In 2017 New Zealand’s imprisonment rate was higher than most other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries – 210 per 100,000 of population, compared with Australia (162), the United Kingdom – England and Wales (145) and Canada (114).The United States imprisonment rate was 666 per 100,000. Between 1950 and 1990 there was a sevenfold increase in the number of Māori in prison – four times the increase in non-Māori imprisonment over the same period. This situation has been described as a ‘catastrophe for Maori as a people and … for New Zealand as a whole’.1
Challenges for prisoners and their families
Imprisonment is difficult for prisoners, their families and friends. Prisoners face separation from family members, lack of privacy, restrictions on visits and telephone contact, limited access to rehabilitation programmes or work, overcrowding, difficulty accessing physical and mental health services, scarce home leave and community contact, and limited support on return to the community. Finding employment or accommodation after release can be difficult, and many people treat released prisoners with suspicion.
Families of prisoners often experience loss of income and negative reactions from people they know, as well as being separated from their imprisoned family member. They may have to travel long distances to visit the prison. Imprisonment may also lead to the breakup of relationships.
Prisoners’ advocacy organisations
Providing practical support and advocating the decent and humane treatment of prisoners and their families has a long tradition in New Zealand. Organisations involved in this work include:
- the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Societies
- the Howard League for Penal Reform
- Prison Fellowship New Zealand.
These groups began as voluntary community organisations run by people with first-hand contact with the prisons. They have also received state or community trust funding and include paid staff as well as volunteers.
Prisoner advocacy and support work is not popular with the public. Many people have little sympathy for those sent to prison, and their families are generally forgotten. Public views about crime are largely shaped by the media’s focus on serious violent crime. People become fearful, and some politicians and interest groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust react by calling for more severe responses to crime – more police, less bail, longer sentences, less parole and more prison space.