Porridge stirring, John Horrocks

The Problem of Prisons: Correction Reform in New Zealand since 1840
Greg Newbold
Dunmore Press, $49.95,
ISBN 9790187399213

Mt Eden Prison in Auckland speaks of an era when punishment and incarceration were very visible. Its turreted buildings of black volcanic stone and the small barred windows of the cells are visible from the motorway. Prisoners themselves built it, the masonry shaped during hard labour in the adjoining quarry. The bodies of murderers who were hung there are buried in the prison grounds. The Labour politician, John A Lee, sentenced as a teenager to a brutal  correctional school at Burnham, wrote of himself as a “survivor” of the New Zealand penal system. When he was in Mt Eden in 1912, there was a hanging. He recalled that the men waited grimly in their cells, then all beat on the steel doors at the moment of execution.

For many years New Zealand’s highest-security prison, Mt Eden was conceived according to the correctional models of other countries, particularly the United States. Foreboding as it appears, it reflected the beliefs of the 19th century penitentiary builders, who thought that such institutions could help rehabilitate offenders. Long-term imprisonment was seen as an alternative to more summary methods of retribution such as flogging, execution, and deportation.

The tension between the goals of punishment, reform, and the removal of dangerous individuals from society remains at the centre of correctional policy. If one considers the coverage given to crime in the media and its inevitable importance to politicians at election time, it may seem surprising that Greg Newbold’s The Problem of Prisons is the first work to provide a comprehensive history of New Zealand’s prisons and broader correctional policy. Unfortunately, it is a history of haphazard and mostly failed experimentation to find a cure for criminal behaviour.

The numbers in prison have more than doubled over the past 20 years. The growth, if anything, is accelerating, with a 33 per cent increase in musters between 2001 and 2005. Newbold records a number of the initiatives designed to control this expansion. Perhaps the most ambitious was “He Ara Hou: A New Way”, which followed a ministerial committee of inquiry into the prison system in 1988. The objective ofHe Ara Hou” was to shift prison management towards rehabilitative goals. Prison staff, rather than being turnkeys, were encouraged to be agents in this process, even to operate as case managers who signed contracts with individual prisoners. Pushed enthusiastically by the Assistant Secretary of Justice for Penal Institutions, Kim Workman, He Ara Hou” was initially successful in reducing prison tensions. However, most elements of He Ara Hou” were abandoned after four years, when a series of high-profile escapes and prison scandals forced the resignations of both Workman and the Secretary for Justice, David Oughton.

The fate of He Ara Hou” is representative of many of the well-meaning attempts at correctional reform. Instead of being trialled on a small scale, it was applied across the country in the hope that this would transform the prison environment. The goals turned out to be too ambitious, especially as they involved the development of new skills by prison staff. The value of having an historical account such as Newbold’s is that it exposes the danger of constant experimentation at the behest of people who are sure they have the solution. He is particularly critical of the committee that developed the basis for He Ara Hou”, arguing that their confidence in a therapeutic approach based on small, specialised  “habilitation centres” was not supported by any references to research. He might also have pointed out that the committee’s report, by recommending that the principal role of psychologists was to work in such centres, overlooked the wider contributions that they could have made to behaviour management systems and research.

The need for better evaluation of new programmes is evidenced by the variety of sentencing solutions and rehabilitative programmes that have been tried over the years. Among them are borstal training, periodic detention, corrective training, community service, home detention, integrated offender management, and private prisons. In 2007 the Justice Department advertised positions on the Parole Board. Any applicants who had read Newbold’s book would have been bewildered by the multiple changes in the functions of parole, most recently in the Parole Act 2002 and its 2004 amendments. No section in the book better illustrates the casting about for something that will work and the responsiveness of politicians to public sensitivities about how and when prisoners are released.

Newbold notes that one of the most helpful forms of parole, release to work, has now been almost abandoned, replaced to some extent by home detention. In the former, parolees were released each day from prison to work in an approved paid occupation. It is probably impractical to expect the continuation of this scheme, as new prisons are being built in areas remote from places of work. However, the decline of this option seems an aspect of penal policy that has gone backwards from the mid-1980s, when up to a fifth of prisoners went out to work in the transition before release.

There have been, in fact, plenty of thoughtful ideas about how to reduce offending and recidivism. A Deputy Secretary of Justice in the 1990s, Charlotte Williams, in reviewing the policies aimed at reducing Maori offending, noted that often promising programmes were launched, then abandoned before their worth had been established. She attributed this to the loss of insitutional memory that followed the upheavals in the public service following the 1980s. Staff simply did not know that today’s bright idea had already been tried.

Prisons are notoriously unsuccessful in preventing reoffending. Newbold suggests that in New Zealand it is generally accepted that modest reductions in offending of between 10 and 15 per cent can be achieved with specialised programmes focused on particular groups of prisoners. Some that seem to have worked well are Kia Marama and Te Piriti, aimed at prisoners convicted of child sexual abuse, and the Violence Treatment Unit at Rimutaka Prison, though Newbold notes the possible confounding effect of accepting only volunteers into these programmes. He is more sceptical about the rationale for specialised Maori units, which is based on the theory that Maori offending results from cultural dislocation. This is one area that might have been discussed more fully, in the light of the fact that Maori make up about half the prison population. There is no acknowledgment, for instance, of  Williams’ 2001 analysis, The Too Hard Basket: Maori and Criminal Justice Since 1980. 

Newbold, now an associate professor of sociology at Canterbury University, speaks with the authority of someone who was given a seven-and-a-half year sentence for selling heroin and was himself in Paremoremo. He knows that the people who run prisons are as important as the policies they are meant to implement. In 1965, for instance, rioting prisoners took control of Mt Eden for three days and set fire to the east wing. The army and police stood helplessly outside the walls while the prisoners barbecued food in the prison yard. After this humiliation, and fearful of further incidents, superintendent Eddie Buckley oversaw the construction of a temporary facility for high-risk prisoners next to Mt Eden. It was the nearest thing New Zealand has ever had to a Guantanamo Bay-style of incarceration.

When a new high-security prison was built at Paremoremo, Buckley was put in charge there and once again failed to control a series of  assaults on staff, fires and strikes. His replacement, Jack Hobson, by contrast, was an outstanding manager, respected by staff and inmates. Unlike the remote and authoritarian Buckley, who had his office outside the prison, one of Hobson’s first moves was to establish his office in the centre of the prison. Confident and affable, he made himself readily available for interviews and would walk around the prison and talk informally with the prisoners. He was tough enough to ride through a number of challenges to his authority but even so it took almost two years to create a more stable atmosphere.

The Problem of Prisons concludes with some reflections about why prisons have largely failed in their reformative function. Many prisoners, for example, will return to a chaotic lifestyle outside, dominated by crime, drugs and alcohol. Newbold argues, however, that this does not imply that rehabilitative programmes should be scrapped. They assist in the sound management of prisons, and there will always be some prisoners, like himself, who benefit from them. “Effectiveness” may not be easy to define, but it cannot be measured simply by the reoffending rate.


John Horrocks is a Wellington reviewer and former Justice Department assistant psychologist.


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