The picture in the Otago Daily Times showed a line of ten marching women prisoners dressed in striped uniforms from neck to shiny black boots. Despite the chain connecting their ankles, the women were lifting their knees and marching in step. Only one of them had her head down, and I couldn’t help wondering what was on her mind. But this was no grubby-looking chain gang; the parade of gleaming skin and shining hair could have been an advertisement for fresh air and hard work; the healthy outdoor life offered to prisoners in the charge of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Phoenix, Arizona.
To some, the sheriff’s harsh prison regime is a disgrace, to others, he is the man who has finally brought common sense back to an out of control penal system. The women in the picture were on their way to work. Apparently they assemble at 6am and work seven days a week digging graves, picking up litter, and gardening. They get “two meals a day, no coffee, no cigarettes, no salt, pepper or ketchup and no organised recreation.” And they live in tents.
Apparently prisoners volunteer for this regime, which is not so surprising when you consider the alternative is to be locked in a small cell with three other inmates for twenty-three hours a day.
Garth McVicar, Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman, visited one of these prisons. He is quoted as describing Sheriff Arpaio’s regime as “fantastic,” humane and well run. And he thinks it could work in New Zealand.
Like Mr McVicar and most New Zealanders I have concerns about criminality, sentencing, and the way our prisons are run. So much so that I was relieved to see the development of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. We need it. I was considering joining until I read of Mr McVicar’s praise of Sheriff Apaio’s prisons. For all its faults, I prefer the New Zealand way. Here, the sentence of imprisonment, that is, the withdrawal of liberty, is seen as sufficient punishment. I do not object to prisoners working and going without luxuries. I do not consider that harsh. But I do object to seeing them on the street in chains, dressed in stripes. That is humiliation.
American law enforcers have a habit of humiliating prisoners. Guilt or innocence does not come into it. Police handcuff everyone they arrest and parade them in handcuffs for the televised ritual of shame. This is what they practice on their own citizens. The humiliation and torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay should not have come as a surprise. And for those of us who were disgusted when Saddam Hussein’s medical examination was witnessed by a televised crew and broadcast to the world, it did not. The man was defeated, captured, powerless. Was it necessary to humiliate him further?
I applaud Mr McVicar’s initiative and can identify with his frustration but I hope that in New Zealand we are not about to descend to humiliating helpless prisoners. When the state kicks a man (or woman) who is down, we are all diminished.