New Zealand has a ridiculously high prison rate, which is a common characteristic of unequal societies that we’ve pushed further (although not as far as the US). David Garrett denies the 2nd highest rate in the Western World by saying that no, we’re 61st in the whole world – as if being behind Singapore, Israel (with its political prisoners) and a slew of African dictatorships and other war-torn countries made it better.
Prison doesn’t work. It keeps people off the streets, but, as psychiatrist James Gilligan says:
The most effective way to turn a non-violent person into a violent one is to send him to prison.1
In theory prisons have 4 purposes: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation of serious criminals and rehabilitation.
But there is no deterrence: criminals wouldn’t commit the crimes if they thought once, let alone the twice David Garrett thinks harsher sentences achieve. There is little correlation between crime rate and imprisonment rate; what there is says a higher prison rate matches a higher crime rate, rather than reducing it.
And there is no rehabilitation when there’s double-bunking, container cells and prison officers too over-stretched to let prisoners out for counselling and work-training programs. Not to mention no parole period to help them re-adjust into society. People who go to prison are far more likely to re-offend than those sentenced to community offences – even for the same crimes.
So we’re left with Retribution, Incapacitation and in fact 3 more unstated purposes: Class Control, Scapegoating and Political Gain2, as politicians use a “dangerous class” to keep the poor away from the middle classes and distract from other social problems. Do we want a society based on retribution? We are currently about 10 years behind the USA in our prison policy. Where are we headed if the image of our vision is 2 million in jail and a State the size of California going bankrupt paying for its incarceration fetish?
We need to have a rethink. In The Netherlands a group of criminal lawyers, criminologists and psychiatrists came together to influence the penal system. The said that:
the offender must be treated as a thinking and feeling fellow human beings, capable of responding to insights offered in the course of a dialogue… with therapeutic agents.3
They have a prison system with a much lower incarceration rate, and for those in prison, home leave to keep them in touch with their family and community, and an emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, along with extensive parole to help them re-adjust.
Recidivism rates in more equal countries, with lower incarceration and rehabilitative prisons are about 35%; in the UK/US 60-65%. We have 50% of prisoners re-offending after 4 years; I cannot find long term data. At $90,000 to house each prisoner each year and $250,000 per new place that needs building, that’s a lot of people to be continuously paying for as they continuously re-offend.
And it’s not just the prisoner cost. Those high crime rates also require more police. A more equal society with a less retributive attitude needs a lot less police and money spent on security.
Wouldn’t we rather be spending that money on education (particularly Early Childhood Education and Adult & Community Education which make large differences) to give people opportunities before they end up channelled into a cycle of crime and prison?
hat-tip: The Spirit Level (again)
1 J Gilligan, Preventing Violence, 2001
2 J Irwin, The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the new dangerous class, 2005
3 D Downes, ‘The buckling of the shields: Dutch penal policy 1985-1995’, Comparing Prison Systems: Towards a comparative and international penology, Weiss & South (eds), 1998