Incarceration Insanity

Written By: - Date published: 1:07 pm, August 15th, 2010 - 41 comments
Categories: prisons - Tags:

Hopefully this article, in both The Press and The DomPost might start a debate about whether we want Corrections (Newspeak for Prisons) to be the largest government department.

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

41 comments on “Incarceration Insanity”

  1. RedLogix 1

    What would happen if first-time/non-violent/low-risk offenders were put not in prison, but instead were taken to a place of complete isolation… away from their usual social circle … and required to stay there until they were able to talk sense to a councillor? Something a little like what Outward Bound does, but for longer and tightly structured.

    Social isolation is exceedingly challenging for most people, and prompts them to think very hard about their life and what kind of changes they need to make.

    The way out would be to full-heartedly participate and succeed at literacy and numeracy remedial education, a well-defined period of community work, and completion of anger managment/addictive behaviour education.

    There is any amount of community work that needs doing in the conservation, re-forestation, bio-diversity areas that could be achieved this way. At the moment a lot so-called ‘community service’ is rather poorly structured and managed. Most of the time they turn up in a motley bunch, muck about at some half-arsed tasks and hanging out much of the day bored out of their skulls. With sensible funding, management and resources much, much more could be achieved… and most importantly… create a sense of achievement and success at something challenging and worthwhile in their otherwise feckless young lives. Ideally you even re-cycle the ‘graduates’ from this process back into working with ‘new entrants’ at the beginning.

    The purpose of ‘rehabilitaion’ as we have called it to now has been to get offenders more or less to the point where we could toss them back into the lives they came from, and delude ourselves that maybe they might come right and not re-offend again. That’s was never good enough.

    The real goal must be to get them to the point where they are capable of, desiring of, breaking out of the inequality trap they have been born into. (Yes this begs the obvious wider question about inequality in society overall, but crime and it’s consequences is nonetheless a matter of dealing with individual offenders and their treatment.) We’ve allowed generations of domestic violence and deprivation to breed a dysfunctional underclass in this country, and it’s going to take at least the same time to repair the damage. Which can only begin to happen if we can trip the ‘circuit breakers’ of violence, substance abuse and poverty that stalks our non-leafy suburbs.

    Offenders are not aliens; mostly they are ordinary people like you and I, but who’ve been ‘shit-magnets’ all their lives; it’s all they’ve known. Making dumb shitty choices is just business as usual for them. Getting them out of that place is a matter of getting them to see different, better choices.

    • Rex Widerstrom 1.1

      Social isolation is exceedingly challenging for most people, and prompts people to think very hard about their life and what kind of changes they need to make.

      You’ve nailed it RedLogix. Every prisoner to whom I speak who has had some sort of epiphany about their behaviour has attributed this not to incarceration (and certainly not to the threat of further incarceration) but – to a greater or lesser degree – to being isolated, having the day-to-day stresses of bills, finding work, dealing with relationship problems etc forcibly removed, and being able to reflect.

      Sure lots of other things can help that process. Counseling. Seeing the effect your behaviour has had on your family. Facing your victims. But these things all need time to process.

      The absolute irony, then, is that we’re packing our prisons so full that cells designed for one are being filled with two and sometimes three prisoners. Social isolation is the last thing we’re offering. Instead we throw people into a snake pit and expect that, when we finally throw them out again, they won’t bite.

      Your concept is exactly what many in the prison reform movement argue for… yet are accused of being “soft on crims”. Yet ask a criminal whether they’d prefer to work at a remote bush camp or sit with their feet up in a(crowded) cell and they’ll characterise the person suggesting the work camp as the one being “tough”.

    • We used to do this by sentencing people to solitary confinement. Kept away from everyone – including other prisoners – not even much contact with prison guards; just left alone with their thoughts to contemplate and rehabilitate.

      People literally went insane. It’s not considered torture.

      • RedLogix 1.2.1

        Open-ended solitary confinement in a punative claustrophobic cell, cut-off from all contact with sunshine, exercise and probably on a miserable nutrition-free diet is of course a potentially damaging regime.

        But as with all potent tools, solitary can be concievably used or misused. As can strawmen.

        • Graeme Edgeler 1.2.1.1

          Accepted international practice is now that anything longer than 3 days is dangerous.

      • Rex Widerstrom 1.2.2

        I can’t speak for RL Graeme but I’m certainly not advocating lengthy periods of solitary confinement.

        I’m talking about the 12 – 13 hours prisoners are locked in their cells overnight. They can read, they can watch TV and they can think. Eventually they start to think. But if they’re bunked up they talk… about crime and drugs, usually. And they get on one another’s nerves. And whatever else they do, contemplation isn’t part of it.

        Besides, you sems to have missed the point that RL was talking originally about group isolation. At least I assume this is the case, as community work in conservation, re-forestation, bio-diversity sounds like a group activity, and Outward Bound is mentioned… that’s hardly akin to solitary confinement as practiced in a prison.

        • RedLogix 1.2.2.1

          In this case Rex …you’re welcome to put words into my mouth.

          I’ve no idea exactly what the optimum form of isolation might take, indeed if there is any such thing given the sheer diversity of offenders and the reasons why they have been convicted…but Graeme’s notion of driving people mad by tossing them into dark, airless holes for months on end does seem a tad counter-productive.

      • guess 1.2.3

        It was called “the digger” and was still in use in the late seventies and early eighties where recalcitrant inmates were sentenced to by the First Officer for up to a month at a time. Misbehave and extra time was added, up to a month at a time.

        At 6am the inmate was let out to empty his piss pot and wash in cold water, number one rations were issued, one pound of boiled potatoes, half a loaf of bread, four ounces of dripping and one pint of milk, all bedding, a mattress and one blanket and pjamas, were removed and clothing for the day and one book were issued
        .
        The day was spent in a bare cell with one book, a piss pot, and a single light turned on, no exterior light in the digger. At 6pm the inmate was let out to empty his piss pot and wash, clothing and reading material was removed, bedding was issued and the light was turned off.

        Graeme is right, people were driven insane by month after month of solitary confinement but they’ve got a nice new words now, separates and behaviour modification units.

        And no, I aint’ telling how I know about the digger.

    • comedy 1.3

      How may first-time/non-violent/low-risk offenders are put into prison ?

      • RedLogix 1.3.1

        Well there’s a first time in prison for everyone inside. But of course very few arrive in prison for their first criminal offence. Many have a long history of stupidity that led them there giving plenty of opportunity to intervene and change their lives before they do real damage.

        Indeed Celia Lashley has pointed out that many future criminals can be predicted as pre-schoolers but we do nothing about it at an early stage when intervening would have a huge cost-benefit ratio… if we were serious about reducing crime.

        But we are not. What we actually do is wait until after the damage of the crime is done and then get our righteous jollies inflicting retribution.

      • Rex Widerstrom 1.3.2

        A New Zealand study of 22,340 inmates who were released from prison between 1995 and 1998 found that:

        Over two-thirds (70%) of the inmates had more than 10 convictions prior to being imprisoned. Only 5% of the inmates had no prior convictions. However, for nearly one-fifth (18%) of these “first offenders”, while they had no prior convictions, they had prior proved offences in the Youth Court. Almost two-thirds (65%) of the imprisoned “first offenders” were convicted of a violent or sexual offence, almost one-quarter (24%) were convicted of a property offence (mostly burglary or fraud), and 6% were convicted of drug dealing.

    • prosaic 1.4

      The social isolation idea may have something in it–and ‘outward bound’ type schemes are utilised very much in the Youth Justice system (in groups only). ‘First-time/non-violent/low-risk offenders’ are never put in prison. However we’d need to be aware of the cultural appropriateness of social isolation. Isolation certainly didn’t benefit law-breaking Australian Aborigines but, in some cases, killed them. Not sure this would be appropriate for many Maori either, given the importance of whanaungatanga in well-being. People who are oppressed are likely to break the law. As BUNJI says, the problem is largely the oppression of the ‘have nots’ by the ‘haves’, or the gap between rich and poor. A large gap between rich and poor is arguably responsible for all sorts of societal problems and in countries where the gap is small (like Sweden) there is less abuse, violence, addiction, unemployment, incarceration, depression, etc. A great book on this stuff (and on how to ‘fix’ it by increasing emotional intelligence and empathy) is Robin Grille, Parenting for a Peaceful World (http://www.naturalchild.org/ppw/). Because the road to prison does start from birth.

      • prism 1.4.1

        prosaic People who are oppressed are likely to break the law. As BUNJI says, the problem is largely the oppression of the ‘have nots’ by the ‘haves’, or the gap between rich and poor.

        I think that statement presents a half-truth often repeated. Different classes have different laws made for them. The wealthy break the law quite often, car speed, tax evasion, embezzlement, violence against spouses, neglect of children, manipulation of company funds and prospectuses etc. They just commit more elegant crimes than the lower class, and there is a bigger population in the lower class, with less well-paid and less satisfying jobs.

  2. nilats 2

    [Not needed.]

  3. Tigger 3

    No love for the magical ‘Maori’ flag that will spread it’s healing rays over every prison it waves over?

  4. PK 4

    ***Prison doesn’t work.***

    Well, it does actually. Increased incarceration levels & increased police numbers were behind the fall in US crime rates in the 90’s (the receeding crack epidemic & access to abortion for the poor following Roe v Wade were the other two main factors). See Freakanomic’s author Steven Levitt’s paper discussing this.

    Levitt, Steven D. (Winter 2004). “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not” . Journal of Economic Perspectives 18: 163190.

    http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/LevittUnderstandingWhyCrime2004.pdf

    ***a State the size of California going bankrupt paying for its incarceration fetish?***

    California is going bankrupt in large part for not enforcing immigration laws. The costs in education, welfare & health are massive.

    “Perhaps the most disingenuous myth about illegal immigrants is that they do not impose any cost on society. The reality is that even those who work and half do not, according to the Pew Hispanic Center cannot subsist on the wages they receive and depend on public assistance to a large degree. Research on Los Angeles immigrants by Harvard University scholar George J. Borjas shows that 40.1 percent of immigrant families with non-citizen heads of household receive welfare, compared with 12.7 percent of households with native-born heads. Illegal immigrants also increase public expenditures on health care, education, and prisons. In California today, illegal immigrants’ cost to the taxpayer is estimated to be $13 billion half the state’s budget deficit.”

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112167023

    • loota 4.1

      As for the npr article, the writer quotes Milton Freidman FTW, so we know where that is coming from.

      Perhaps the most disingenuous myth about illegal immigrants is that they do not impose any cost on society.

      – Who is it who repeats this ‘myth’ – or is it a straw man? I’ve never heard a member of Congress say that illegal immigrants pose no costs on US society.
      – Why do certain bad quality jobs exist at such low wages that US citizens refuse to do them and leave them to illegal immigrants?
      – Why is a country like Mexico unable to create a rich trading economy which allows it to retain these citizens who instead feel that they need to flee to the status of being illegals in the US?
      – Given that millions of these immigrants exist in the US, many of them having done so for years, had children in the US, what is the way forward for them?

      Interesting you let these articles do the talking for you…what is YOUR point of view?

      What do you see happening and why?

      Or are you just content to say that the answer is ‘crack down on these people, crack down harder, and keep cracking down on them hard’

      Remember the US post WWII its economy, science and technology was built on immigration and of course long before that too.

    • RedLogix 4.2

      Ah yes… but if you actually read what Levitt says on p17 of the paper you link to:

      Finally, given the wide divergence in the frequency and severity of
      offending across criminals, sharply declining marginal benefits of incarceration are
      a possibility. In other words, the two-millionth criminal imprisoned is likely to
      impose a much smaller crime burden on society than the first prisoner. Although
      the elasticity of crime with respect to imprisonment builds in some declining
      marginal returns, the actual drop off may be much greater. We do not have good
      evidence on this point. These caveats suggest that further increases in imprisonment
      may be less attractive than the naive cost benefit analysis would suggest

      In other words prisons, while useful up to a degree, cannot be an actual solution to crime. If a higher imprisonment rate = less crime = higher benefit to society, then logically the best way to eliminate all crime would be to incarcerate all males between the ages of 14 and 40. This absurdity tells you that simply increasing imprisonment rates cannot be the answer. Even Levitt tacitly acknowledges that.

      • PK 4.2.1

        ***In other words prisons, while useful up to a degree, cannot be an actual solution to crime. If a higher imprisonment rate = less crime = higher benefit to society, then logically the best way to eliminate all crime would be to incarcerate all males between the ages of 14 and 40. This absurdity tells you that simply increasing imprisonment rates cannot be the answer. Even Levitt tacitly acknowledges that.***

        There isn’t any _one_ answer. I’m simply saying that prison is effective at reducing crime rates.

        On top of that you obviously need to reduce the number of children in abusive environments. To that end I would recommend birth control shots in exchange for ongoing welfare, although I doubt that’s going to be politically acceptable.

        • RedLogix 4.2.1.1

          I’m simply saying that prison is effective at reducing crime rates

          The point you deliberately ignore, the same point even your hero Levitt makes… prisons are a dead-end, dismal strategey with steeply diminishing returns.

          Try actually reading the material you referenced.

          • PK 4.2.1.1.1

            ***The point you deliberately ignore, the same point even your hero Levitt makes prisons are a dead-end, dismal strategey with steeply diminishing returns.***

            Levitt doesn’t say there are steeply diminishing returns. There may be, but there isn’t good evidence on that point. Levitt later indicates that due to fiscal constraints prison numbers are likely to stabilise, so abortion & increasing prison numbers will be the main contributors to future declining crime rates. That’s something I note above, that reducing the number of children born into abusive environments would reduce future crime rates. He discusses the crack epidemic, something which perhaps has an equivalent in NZ with P. Also, foetal alcohol syndrome is probably an issue that needs more attention.

    • Ari 4.3

      Actually there were far more factors than that behind the fall in crime in 90s, the one with the best correlation being wider access to abortion and birth control in the previous years. No single factor can be said to cause (or cure) crime, but there are some huge contributors.

      Wait, what? Who ever would have thought unwanted pregnancies would have a correlation with increased crime… 😉 Increasing support for at-risk children, widening access and improving attitudes to birth control, pro-choice abortion attitudes and laws, economic equality, high-quality education, a welfare system that encourages people into work without leaving them destitute beforehand…. all of these things matter in reducing crime before it starts.

  5. loota 5

    PK, so if higher levels of incarceration significantly reduced crime in the 1990’s, with less crime being committed, incarceration levels in the US must have fallen significantly by now, yes?

    I mean, there is less crime, so there is less time?

    Or didn’t incarceration ‘work’ like that.

  6. Bored 6

    Bunji, you aree to be applauded for pointing out that retribution does not work. At the centre any debate on crime comes that nasty little emotion, retribution. “Lock ’em up, throw away the keys” seems to be order of the day for the majority.

    Some observations and questions:
    * Them is us. I am yet to meet anybody who is a saint, we all have our nasty little secrets that we are ashamed of. How much lust for retribution is displacement of personal guilt?
    * Might the “criminals” we need protection from more properly be described as “psychopaths” “sociopaths” etc and be better handled by a proper “mental health” system?
    * When the upper levels of our society set such a good example of elevating pursuit of wealth and flaunting of possessions to such a high level is it any surprise that the lower levels of society are tempted to utilise “criminal” methods to achieve the same?

    • Brett 6.1

      So if your mother or daughter was raped and murdered, you would have no problem forgiving the person who did this act?

      • RedLogix 6.1.1

        In the end Brett, yes. If you don’t then the crime is committed twice, once in the act itself and then again as it blights your own life in eternal bitterness.

        It is the role of the Courts and Corrections to administer justice.

        • Brett 6.1.1.1

          Personally I could never forgive some one who did that to my family.
          I’d want blood and lots of it.

          • Pascal's bookie 6.1.1.1.1

            Perfectly natural.

            Which is why we have police, criminal laws, trials, and prisons, rather than lynch mobs, ropes, and incessant, ever expanding blood feuds.

            • Brett 6.1.1.1.1.1

              I am a realist though and I know I the chances of extracting justice via my own hand is pretty slim.
              Which is why I would expect the punishment/sentence handed out to reflect the pain and suffering this individual has caused.

          • Bored 6.1.1.1.2

            Brett,

            I would want that person locked in a mental ward until everybody could be assured nobody else would become their victim. Which might mean forever. As Red says I would not want the crime to blight my life ongoing, getting blood revenge would only make it worse.

      • Ari 6.1.2

        Nobody has to forgive the perpetrators of crime, especially not rapists, murderers, or abusers. You just have to realise it’s better for all of is that they spend a productive and rehabilitated life regretting what they did before than going on to do it again to some other innocent victim, despite how distasteful the idea is of them not feeling disproportionate pain and suffering right back. You can stay exactly as angry, hurt, or upset as you want if you’re a victim of crime, and I think everyone understands that this is a perfectly natural reaction to the loss involved.

        (Although I’d prefer victims found some way to move on despite their loss, because it’s bad for their own mental health if they can’t, and if they’re stewing on it all their lives they’ve effectively been victimised again each time the topic comes to mind for them)

  7. prism 7

    What a terrific graphic you have put on this post. Very clever to combine the hands grasping the bars of a price scanner – so appropriate for this move into private prisons. They are just another way for unprincipled, cold-hearted business people to make money, in this case out of degraded people.

    The same as in the alcohol scam that all governments have sunk in up to their knees, drawing off taxes and duties and not upsetting some very influential wealthy people who like the blue chip investment into a legally sanctioned and loosely regulated drug market. (In this case more controls and sanctions are needed on alcohol and marijuana also legalised and controlled so it becomes a blue chip investment too, along with hemp growing.) Aucklanders are protesting at the number of liquor outlets feeding off the community’s weakest – as one woman puts it “There used to be a dairy on every corner, now it’s a liquor outlet.”

  8. Pat 8

    “What would happen if first-time/non-violent/low-risk offenders were put not in prison, but instead were taken to a place of complete isolation…”

    We tried that once on the Chatham Islands, and the buggers escaped and caused havoc in the BOP.

  9. randal 9

    what I want to know is how to buy shares in the companies that run the slammers.
    it seems to be the best sunrise industry in new zealand.

  10. randal 10

    make that the only sunrise industry in new zealand!

    • pollywog 10.1

      how about rent-a-cops…private security and bodyguards for the fatcats ? Bet there’d be heaps of bros would rather do that than petty crime…

      Prison and harsher sentences only seem a deterrent only if you’ve never been to prison. Not having been, i’m shit scared of going but if i ever do and come out, i dont think i’d give 2 shits about going back cos i’m sure reality isn’t nearly as bad as my perception of it.

      And another thing, is it a cultural thing on Maori’s behalf that they get caught, arrested and sentenced more or is it a cultural thing on the judiciary’s part that they sentence Maori more harshly and to prison more often ?

  11. jbanks 11

    Investing in rehabilitation would be a good method of decreasing the future cost to society.

    If only there were a way so that this money didn’t come from tax payers but from the scum in prison.

  12. Claudia 12

    Toi Whakaari, our National Drama School, is putting on

    THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE

    between Thurs 19 Sat 28 August

    I would not be surprised if its relevance to recent political events will be explored.

    For further info, see

    http://www.toiwhakaari.ac.nz/our_shows/coming_productions/JeanPaulMarat.html

  13. A really good article Bunji, and it’s encouraging to see debate that is more constructive than those we have come to expect from the beehive.

    In relation the ‘solitary’ issues related above, the early American prisons of the 1800s were set up exactly on those lines. Indeed, there were two – fiercely competitive – schools of thought, represented by the ‘silent’ or ‘auburn’ system and the ‘separate’ or ‘Pennsylvania’ system’ both sought rehabilitative functions (and both, admittedly, had their problems). Although we tend to think of prisons as having been around forever, they are relatively new criminal justice devises. Before the late 1800s, prisons were only used to house inmates waiting physical punishment (or transportation to the colonies) or to hold debtors until they could pay their bills.

    Anyway, the ‘modern prison’ of the 1800s was a tool designed for rehabilitation. But limited understandings or criminal behaviour, and budget constraints meant they slowly transformed into places of confinement. Although most people are quite aware that socio-economic drivers need to be addressed before crime can be tackled in a meaningful way – it is important that prisons rediscover their rehabilitative function.

    A recent report by the National Health Committee had outlined the shocking problems of New Zealand prisons, and I encourage anybody interested to have a look at it. Among numerous other things, the report highlighted the fact that 52 percent of New Zealand prisoner had psychiatric conditions and 89 percent had substance abuse issues. Unless we look to address these types of issues, we will not address recidivism and therefore the creation of more victims. It cost over $90,000 annually to house a prisoner as well as a one-off cost of $250,000 toward capital costs. It costs a lot less to address mental health and addiction issues. But until we do so, prison will continue to be an expensive revolving door. Both socially and fiscally, it appears quite clear that we can’t afford to continue on our current path.

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