a lot of young no-hopers smoke dope but, again, the issue isn’t that simple. Juvenile delinquency has been a recognised problem since at least the 1950s, long before marijuana came onto the scene. Moreover, most kids smoke marijuana at some stage; in fact, it’s been popular among young people since the early 1970s. But only a few smoke it all the time and only a handful end up behind bars. Her point is taken that heavy drug use, like heavy drinking, is bad for you. But even among problem users, there’s a difficulty with causality: does chronic drug use wreck motivation or do people with low motivation smoke heaps of hooch because they can’t think of anything else to do? I’m sure it’s a bit of both, a relative thing; but Ces Lashlie speaks in absolutes.

For all this, she also writes with a great deal of wisdom. She describes very clearly and convincingly the kinds of backgrounds that a large percentage of inmates come from, and the abuse, neglect, and poor role-modelling that many have been subjected to from their very earliest years. She is careful not to excuse behaviour arising from such conditions: ultimately, these products of appalling backgrounds, who raped, robbed and killed people, or beat their children to death, made the choices that resulted in their imprisonment (and the trauma suffered by their victims). I found particularly interesting the analysis of the very sharp contrasts between running men’s and women’s prisons. Both her observation that women’s prisons are far more complicated to manage than men’s, and her discussion of the reasons why, are in complete agreement with what I’ve been told by prison administrators overseas.

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Having made a number of criticisms about the current criminal justice system, the book finishes with a series of questions asking how the problem might be solved. Unfortunately, apart from some very vague pointers, it doesn’t give us any real answers. Knowing a bit about the subject myself, I’d guess that this is because there aren’t any. The author’s final suggestions that the solution lies in correctional strategy being “owned by the community rather than by the politicians”, and in “[reclaiming] what it is to be a New Zealander”, don’t really inspire me. And I don’t share her confidence that “Kiwi ingenuity would find a way if it was something we believed in”. Having experienced a number of examples of  “Kiwi ingenuity” since the days of Rogernomics, that would leave a bit too much to chance for this Kiwi’s liking.

Remember, The Journey to Prison isn’t a scientific study. It is an informed, rather than an expert, opinion. It’s thoughtful, it’s emotive, it’s interesting, and it’s easy to digest. Ces Lashlie is a woman of compassion, humanity, and refreshing candour, and people who read this book will not fail to find enrichment in the counsel it offers.

 

Greg Newbold is a Christchurch criminologist.

 

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